03/14/2013 11:54 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

The Pope, My Catholic Girlhood, and Baby Names

I couldn't wait to hear who the new pope was going to be, not because I'm a practicing Catholic any longer or because I cared which Cardinal got elected.

No. As usual, I was in it for the name.

I couldn't help but wonder: Do all the Pope candidates approach the process like Academy Award nominees, except with their name choices rather than their acceptance speeches clutched tight in their hands? Does the name choice have any influence on which Cardinal gets chosen -- I know it would in my world -- and do the finalists have to reveal their pope names before the decision is made final?

My Catholic girlhood went far to making me a professional name nerd. In fact, we all might owe the existence of my website Nameberry to Sister Miriam Gervase.

Most kids back at Immaculate Conception School were dying to know whether the nuns had hair under those veils or what they wore to bed at night, but to me those mysteries paled in comparison to the nuns' names.

Nuns got to pick new names for themselves when they entered the convent. That itself was appealing enough, but what was really amazing was that their choices were not confined by ethnic background, historical period, or even gender.

The principal of Immaculate Conception, for instance, was named Sister Miriam Gervase, an appellation that had it all going on. Miriam may have been a Mary relative, but it was one used mostly by Jews. unfamiliar in our Irish and Italian Catholic enclave.

And Gervase! That may have been a hot name in 6th century Gaul....for guys. But in mid-20th century New Jersey, it really stood out in the world of Gerrys and Jeans.

My favorite nun was also the one with the best name: Sister Jacinta. Sister Jacinta was young, at least as far as we could tell, and she was Irish. So where did the name Jacinta come from? I may have even been brave enough to ask her, and she explained that it was the Spanish name of a holy person -- the blessed Jacinta, one of the children who saw the apparition that became known as Our Lady of Fatima.

Jacinta: What a gorgeous name, and how exotic! It was as if the nuns had access to some secret list of fantastic names they've since passed down to Hollywood celebrities.
But actually, we all have access to those names today, thanks to the internet and such sites as Catholic Online, Which sends out a Saint of the Day newsletter that I get for -- what else? -- the names.

These names go far beyond the names I gleaned as a girl from the Lives of the Saints books that detailed the usual saintly suspects: Anne, Francis, Cecilia, Anthony, saints' names used consistently over the centuries down to my (yawn) neighbors and schoolmates. Though there was the occasional outlier -- one boy in my class was called Guy Ignatius and a church nearby was named for Saint Cassian, we were privy to only a narrow slice of the saintly possibilities.

Thanks to my grown-up name research, I've become familiar with the wide world of saints' names that the nuns have obviously known all along, names that are still unfamiliar yet might translate into modern life. Among the thousands of intriguing possibilities are Marinus and Marcellina, Romaric and Romana, Dallan and Dominica.

(Here's a much longer list of wonderful saints' names.)

Of course there are also thousands of saints' names it's hard to imagine ever clawing their way back into contemporary usage, from Disobod to Dingad to Dodo. But that doesn't really matter to a name nerd.

What was most appealing about Catholicism was the ritual of renaming, which extended far beyond the nuns to include pagan babies, popes, and even yourself.

I was an enthusiastic collector of coins in the interest of adopting these so-called pagan babies, not because I had any interest in their welfare but because I wanted to bless them with new names. Once the class had pulled together something like $36 in pennies and nickels and dimes, we laid official claim to another theoretical orphan in another far-flung locale, and held an election on what to rename her (somehow, in my memory, they were all girls, so much more fun for an 11-year-old girl to name than boys). My classmates' imagination for this practice was as limited as their enthusiasm, but mine wasn't. If only there'd been a Nameberry back then, I'd have given these poor children much better names.

The only thing more exciting than naming the pagan babies was getting to pick our own Confirmation names. Not strictly a renaming, this meant adding a second middle to our own lineups. My choice, I'm chagrined to admit, was the pedestrian Mary, but for very name nerdish reasons: Combined with Pamela Ann, it made my initials P.A.M. Brilliant!

While the Pope aspect -- upon election to that highest office, popes take on a new name -- gave renaming the highest possible endorsement south of Heaven, it was too distant and too infrequent to have much meaning in the everyday name nerd's life.

Still, I hung on the announcement of the new pope's identity yesterday, waiting for his name choice. I give the new pontiff high marks for choosing a name, Francis, never before used as a pope name, yet wish he'd picked something a little less stereotypically...Catholic. I know he was confined to the world of saints, but Leopold might have been cool, or even Xavier. Looking at popes of the past, my choice would have been Clement or Felix.

Or even cooler, he might have defied gender boundaries the way Sister Miriam Gervase did. A male Pope Felicity or Tatiana (yes, those are saints' names)? Now that would be name nerd heaven.


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