Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Peace be with you, Cthulu

The Catholic blogosphere is discussing two topics of interest mainly to Catholics, although the secular media has picked up on one of them.

That one, this first one, is about the pope's alleged recent reminder to parents that we're supposed to give our children Christian names. Canon lawyer Ed Peters weighs in here to point out, helpfully, what this does and doesn't mean. Another blogger takes a lighthearted look here. And it turns out the pope may not have said any such thing, anyway. Still, this is a topic that gets people talking.

Now, I know there's a lot of debate as to what actually constitutes a "Christian" name. There are those who argue in favor of the formula: use one of the twelve Apostles' names for a boy, and a recognizable saint's name in combination with a form of "Mary" for a girl. Thus, the ideal Catholic family would have boys named Peter, James, John, Matthew, Bartholomew, Simon and Jude along with girls named Mary Therese, Mary Katherine, Mary Anne, and (just for variety) Maria Rose.

There's certainly nothing wrong with adhering to that formula, but I would suggest that this is definitely not the only way to find a Christian name for one's children. In addition to names from the Bible and from the over 10,000 saints both historical and canonized (see this list for hundreds of Irish saints names alone!) there are derivatives of these names, female forms of male saints' names (Philippa or Thomasina, etc.), the names of virtues or other Christian characteristics (Grace, Faith), names associated with saints (Avila, after St. Teresa of Avila), names linked to events in Christ's life (Anastasia, which means "resurrection,") Marian feasts or apparitions (Annunciacion or Pilar)--and on and on. So a Catholic who tells you her daughter's name is Stacey Lonan Smith should not be frowned at for choosing a trendy-sounding name: Stacey is a derivative of Anastasia, and Lonan is the name of at least eight Irish saints.

Now, what if Mrs. Smith wishes to name her baby son "Henderson," because it's a family name? What if the reason it is a family name is because Mr. Smith's great-great-grandmother, the former Miss Clara Henderson, was one of six children, five of whom were girls, and the sixth of whom became a priest? What if the former Miss Henderson, when she became Mrs. Smith and a mother, wanted to name her first-born son "Henderson" to carry on her father's name and in honor of her father and grandfather, two exemplary Christian gentlemen known for their charitable works and piety? What if, ever since Miss Clara's day, at least one male child among the Smiths' growing extended family is named "Henderson" to carry on this nice tradition? Does "Henderson" (which literally means "son of Henry" and is thus tied to all the St. Henrys out there) fit the bill as a Christian name, or not? (And does it help if little Henderson's middle name will be "James"?) Does the baby's name need to be "James Henderson Smith" so that he will go by "J. Henderson Smith" in future? (Or does that just guarantee that he'll end up in law school?)

Lots of possibilities.

In all seriousness, though, I think that most pastors would tell the Smith family that "Henderson James" is fine, especially since, being a boy, the child will probably go by "Jim" as soon as he's outgrown "Jimmy." The family is clearly not ignoring Christian principles in selecting a name. They are not choosing a name that has clearly anti-Christian connotations or is otherwise incompatible with the Christian dignity of their child; they are not naming him "Unprintable" or "Pandemic" or "Cthulu," or anything that really would negatively reflect on their desire to raise the child as a serious Christian.

The second topic that is being discussed originated at Father Z's website; it covers people's opinions of the Sign of Peace at Mass. The difference between the E.F. Mass and the O.F. Mass apparently including the belief that it is fine to criticize the latter but not the former, opinions were very much expressed by Father's seventy-plus commenters--but the UK Telegraph's Damien Thompson weighs in with a damning confession: he actually likes the little-old handshake:

Hardline traddies whose blood freezes as they hear the words “Let us offer…” face a dilemma: do they extend a hand while inwardly cringing, or do they risk appearing rude by refusing to take part? Indeed, is there a polite way of ducking out of the sign of peace?

I reckon the answer to that question is no. True, you won’t cause offence if you pretend to faint or fake a heart attack at the appropriate moment, but that definitely comes under the heading of stunts you can only pull once.

