Do you need to have a saint’s name for baptism or confirmation?

On this All Saints Day, I have a proposal. Let’s not rename the catechumens with saint names. Many of them come to us with saint names already, but not all of them do. As I said in The Way of Faith, I once had a child catechumen named “Pebbles.” Let’s just say the topic of renaming came up.

The reason the giving of a baptismal name is even an issue stems from the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Well, it probably goes back farther than that, but most of us don’t date back that far ourselves, so it will do for an arcane reference. The old code says:

Pastors should see to it that the person to be baptized is given a Christian name; but if they are unable to fulfill this, they should add to the name given by the parents the name of some saint, and they should inscribe each name in the baptismal register.

Long before the 20th century, the practice of the pastor insuring the child had a saint name morphed into the giving of a new name even if the child was already named after a saint. So, in fact, many of us have two saint names. And it goes on. When confirmation was split off from baptism as a separate sacrament, the tradition of adding a saint name went with it. The end result: Most baby boomer Catholics have three saint names.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law changed the rules. Now the only requirement is that pastors make sure the child’s name is not “foreign to a Christian mentality.” In other words, if you don’t name your child something like “Son-of-Satan,” you’re good to go. So we baptized Pebbles as “Pebbles.”

The post-Vatican II sensibility of the 1983 code is reflected in both the Rite of Baptism for Children and the Rite of Confirmation, neither of which include an option for giving an additional name. And the United States bishops specifically reject the notion of giving the catechumens a new name (see RCIA 33.4).

Even so, I have to tell you, I was having a little trouble with “Pebbles” when I first realized this could possibly be the name of a future saint. Then I read this paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

God calls each one by name. Everyone’s name is sacred. The name is the icon of the person. It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it. (2158)

Pebbles loved her name, and she loved Jesus. In the end, it was a great joy to see her become one with the Lord, named for Christ with the name she had known all her life. That’s when I resolved to never rename a catechumen.

Here are some previous posts from TeamRCIA that have to do with naming:

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  1. Nick,
    Thanks for the reference to the CCC. It’s wonderfully helpful! I always talked to baptized Confirmation candidates about “honoring their baptismal name.” This is a great reference in the CCC.

  2. It seems strange to me that anyone would object to pebbles – After all Peter (named by Jesus himself) means rock!

  3. Nick,
    Thank you for this posting. I was told today by my mother that the name we chose for our child (Caprica) would prevent her from being able to be baptised in the Catholic faith. I am glad to know that this is not true.

  4. While I also believe the Lord has called us each by name, we are assuming those who chose the name of the child were open to the Lord’s leading, to the Holy Spirit. God always gives us a choice and we know too well how often we do not choose His way. I am glad there is still the option to choose another name at Confirmation.

  5. Hi,
    Thanks for writing. I like the approach you take here! A friend asked for ideas for her baby’s name, and asked me does it matter if not a “saint name”, so I was googling about this.

    (Also, superb observation of Angela Marchington’s comment, re pebble=rock! That demonstrates how we will find at least some “non-Christian” names CAN be found to reflect SOME Christian value or virtue or principle; and then we can use that to remind the child/person of it.)

    Also from the CC:
    … I often see (elsewhere) that the above CCC#2156 is sometimes misquoted/misused to say you “MUST” have a canonized saint’s name, with people getting all upset otherwise! Whereas, best as I understand, its final few sentences are specifying something much broader (and much more meaningful, IMHO).
    Quote: The “baptismal name” can also express a Christian mystery or Christian virtue. “Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to see that a name is not given which is foreign to Christian sentiment.”
    And I would interpret that in the broadest way, to mean “hence, anything that expresses Christian sentiment, IS fine”.
    So EVEN for a “brand new 🙂 baby baptism”, when choosing a name, I would think there is no need to be stringent about “Canonized saint’s” names. Although in that case I would say it’s good to SUGGEST that “let’s have a name that reflects some Christian sentiment/value/principle/person”, where “person” i would think most certainly can be OT people of faith too.
    If an already-named person comes for Baptism/Confirmation, I agree with Nick’s view and how he applies CCC2158; but I would also suggest LET THE PERSON decide whether there is some GOOD REASON to take another such name if s/he doesn’t already have. But certainly not as a “compulsory” thing.

    Thanks again.

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