Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What's in a Name...?

I have always considered the naming of a child an important responsibility for parents. One ought to approach this task seriously and, dare I say, even religiously - with a mind toward one’s faith. God calls each of us by name…it is the parents’ duty to select the name that will be uttered by the Good Shepherd as “he calls his own sheep by name.” (John 10:3) As parents we are responsible for the development of new souls created by God as unique individuals and meant for eternal life. The name given each child is the first official act parents take in guiding that soul to heaven, where his or her name will be written in the Book of Life.

In Scripture names often describe a person’s vocation or personality or relationship to others, including a relationship to God. A change in a person’s status or a special call from God often included a change of names: Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Saul changed to Paul, and Simon was named Peter. God’s own name was so sacred that the ancient Jews were forbidden to utter it. So, in this ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, the name of a newborn child ought to bear with it great significance, marking the child for a special purpose, reminding him or her of God’s call to holiness.

Needless to say, my wife and I thought carefully and prayerfully about the names of our children. Our most recent addition to the family, Elizabeth Gianna, has been perhaps the most significant of these name selections, both in the way her name came about and hopefully in the way her name will shape our future and hers. Specifically the name “Gianna” carries with it a deep spiritual meaning for us.

While four months pregnant with Elizabeth my wife had a stroke. She awoke one night with one side of her body in paralyzed – her fist clenched tight, one side of her face drooping, and one leg heavy and difficult to move. I immediately called 911; the ambulance arrived and rushed her to the hospital. I stayed behind at our house with our two oldest children (both of whom had been sick and were sound asleep through the whole event). I reluctantly agreed, at my wife’s insistence, to stay home until the hospital called with more information. Obviously it was a sleepless night.

Our son awoke shortly after the ambulance drove away. He came to me and asked where Mom had gone. I explained everything and tried to prepare him for what might be a changed life – a mother who needs our help and care, a parent who once labored for her family but might now need her family to make sacrifices for her. I tried not to imagine the worst case scenarios, but these things have a way of creeping into your head when you lie awake not knowing what the morning will bring.

Our son asked, “What can we do for Mom now?”

“Pray.” I replied. And so I led him through some prayers. He prayed silently for awhile until he drifted off to sleep again.

I could not sleep…but worst of all, I could not pray. Oh, I mouthed the words and meditated on mysteries, but half of me wasn’t there. Half of me was in the hospital, and I didn’t know if she was going to be the same after that night.
As I lay awake, alone and in the dark, I remembered Saint Gianna Molla. She was an Italian doctor, wife, and mother who died in the 1960’s. While pregnant with her fourth child, she developed a tumor on her uterus. She was told that if she aborted her child the tumor could be removed and she would be cured. But if she continued with the pregnancy there would certainly be risks and she could very likely die. Gianna refused to kill her own child. She insisted that if the doctors had to choose which life to save they should save the life of her unborn baby. Eventually, after a difficult pregnancy she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. A short time later Gianna died from complications. She was declared a Saint in 2004 and is a model of self-sacrifice and motherhood.

My wife read about Saint Gianna more than a year ago - long before her most recent pregnancy and before her own medical scare. She was immediately drawn to this woman who lived so close to our own time and who dedicated her life so profoundly to her family, sacrificing her own life for the life of her child. When I heard the story of Gianna I was impressed, but not particularly dawn to the saint in the same way my wife had been. It was one of those things you store away in your mind but seldom revisit. I knew who Gianna was, but beyond that I had simply a vague admiration of her.

That changed the night of my wife’s stroke.

As I lay in bed, I prayed all the usual prayers that every Catholic learns from childhood, but my mind was elsewhere. I tried praying silently, without words, placing myself in God’s presence, but my focus was gone. I tried to find words of my own, but I found none. None of it felt like “real” prayer. My mind raced and anxiety crept in. This went on for more than an hour.

Then I remembered Gianna. I knew my wife had felt a connection to her even before this night. But now she faced an unknown illness as she bore within her our unborn daughter. Her relationship to Gianna seemed more intimate than before.

So I said, “Gianna, I can’t seem to pray right now. If you could just say some prayers for me, while I try to get some sleep, maybe I’ll be able to face whatever the morning brings.” Immediately I felt at peace and I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke only a couple of hours later. With very little sleep, I still felt refreshed and ready for whatever news I would receive from the doctors. I didn’t have to wait long. While feeding the kids their breakfast, I got a call from the hospital. My wife was ready to be discharged. There were no lasting signs of the stroke – the paralysis had gone away, her vital signs were normal, and most importantly, the baby was fine.

She had actually been ready for release a few hours before, but as my wife later recalled, she had heard the doctor say, “Don’t call her husband just yet. She has young ones at home – let them sleep.” And I had slept, thanks to Gianna. It was about the same time the doctor had said these words (some time in the middle of the night) that I had whispered my request to Saint Gianna and finally found peace. And I am sure it was thanks to Gianna that my wife had made a full recovery so quickly.

Months later (and after several more doctors visits that offered us no further explanation as to what had happened that night) we celebrated the birth of our daughter. The ob-gyn who delivered her asked us, “What are you naming her?”

Years before, we had settled on “Elizabeth” (my wife’s Confirmation name) as the name of our next daughter. Of course, Elizabeth was a woman who also bore a child (John the Baptist) under miraculous circumstances, and is a model for mothers. But we had not settled on a middle name until that night of worry and prayer when Gianna had come to our aide. It seemed fitting that Gianna should be honored as our child’s namesake. So we replied to the doctor’s question: “Elizabeth Gianna.”

The doctor raised his eyebrows, “Interesting. Where did you get Gianna?”

