Years ago, a co-worker and I were both experiencing difficulties in fathering children due to the effects of cancer-treatments. Jokingly he said to me that if, by some miracle, we were finally able to beget children with our respective wives, “we have to name them after one of the saints in the Roman Canon [Eucharistic Prayer I]. I have dibs on Chrysogonus!”
Betting on twins, I settled for “Perpetua and Felicity.”
In good news all around, my friend and his wife brought a beautiful baby girl into this world (Grace), and the next year my wife and I adopted twins: Agnes and Giovanni Paolo.
Neither of us kept our end of the bet.
Flash forward nine years: at a recent Mass the priest said during the homily, “One of my favorite saints is St. Polycarp: partly because he had direct link to Saint John the Apostle and because ‘Polycarp’ is one of the coolest names of all time!”
He’s right of course: “Polycarp” is an incredible name that you never hear (except maybe in a religious community).
But our faith is rife with great names of great saints that have become somewhat marginalized over the years in favor of more trendy non-Catholic names — which is one of the blessings of being a Catholic: you can rename yourself at Confirmation with the name you really wanted. (I went with “Patrick”.)
Time was once you could depend on a Pope to pull out a particularly obscure name, but that hasn’t happened since maybe Pope Hadrian some 500 years ago. (Although, when you think about it, you don’t run into a lot of men named “Benedict” or “Pius”, though my grandfather’s dear friend was Bishop Pius Benecasa.)
Still, there’s loads of great saints with great names—and great stories. Namely (pun intended):
St. Polycarp (Feast day February 23): Though his name sounds like a school of fish, he was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, and one of the few “Apostolic Fathers” since he was an immediate disciple of the Apostle, this bishop (of Smyrna) and martyr. He was also a friend and confidant of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who addressed a letter to him. Famous for rebuking his persecutors who told him to denounce Christ and Christianity, Polycarp remarked “Fourscore and six years have I served Him and He has done me no wrong: How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” Martyred by burning at a stake, which he refused to be bound to, claiming, “He who gives me the grace to endure the fire will enable me to remain at the pyre unmoved.”
St. Chromatius (December 2): His name always reminds me of chrome-plated wheels. Chromatius was a fourth-century bishop of Aquileia, Chromatius was a contemporary (and correspondent) of two of the great Western Doctors, Saints Jerome and Ambrose, and a supporter of one of the great Eastern Doctors, St. John Chrysostom. Perhaps due to this log-jam of larger-than-life contemporaries (and his own preference for diffidence), Chromatius is a bit overlooked by all but patristic scholars, who still give him high marks for his commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew and other (surprisingly many) extant writings.
St. Petronax: (May 6): With a name that today could be confused with a multinational petroleum conglomerate, St. Petronax is important to the Church in that he was the “second-founder” (after St. Benedict himself) of the motherhouse of all Benedictine abbeys, Monte Cassino (in Italy), which had been sacked by the Lombards in 581. St. Petronax was as able an administrator and fundraiser as he was devout and charismatic, and everyone from princes, regents, as well as St. Willibald and St. Sturmius (two other excellent names), flocked to help in the rebuilding of Monte Cassino. Though he died in 747, St. Petronax paved the way for one of the greatest of all the Abbots of Monte Cassino, Desiderius, a few hundred years later, by restoring the glory, grandeur, and import of St. Benedict’s major monastery.
St. Josaphat (November 12): “Jumpin’ Josaphat” to misquote Looney Tunes’ Yosemite Sam. St. Josaphat bridged—or at least tried to (and he was martyred for it)—East and West, being the Archbishop of Polotsk in 17th-century Belorussia. St. Josaphat, prior to his Episcopal ordination, had served as abbot of Vilna (in Poland/Lithuania), and felt perfectly at home in the East while pledging undying loyalty to the pope. For this he was given much grief by the populace, though through his good and holy example, people found it hard to argue that St. Josaphat was not saintly. However, in the end, he was slain for being a “papist”, but enjoys the unique distinction of being the first saint of the Eastern Churches to be formally canonized according to the modern process in the Congregation of Sacred Rites.
St. Linus (September 23): It is hard not to think of the comic strip character “Linus” whenever one hears that name (he of the security-blanket and tear-jerking speech during “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown”). However, Pope St. Linus was, per the Roman Martyrology, “the first to govern the Roman Church after Blessed Peter the Apostle and, being crowned with martyrdom, was buried in the Vatican near the same Apostle.” As with many of the earliest popes, little else is known of St. Linus. Saints Irenaeus and Eusebius concluded that it this St. Linus who, as a companion of St. Paul, sent greetings from Rome to Timothy in Ephesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4: 21). Also shaky was the length of his term of office, which may have been about a dozen years.