At this point I have to make a confession: most of the time I like the sign of peace, so long as the twinkly-eyed celebrant doesn’t turn it into an excuse for working the room, Bill Clinton-style. There are worse things than being forced to show cordiality to a stranger, and being on the receiving end of it can be unexpectedly cheering. Also, there’s nothing more infuriating than turning to your neighbour only to find that they’ve sunk to their knees in prayer – the most common traddie escape route. The last time it happened to me, I felt like taking my outstretched fingers and strangling the woman with her mantilla.

He's kidding. One hopes. But still, the point is taken: is it fair that a practice supposed to encourage Christian love and brotherhood quite frequently turns into a duck-and-cover exercise in neighbor-avoidance?

To be honest, I have two particular gripes with the Sign of Peace. The first is that it's poorly placed; I like the notion that's been floating around for a while that Rome may relocate it to the beginning of Mass, where it will replace the totally illegal "Rite of Greeting Your Neighbor and Making the Visitors Stand Up so We can Clap for Them" (because, apparently, bothering to go to Mass when one is traveling is so rare these days that it is worthy of applause). The second is more important: people who are sick need to realize that they should not shake anybody's hand, and anybody who grabs them anyway should be rebuffed so they don't innocently end up being the equivalent of Typhoid Mary in a small parish. For some reason, not only do entire families who have been coughing and sneezing all of Mass think they should shake hands, they especially love to sit near and shake hands with the choir; I was sick so many times one winter a couple of years ago that I started fretting over the Sign of Peace, and longing for a real church building with a real choir loft.

I know that bringing this up is asking for trouble; don't I know that people with allergies cough and sneeze a lot, too? And don't I know that people who are coming down with something might not cough at all, but can still spread germs? And aren't I being so mean to people who have dragged themselves out of their beds of suffering because their great longing for the Mass makes their hundred-and-two degree fever and copious congestion seem like a small hardship to sacrifice for the Lord? And after all that, am I really going to be so cruel as to refuse to shake their hands at the Sign of Peace?

Um, yes.

I can--and do--wish that our cultural exchange of peace involved a simple, charming bow of the head and smile to those in the immediate vicinity, instead of the present three-pew-radius minimum handshake striking capability. I can--and do--wish that the Sign of Peace were placed at or near the beginning of Mass, instead of just before Communion. But do I wish it would be removed altogether? Not really; I know myself well enough to know how easy it already is to adopt an "us vs. them" mentality when dealing with one's fellow Catholics, and how hard it is to model throughout the week the kind of Christian charity and brotherhood the Sign of Peace is supposed to remind us to practice.

Even if we have good Christian names.


bearing said...

I had to talk my husband out of naming one of our sons Calvin. I agree, it's a cool-sounding name, but I am reluctant to use it as a Catholic (Luther, Wesley, and Zwingli are, of course, also out of the question).

L. said...

I read what the Pope said with great interest -- not that I world's greatest Catholic [ahem!], but because I know many devout Japanese Catholics who give their kids Japanese rather than "Christian" names, and priests here seem to think this is just fine.

In fact, when my older son was baptized, the priest joked that there was never a saint with his (Japanese) name, so he would have to be the first.

I wonder if the Pope realizes Catholics outside the Western world are completing ignoring this, which is why he said something about it?

Joey G. said...

Good post, Erin.

Re: the naming issue, I think folks who get very upset over this sort of thing are rather straining the gnat. Or, perhaps, treating a symptom rather than a cause when the problem is legitimate (which is rare, and in those cases you point out, of a name actually antithetical being chosen). I think the point that we would do better to focus on is that parents ought, even so early in their child's life, be concerned to raise them in the image of Christ, an image reflected in the lives (and the names) of Saints. It is interesting that in the Baptismal ceremony, the name is the one by which we are called to new life. But it's a mistake to think that this name is the one we're "given" in the strict sense. The name we're given in Baptism is the name of Christian, as the whole of the ceremony indicates: we are claimed for Christ, marked with his Cross, Chrismated (i.e., consecrated to Him), etc. If children grow up having their name associate to this Christian call, I suppose so much the better. But I'm more concerned that they grow up aware that they are Christian, that their identity is in Him, as a member of Him.

