What's in a Name?

By Joyce Stolberg

Shakespeare once asked through his character, Juliet, "What's in a name?" This short line compresses the unsolvable conundrum of Romeo and Juliet's romance. In biblical writings, in liturgical ceremony, in Christian living --- and before the throne of God --- a name means everything!

The Holy Trinity has revealed to us the names of the three Persons in the one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "The Sacrament of Baptism is conferred "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (CCC 2156). The Angel Gabriel instructed Mary to name the Son of God "Jesus" (Luke 1:31) and gave Joseph the same instruction. The name Jesus means savior; Jesus would save the people from their sins (Mt 1:21). When Moses asked for God's name, God answered, "I am who am" (Ex. 3:14). That name meant that God's essence is to exist. God often gave a new name to a person together with a calling to a new mission. For example, Jesus gave Simon the name "Peter" when he placed him at the head of his Church. "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Mt. 16:18).

The conferral of a saint's name at Baptism gives us a special person in heaven whose virtues we can emulate, and someone upon whom we may call for help. When presenting infants for Baptism, parents were formerly required to choose a saint's name, at least for a middle name. The 1983 revised Canon Law simply states: "Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given" (Can. 855). TheCatechism of the Catholic Churchstates: "God calls each one by name. The name is the icon of the person. It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it" (CCC 2158). "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine" (Is. 43:1). This is precisely the text that inspired the title of my book, God Calls You by Name.


Our baptismal name is one asset we take with us when we die. It will somehow characterize our identity in heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The name one receives is a name for eternity. In the kingdom, the mysterious and unique character of each person marked with God's name will shine forth in splendor" (CCC 2159). Everyone's name is sacred.

Our Puritan ancestors in colonial America developed the custom of naming their children after particular virtues (World Family Tree); these virtues included what we Catholics identify as the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Though baptized Catholic, I was named in this tradition; my name, Joyce, has guided my whole outlook on life. (Though a cradle Catholic, I have Puritan ancestors.) When I was 11 years old, my family made a December move that was intensely thorny for me. With friends left behind, I felt unhappy and unwelcome in my new school. Younger, smaller, poorer, and less athletic than my new classmates, I became easy prey for bullies. My clueless new seventh-grade teacher exacerbated the predicament and my parents were emotionally absent. Depression and isolation gnawed at the core of my budding spirit. Then, as a melancholy 12 year old, I made a resolution that identified and reconfigured me for life --- I determined to live up to my name. Because I was named "Joyce" I would smile and express joy whenever I met someone, regardless of their behavior toward me. I persevered in this pledge, and it seemed to work. That forced smile slowly became genuine, the bullying gradually declined, and tensions eased. I also grew at least 5 inches during my eighth grade year. I had rewired my psyche, if not my brain itself, to radiate that fruit of the Holy Spirit for which I had been named.

As RCIA directors and catechists, we may not be directly involved in the Baptism of infants, although we are probably working with parents and potential parents who will be presenting children for Baptism at Easter or in the future. Therefore, we are tasked with teaching parents the importance of choosing a saint's name or a name compatible with Christian tradition.

We strongly encourage catechumens to choose a patron saint for themselves when they approach the waters of Baptism. Both catechumens and candidates may select an additional name to be conferred when they are confirmed. In this case, we are not attempting to change anyone's legal name; that will remain as it is. These are spiritual and devotional names. To prepare them to use this privilege wisely, we can and should be encouraging our catechumens and candidates to leaf through several books of the lives of the saints and to read more deeply some lives of some saints now. Keep the importance of baptismal names in mind as you continue your catechesis on the sacraments.