Of course, he already knew of my wife’s medical history, having been her physician. So we explained who Gianna Molla was, and all about my prayer that night. We told him that Gianna is an important patron saint of the pro-life cause and that we wanted to pass on to our daughter the same love of life and willingness to sacrifice for others. Prompted by this reply, we had a brief but engaging conversation with him and the attending nurse about life and parenthood, the significance of names and the sometimes profound meaning of names, and how the culture seems to have lost sight of these things.

Many times, when people are asked, “Where did you get your child’s name?” I hear the reply: “I just thought it sounded nice.” When my wife and I are asked about Elizabeth’s name we can respond: “Let me tell you a story about a woman who gave her life for her own child. And let me tell you why I value each human life, especially the unborn…” Our daughter’s name gives us the opportunity to witness to our faith and to speak out about the horror of abortion and the sanctity of human life. I don’t know how many people we may affect in this way. I don’t know how many people Elizabeth will encounter who will ask her the same question and give her the chance to offer her own testimony. But I do know that in choosing her name we have pointed her in the right direction for a strong relationship with God and a deep appreciation for her faith.

So many of today’s parents choose their child’s name to be “different,” to be “unique,” to set them apart from the crowd. I hope that my own children’s names teach them that they are a part of something bigger, that they are dependent on others, and that others depend on them. I hope that their names point to a larger Communion of Saints that reaches beyond earth, beyond the here and now, and draws them into one Body in Christ.

So many of today’s parents choose their child’s name for the beauty of the word. But the beauty of a name is not found only in the way it rolls off the tongue or melodically dances in the air when we call out to our child. Names carry stories, and symbols, and messages of faith, hope, and love. A name carries with it the richness of a person’s life. The beauty of the word should point to the beauty of the Word - our names should point us to Christ.


  1. Awesome, Tom! What a wonderful post! I love it! I totally feel the same way! I think that is why it has been so difficult for us to name our children. Names do mean so much. You and Shari have done a beautiful job in naming Elizabeth. I think that even her name is a testimony to your faith. God bless you all and your newest bundle of joy.

  2. Congratulations.
    Upon reading the significance you place on names, perhaps you will explain more about whatever a confirmation name is as well as what you know of the history of Popes giving themselves new names when elected.
    Congrats again

  3. Thank you both for the well-wishes…

    As usual, you pose a great question, Michael.

    The name selected at Confirmation and the name chosen by a newly elected Pope are both reflections of the Biblical idea to which I refer in the above post: Names are symbols of our calling to a particular vocation; names can bear with them deep significance; names can symbolize a path we wish to chart out for our lives.

    As an example I would point to Benedict XVI, our current pope. His baptismal name is Joseph Ratzinger. He chose “Benedict” because Saint Benedict, the Sixth Century founder of Western monasticism, was so instrumental in shaping the course of Western civilization after the demise of the Roman Empire. As the political establishment crumbled and Medieval feudalism (with all of its instabilities and in-fighting) became the norm, the Benedictine monasteries, and other orders of monks who followed similar disciplines, formed the backbone of European society and helped to preserve the spiritual and cultural identity of Europe. It was thanks in large part to Benedict that Europe emerged as the Christian culture that it became. Ratzinger also wanted to link himself to Pope Benedict XV who led the Church and Europe through World War I.

    With European Christianity (not only Catholicism, but other denominations as well) in decline, Joseph Ratzinger views his papacy as a light in this darkness. He wishes to revitalize Western Christianity and see us through this battle for the culture. He chose “Benedict” as his name to reflect that goal.

    Confirmation names serve a similar purpose. I chose Augustine as my name. Augustine lived a rather sinful life in his youth and rejected Christianity until later adulthood when he had a conversion experience. While I never outright rejected Christianity, nor did I involve myself in a licentious lifestyle the way Augustine did, I do recognize that I am not perfect and am always in need of conversion. In that way I see Augustine as a model for Christian forgiveness and conversion. Also Augustine was one of the greatest theologians in history. I admire his insight…I chose the name in part because it complimented my baptismal name, Thomas (as in Thomas Aquinas, who also stands out among Catholic theologians).

    The first pope to change his name was originally named Mercury at birth. He was a pagan convert, but he changed his name to John II upon his election in 533 AD. He thought it would be improper for a pope to be named after a pagan god. After that a few popes followed suit through the centuries. It eventually became a custom (not a part of Tradition with a capital “T” – but a universally recognized symbolic act) that all popes adopted as the norm. It is not a requirement per se, but it is a tool used by popes to define their pontificate and symbolically demonstrate their pastoral goals and concerns.


  4. Michael,

    I would add one more thing to what I said about Confirmation names…

    You expressed some concern in a previous conversation, that the Catholic practice of baptizing infants is not valid since the child is not of an age that he or she can accept the Faith willfully. I would point to Confirmation as the Sacrament in which a child, who has reached the age of reason and can now address this question personally, has the ability to accept the Faith as his or her own.

    At baptism the parents name the child and so place upon him or her that verbal mark (their name) by which God will call them. Even if you do not accept infant baptism, you must admit that this is a powerful symbolic act. At baptism, the parents announce the name by which that soul will be called. This “naming” of the child certainly implies that parents exert a tremendous force over the life of their offspring. Catholics then would say that Sacramentally God recognizes this force parents have over children by pouring out his Grace in baptism. He works as our partner in raising this child as a believer. We ask God at baptism to participate in our raising children in the faith. If you agree that God participates in Christian parenting, then this goes a long way to explain what Catholics believe about infant baptism.

    Confirmation allows the grown child to choose a new name. Just as his or her name was given at baptism, so now they take possession of their faith and lay their own course by symbolically selecting a name that describes their faith journey. They keep the Baptismal Grace (as well as their baptismal name) but they acquire a mature Confirmational Grace (taking on a new name in the process).