As to the Sign of Peace, I think I'm more in line with Damien than the "traditionalist" crowd whose mantra for the exchange seems to be that it should be "safe, legal, and rare." I agree on the safe and legal: it is an undeniable part of the liturgy, dating to antiquity, but it needs to be exercised prudently in times of risk of infection. As for placement, I've done not enough reading on this, but I seem to recall somewhere reading (and liking) the suggestion that it be located immediately after the Confiteor or the Kyrie. The idea being that it becomes a manifestation of the "peace making" that goes on in that Rite: we confess to our brothers and sisters and ask their forgiveness, so it seems appropriate that we would then extend the sign of peace to those around us. This matches nicely with the Biblical idea of reconciling before bringing our gifts to the altar. The current placement is problematic in this regard, as well as because of the unseemly distraction from the already-present Eucharist. The thing is that the Eucharist on the altar is already a sacrament of our unity which is more substantial and real than a handshake could ever be. We should, at that moment, be directing our united attention toward Him in adoration and finding in Him the principal and source of that oneness.

Anonymous said...

Re: the sign of Peace
Just this. When my Grandmother was widowed and moved to Texas to be near her children and grandchildren, she knew very few people, but she went to mass every day. My dad used to really dislike the sign of peace and he let everyone know it until his mother told him how much it meant to her, since sometimes it was the only human touch she felt all day long. That is sad, but beautiful, too. Now I try to make sure that I offer the sign of peace to fellow parishioners (nearby, of course) who I know are alone most of the time, especially widows and widowers. A little bit of love from me through Christ to them...or a bit of Christ's love through me to them.

L. said...

I've seen people use hand sanitizer right after the Sign of Peace, and this seemed to be a good idea -- perhaps they had compromised immune systems, and had to be extra careful.

Or one could do what some people at our parish in Tokyo do: bow, and smile.

The Sicilian said...

Being of Sicilian and Italian heritage, I happily invade personal space after I have met someone for the first time, greeting the individual with a handshake or a hug, depending on circumstances. It's a cultural thing, plus my mother raised me to be affectionate. However, I despise the handshake at Mass, and always have. Part of it is related to avoiding germs (lots of people sneeze and think nothing of shaking hands), part of it is just being uncomfortable with it.

When I attended Mass with my mother when I was a young teen, I'd stand by the door, while she sat. Just before the handshake, I'd walk out the door to safety for a couple of minutes until the handshake was over. Yes, really.

Years ago, I chose the one spot - the front row on the right side of the altar - where, at the 5:30pm Mass, the rows behind it are usually empty. No one ever in front of me, usually noone behind me. Bliss. If someone does sit behind me, and if I am familiar with them, I'll shake hands. And then break out a handi-wipe when they're up receiving Communion. Yes, really.

If we were given the option of a smile and a bow, I'd be thrilled.

bathilda said...

Sicilian, you always have the option to smile and bow. Just mutter something about being contageous, and people will happily withdraw their hands! We also practice what I consider to be uncomfortable---holding hands during the Our Father. It's nice for family units, but I really don't like holding hands with strangers. Even non family people I know. I like the idea of the sign of peace after the confiteor. My church experimented with welcoming each other at the beginning (before the processional), and we were supposed to introduce ourselves if we didn't already know each other. It's a big parish, so that was nice, but then we were all shaking hands again at the sign of peace. Actually, I think that the sign of peace is really nice and to me, who attended the methodist church as a child/adolescent, it was one of the few friendly things that the catholic church offers to non-members (and members alike). Why not be able to greet your neighbors before Mass, so long as you're not shouting? I find Catholics to be rather cold to each other at Mass. They go in, keep their coats on the whole time (the better to make a speedy escape), leave before it's over, and if they do bother to stay, make a beeline for the door. No chatting, no staying for "Sunday School", etc. In some ways, the protestants do it better. Some of the old(er) ladies in my parish sit in the back and gossip to each other! I guess they feel like they've been there, done that...and they are the first to give the hairy eyeball to a struggling mom of young children.

but I'm not complaining here.... :)
My kids have very traditional english/Catholic names, and I am rather bugged by the new fangled names for kids that no one can spell because they've made a new vowell combination heretofor unknown to our language. I do take exception to non-westerners being criticised for using culturally traditional names...if indeed the Pope even said this?... Maybe he just meant the unrecognisable names. I hope so. Bearing, Calvin is a cool name, but I can't help but be reminded of the heathen child in the comic strip, the religious connotations don't bother me in the least.

Erin said...

