Church directive on Christian names criticized

New Delhi (Matters India): Several lay people have criticized a directive from a prominent Church group in India for asking its priests to use only Christian names.

“I find this an extremely narrow minded and shallow outlook,” says Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a leading Catholic woman theologian. What are “Christian” names? Our names become Christian when we do” (what Christ has told us to do), she wrote in an email trail in United Christian Forum discussion group on August 4.

Deepak Mukarji, another contributor to the forum, expressed surprise that the clergy were wasting time on such matters instead of finding ways to the Lord. “Does a European name like Peter or Paul make one “more” Christian? If names are taken from the Old Testament will that make the bearer of such a name Jewish or Christian?” he asked and added, “I think the less we get into semantics and deal with serious issues the better for all of us.”

He and Gajiwala were reacting to a newspaper report about the bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church (SMC) asking their priests and seminarians to use their Christian names as a “mark of their Christian identity.”

The bishops issued the directive during their two-week synod that ended on August 29.

Fr Paul Thelakat, who has just completed his term as the SMC spokesperson, told Matters India that a press release from the Synod had instructed priests to use Christian names. “The news in The New Indian Express is based on that,” he added.

The priest, who edits the Light of Truth, the weekly magazine of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, said that many Christian children have more than one name. “The Christian name in the baptism register, another name the boy or girl is called; still there may be another name which may be a pet name or a nick name.”

He says the child’s genealogy is important because it is “born in a family and in a society and in the believing community.” A child, he adds, grows up in the culture of a believing community.

“So it is most fitting to take name from the tradition of the family, paternal or maternal link and also from the believing culture of the community one is in. So Christians take at baptism a name which is related their family which also will be the name of a saint or the name of a Biblical personality. The child is given a model to imitate and study and follow the person in life, so that the child grows up as holy person,” Fr Thelakat explains.
He further justifies the Church directive saying, “The culture in which one grows will be reflected in naming as well. Naming is a cultural and familial act. The child must grow in Christian culture. The Church tells priests to take the name which has been given to them in the baptism. I hope people will understand that.”

Traditionally, Christian families in Kerala gave the name of the paternal grandfather to the firstborn boy or the paternal grandmother’s name to the first girl. The second child got the name of the maternal grandparent and the third child its own parent’s.

The Indian Express said the directive has come when many in the young generation of Catholic priests have started sporting Indian or Sanskrit names .

Gajiwala says most Christian saints have western names because that is where Christianity spread. Many of these western names have “pagan” roots, she added. She wants Christians to become proud of their Indianness. “Let us Christianize our Indian names by being true Christians. Not all saints are beatified.”

Jaimon Joseph, another layman many Christians like names with Sanskrit roots because the can trace back what they mean. “Meenakshi (fish-eyed woman) or Ashok (one without sorrow) has a distinct meaning – something they like to connect with their kids.”

According to Joseph, Christians names from the Bible have dramatic meanings, but most Christians will not make the effort to trace them. “Can’t blame them – Hebrew, from which most Biblical names take their root – is a foreign language. Still, a bit more effort during catechism to tell children what the names mean could help,” he added.

Joseph also explains that lots of names in the West, even in Christian families – have non Christian roots. William, Victoria, Jennifer, Arnold – can have roots in Saxon, Celt, Goth, French or Slavic languages.

“Perhaps the reason why they don’t have a problem with such names and we in India do – is the fact that the West is already predominantly Christianized. “Only 2 percent of Indians are Christian and we do have a responsibility to give witness to the Bible. But that’s better done through actions, than words,” he adds.

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