One Small Way To Restore Catholic Culture

If you ever visit the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, make sure you get a glimpse of the campus’ loveliest bit of architecture, the iconic St. Thomas arches. Built in 1947, these arches stand proudly astride the administrative building and the liberal arts center, displaying a statue of the university’s patron.

At one time, the buildings were known as Aquinas Hall and Albertus Magnus Hall. It was a beautiful pairing, which left the university’s signature landmark gracefully bridging the gap between the Angelic Doctor and his inspired teacher. In 1999, however, the university renovated Albertus Magnus Hall, at which time it was renamed “the John Roach Center.”

John Roach was the archbishop in the Twin Cities from 1975 to 1995. I never knew him, so be assured that there is no personal animus behind this one little thought: I do not think he contributed as much to the Church as Albert the Great. And it saddens me to realize that, with the loss of his building, a majority of UST students will surely graduate without so much as hearing the name of St. Thomas’ great mentor.

Imagine a world in which Catholic universities named their landmarks with an eye to the students’ good, and not to university politics. Better still, imagine a world in which wealthy Catholic patrons demanded that buildings be named for their patron saints. Students would casually speak the names of saints and mystics and great philosophers on a daily basis, every time they gave their address or discussed their schedule. Now and then one might become curious and look up a few of the names.

We Americans live in an increasingly secular country that was founded on Protestant soil. We do not, like many of our European and South American brethren, have the benefit of living in a world filled with Catholic landmarks and cultural touchstones. This lack of Catholic signs makes it particularly easy for Americans to shed our Catholicism gradually and painlessly, as the culture assimilates us and euthanizes our religious faith.

The procedure appears to have been brutally effective in recent decades. Sherry Weddell, in her new book Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, faces the devastating statistics with the declaration that “cultural Catholicism is dead.” According to Wendell, cradle Catholics in America are leaving the faith at a rate about two to one, and ex-Catholics now make up fully ten percent of the population. Very few apostates return. These painful realities strike fear into the heart of every Catholic parent. How can we save our children from being swallowed up by the secular culture?

Wendell urges us to accept the demise of culture and to look for more direct methods of converting our children. Her recommended approaches are reminiscent of Evangelical spirituality, with an intense focus on witnessing, discovering individual charisms, and scrutinizing one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It would be hard to disagree that contemporary Catholic parents must attend to their children’s religious formation in a very deliberate way. At the same time, it is a serious mistake to regard the loss of culture as a fait accompli.

Culture is dynamic. It need never be lost so long as significant numbers of people still wish to keep it alive. In our discouragement over negative trends in the broader culture, we are sometimes inclined to forget that culture is not a monolith, and that sub-cultures can be powerfully influential in their own right. If committed Catholics regard the revitalization of culture as a lost cause, it surely will be. By the same token, however, committed Catholics can choose to revitalize that culture, and opportunities to do so arise with surprising frequency.

Not many of us, it is true, are in a position to name buildings. Quite a lot of us, however, can honor our favorite saints with something far more precious: a child. It always warms my heart to attend a Catholic gathering at which a roll call of the little girls in attendance is a veritable litany of Marian names. The Lu clan has no little girls as of yet, but we have established our own tradition of naming each boy for a major religious order. When I explain this to fellow Catholics, I find that many regard the custom of naming children for saints as something of a quaint anachronism. They mention that their grandparents did it, but for their own children they follow the mainstream culture in choosing deliberately-misspelled surnames or the names of popular television characters. (I am told that “Khaleesi” is a fashionable girl’s name for 2013. Well done, HBO.)

Popular culture is depressing enough in its own right, but it is far more discouraging to see practicing Catholics submit to it even in something as personal and as significant as the selection of names. What better way to emphasize our communion with the saints than by keeping them in our midst in the form of flesh-and-blood namesakes? How can we blame the popular culture for the demise of these beautiful customs when Catholic parents remain free to resurrect them at will? Adopting a defeatist attitude about Catholic culture may make us less assiduous about seeking out these small but significant opportunities to reinforce our and our children’s Catholic identity.