As long as we're being critical of names here, can I also say how annoying it is when Catholic parishes have these bland, generic Christian names? Like, Good Shepherd or Trinity...I mean, there's nothing WRONG with them per se, it's just that there's a million other Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churchers with the same name.

I like a good uber-Catholic name--preferable after a saint (my parish is St. Walter's). Some of my favorites: Five Holy Martyrs, Queen of Martyrs, Our Lady of Ransom, and Most Holy Redeemer.

L. said...

Funny, Erin, that you like the name Most Holy Redeemer -- the parish by that name in San Francisco is the "gay" church in the Castro.

Red Cardigan said...

Goodness, L., leave Erin (not me, btw) alone. The title "Most Holy Redeemer" was around a lot longer than the scandalous parish you mention, and they are insulting our Most Holy Redeemer by their frequently lewd and blasphemous conduct.

After all, "Madonna" is a lovely title of Our Lady, and no aging trashy rock star can change that fact, either.

L. said...

Haha, yes, that's true! I just said it was funny -- didn't mean to imply anyone's irreverence.

I have some dear friends who belong to Most Holy Redeemer in SF, and the parish does some wonderful work with AIDS patients and the poor, by the way. So don't write it off completely -- the Church hasn't.

The Cottage Child said...

Gravy, people, and I thought Episcopalians were uptight - one of the big draws to our Parish and our pursuit of RCIA was the warmth and contact we experienced in the Mass. My husband, who's work life is law and used to be law enforcement has a particularly large "circle of grace", to borrow the current terminology, has himself stated that Church is different. As it should be. Aren't we practicing, working up to the example of embracing the leper on the road? I'm certain I don't want to miss that.

I'm being dramatic, of course, and no, please don't sneeze on me, and I won't bring my booger-nosed kids to Church, but are we really so
germophobic, or worse, preoccupied with the newfangled notion of personal space that we're offended by the passing of the peace? Really? I don't really believe germs are the issue in question. "Don't touch me" has more truth to it.

Oh, and as for names - before we considered joining the Church, we loved the name Mary ________ for a daughter. At the time, a certain SNL character was extremely popular, and we just couldn't do it when our first was in fact a girl. Our friends still call her by the characters name, and she is just a little bit like her, in a good way (funny beyond belief sans finger sniffing). Now we just name them whatever we want. They're sealed.

romishgraffiti said...

I'll make a compromise: Make holding hands during the Our Father a latae sententiae excommunicable offense, and I will cheerfully shake the hands of everyone around me. Deal?

Anonymous said...

How about St. Hedwig for a parish name? I did the saint name generator and that's my patron saint for the year so I am pushing her wherever I can!

My name is Jennifer which some say is derived from Genevieve, or Gwynevere but just to be on the safe side, my parents stuck in Marie as my middle name. Just about all my childhood Catholic girlfriends born in the 1960s have Marie or Ann as their middle name!
I guess the point I'm making is that even Catholics fall into trends naming their Catholic babies. Now I hear all these little Gemmas and Kolbes are crawling around.

Anonymous said...

In Catholic Hospital healthcare, 15 years ago, one of my co-workers used to 'collect' unusual names, but anymore it seems a child born recently will have an unusual spelling and/or unusual name. It's a bit of a surprise to see the more prosaic, John or James or Charles.

In my family, since I'm the oldest with the first generation of children, it was considered my 'duty' to get the traditions out of the way... , but there was relief in also being the first generation as immigrants on the other side; made for interesting combinations with Catholic names, as L. attests.

Although in the Japanese tradition there is only a first and family name, not a middle name, we combined both a typical family Catholic American name with a traditional (family) Japanese name.

There aren't that many traditional Japanese names that are also American and also Catholic; more so, though, for girls than boys.


Barbara C. said...

The Baby Name Wizard Blog has a good analysis of how the Pope really said no such thing and about Catholic naming trends:

priest's wife said...

All 4 of my kids have 2 good Christian names.

My husband has bi-ritual faculties and celebrates hospital masses 3 times a week. On Wednesdays, he says Mass at a long-term care center of a hospital. Usually, there are 10 patients (completely paralyzed, etc) and some volunteers and medical workers. This is where I think it is more than appropriate for the priest to go to every single person and give them the sign of peace. It humanizes these patients. me- I usually just turn to both sides and give the sign of peace to those really close