When you give instruction on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, add a tour through the reconciliation room of the church in order to enhance the comfort level of your candidates with the practical aspects of confession. A review of the things forbidden and required by the 10 Commandments, from God Calls You by Name, end of Chapter 7, may be done in examination of conscience form; or the meditation, "Journey of Self-Discovery Based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son" at the end of Chapter 14 will reinforce your catechesis on Reconciliation. If you haven't done so already, coordinate with your pastor to provide a reconciliation service at some point during Lent before the candidates are received into full communion with the Church. This first experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation should be unhurried, allowing candidates to unload the baggage of a lifetime without worrying about keeping others waiting. A genuine, sincere, and heartfelt confession will make happen for the candidate the cleansing and life-giving rebirth that Baptism effects for the catechumen. A liturgically enriched reconciliation service which includes private confession should bear the weight of the marvelous mystery of God's mercy and forgiveness. The Sacrament of Reconciliation effects the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism, therefore Catechumens do not receive it at this point. Yet they should be familiarized with both the form and the location of this sacramental rite. All participants should be advised to identify their status as candidates (or later as neophytes) to the confessor when entering the reconciliation room or confessional for the first time.


World Marriage Day, February 12, is a time for celebrating the sacredness of Christian marriage. Look for activities in which your own parish or diocese offers participation, and encourage your married catechumens and candidates to share in these activities. Tie this celebration into your catechesis on the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Stay in touch with your sponsors during February, and ensure that they are interacting with their catechumen or candidate. Require the establishment of the habit of attending weekly Mass, and encourage the development of a deepening prayer life, the practice of Christian virtue, and the rooting out of habits of sin. As the time of discernment approaches, continue posing these rhetorical questions: How have I changed in response to the grace of God? Am I ready to embrace all that the Catholic Church teaches, not necessarily free from questioning, but open to the wonder of God's love? Am I ready to die to myself and be born again in Christ through the waters of Baptism? Am I firmly resolved to maintain this commitment for the rest of my life?

Continue asking yourselves and your sponsors the questions: Has a true metanoia or change of heart taken place within each candidate or catechumen? Are they truly embracing the Catholic Faith with the intention of remaining in the Church for a lifetime? Are they making a free internally motivated choice? If you are conducting a catechumenate for children of catechetical age, are the children preparing to freely embrace the call to Baptism and Christian life with their parents and godparents' help, and not from parental coercion? If you think about these questions throughout this month, you will be well prepared for the stage of intense discernment prior to the rites of Sending and Election at the beginning of March.


A "very disturbing" trend, becoming more common in Europe, has been making headlines in the news recently: this trend is being called "de-baptism" but it is really a very serious act of apostasy. Msgr. Charls Pope reports on the Archdiocese of Washington website that some persons, especially young people in Europe, are going to the parish of their Baptism requesting that their name be taken off the baptismal registry. They complain that they were baptized as infants when they had no choice. Msgr. Pope questions whether they are acting out of conviction or are merely rationalizing sin. Be assured that the Church cannot remove a name from a baptismal registry; however, annotation is made that the person made a choice to renounce the Faith and henceforth will be denied the Catholic sacraments and Christian burial. Msgr. Pope recognizes that the "Book of Life" mentioned in Revelation is a symbol and not specifically identified with the baptismal registry. Notwithstanding, he issues a stern warning that it is a very serious act to deliberately remove one's name from the baptismal registry and risk removing one's name from the heavenly "Book of Life." I suggest reading Monsignor Pope's full article on the Archdiocese of Washington website. Type "de-baptism" into the search block.

While "de-baptism" is primarily a cradle Catholic phenomenon, those of us who serve in the RCIA are all too familiar with the distressing experience of witnessing catechumens and candidates receive the Sacraments of Initiation and later fall away from or deliberately renounce the practice of the Catholic Faith. We need to prevent this recidivism by properly instructing our catechumens and candidates with solid catechesis that conforms to the Teaching Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Even more, we are charged with forming them in a deeply Catholic and sacramental spirituality. We must promote the development of a correct conscience in keeping with Catholic moral principles and lead them to be fully open to the Salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Our mission is to inspire a true conversion of heart rather than a mere change of practice from one religion to another.


Shakespeare's Romeo was willing to renounce his name and his earthly family and heritage for the love of a woman: "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo." By diligently fulfilling our responsibilities in directing our RCIA process and through our catechesis, we participate in the essential missionary nature of the Church. We strive with the help of God's grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to ensure that all those whose names we register in the Book of Life during our upcoming Rites of Sending and Election and the Sacraments of Initiation will remain faithful to the practice of the Catholic Faith. We earnestly pray that they persevere and claim their eternal inheritance as they wear their white baptismal robes before the throne of God while celebrating the final victory.