What’s in a name? Lamenting the decline in children named after Mary and the saints Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

Editor's View by Mary C. Uhler

When I was a student at Aquinas High School in LaCrosse, there were eight of us in my class  with the name Mary. To avoid confusion, we were called by our first and middle name, such as Mary Beth, Mary Ellen, Mary Pat, and Mary Sue. I was usually just called Mary, although I like my middle name and wouldn’t mind being called Mary Clare.

In any case, Mary was a popular name back then. We Marys were proud of our name, and no prouder than at Christmas time. After all, Mary was the mother of the Son of God. You couldn’t get much better than that!

Decline of the name Mary

We don’t hear the name Mary very often these days. Once the most popular name for girls, Mary now ranks number 112 in popularity on the list of birth names registered by the Social Security Administration in 2011. That’s down 94 percent since 1961.

A sociologist at the University of Maryland, Philip Cohen, laments what he calls the “calamitous” decline of parents naming their girls Mary. In an article in the Atlantic magazine of December 4, Cohen says this trend reflects the fact that “people value names that are uncommon.” He goes on to say that “conformity to tradition has been replaced by conformity to individuality.”

Choosing a saint’s name

I think it may also be a symptom of a decline in the importance of faith — and actual belief — in people’s lives today. It used to be important to have a saint’s name for one’s child. Although not required by canon law that a saint’s name be chosen for Baptism, Catholic parents have traditionally been encouraged to choose a saint’s name for their child, either as a first or middle name.

Why? We are all part of the “communion of saints” and saints are seen as role models for children. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, the Christian learns from the Church “the example of holiness and recognizes its model and source in the all-holy Virgin Mary; he discerns it in the authentic witness of those who live it; he discovers it in the spiritual tradition and long history of the saints who have gone before him . . . ”

Children pay attention to their name. Sometimes they find out they are named after a parent, grandparent, or family friend. They want to know about that person.

Similarly, if they’re named after a saint, they are interested in the saint’s life story. I can remember wanting to know more about St. Clare, my middle name patron saint. The lives of the saints can inspire us to imitate them.

Increasing Marian devotion

But back to Mary. The fact that fewer parents are naming their children Mary also may point to a decline in Marian devotion among Catholics. In this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI is urging us to rediscover the richness of our faith, including our devotion to Mary.

In fact, the Holy Father has entrusted the Year of Faith as a “time of grace to the Mother of God, proclaimed ‘blessed because she believed’ (Lk 1:45).” In a 1984 interview, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, identifies Our Lady as the “remedy” for the contemporary challenges and crises for the Church and the world today.

Among other things, Cardinal Ratzinger said that devotion to Mary “assures the faith its full human dimension.” With Mary we see a human being — like us — who says “yes” to what God asks of her. She gave birth in a stable, fled to Egypt with Joseph to avoid Herod’s persecution, followed her Son as he preached, and stood by Him as he suffered and died.

Mary is a role model for all of us. During this Year of Faith, let’s all increase our devotion to Mary. I encourage parents-to-be to consider the name Mary for their girls, either as a first or middle name. It’s a wonderful name, and  I’m proud to be called Mary!