In my experience, many American Catholics feel paralyzed by the belief that their tradition has been lost, and that attempts to recreate it will thus make them into anachronistic oddities, closely akin to obsessive Civil War re-enactors or Renaissance Fair enthusiasts. As a convert myself, I fully appreciate how the piecemeal revival of old prayers and traditions can feel inauthentic or even a bit hokey. We are keenly aware that we lack much of the context that originally made these traditions meaningful, and this makes us self-conscious.

In general, though, I think we are better off when we simply embrace our identity as “tradition amateurs” and allow ourselves to have fun with it. It is unlikely that our children will be damaged by a historically-inaccurate recreation of an older custom. It is far more likely that they will suffer from a dearth of any meaningful cultural connections to their faith. Moreover, tradition is itself a product of repetition, so whatever customs we revive or adapt will become more authentic as time passes.

In 2005, as a (single and childless) Catholic neophyte, I had the idea that it might be amusing to throw a dinner party in honor of my chosen patron, St. Francis of Assisi. It felt like a bit of a joke at the time, but the party was a success, and so I continued the tradition. This October will mark the ninth such festivity. Somewhere along the way I took up gardening, and noticed that early October was the perfect time for sharing my excess produce with friends. This seemed fittingly Franciscan, and so St. Francis Day has become the Lu clan’s annual harvest feast.

When my children reflect back on these celebrations, will they regard them as a hokey anachronism of a lost age? I am inclined to doubt it. To them, autumn leaves and butternut squash and St. Francis of Assisi will all be fused together in a (hopefully fond) bundle of childhood memories. If Catholic culture is dead, they never got the memo, and I would prefer if Wendell and her associates would not take it upon themselves to send it.

As a university instructor, I always tell my students about the sad demise of Albertus Magnus Hall. I urge them, should they ever be in a position to do so, to choose meaningful names which will give everyone who hears them a small connection to some deeper and richer element of their tradition or culture. The students laugh, but they know that I am serious. And of course, names are just the beginning. As Catholics, we should keep in mind that we have two millennia-worth of Catholic customs and traditions at our disposal, all of which should be regarded as our birthright. Instead of accepting the demise of Catholic culture we must take it upon ourselves to breathe life into that culture, by living it.

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

  • Dick Prudlo

    God has blessed you with his enormous gift of grace. You, doing what some may feel as too little to late, are doing precisely what needs to be done. Keep up the fight for the battle rages.

  • BB

    This brings up so many responses…

    There’s a lovely old book out there called “The Year and Our Children: Planning the Family Activities for the Church Year” by Mary Reed Newland (my copy is from 1964). I’m sure it’s either been reprinted or new versions of something like it are ‘out there.’ When you read such a book, you realize how FREE we are to shape our ‘domestic churches’, our marriages and families, which are simply the nucleus of culture-at-large. This is a big reality which so few seem to grasp: FAMILIES are miniature cultures. In the US (not so much in traditionally Catholic countries, where religious traditions in the family are similar for everyone) each one has its different traditions and customs, and as such, FAMILIES are the true ‘owners’ and transmitters of culture – the ‘culture’ that means the most to each one of us as persons. And more than that, women – specifically mothers – have so much scope to create and shape the domestic culture that it’s breath-taking and quite exciting. That’s not to leave out men: I once heard a speech by Scott Hahn in which he talked about how the men in the family do some kind of ‘coming of age’ weekend with a boy when he turns twelve (something like that) and how he, as father, declares a sort of ‘family jubilee’ in which the children can go to their father privately and confess wrong-doing and they will not be punished, kind of like the ‘year of jubilee’ in the Old Testament. That’s biblical and creative at the same time – and simply wonderful for building relationships in the family. We can learn from other families and change and adapt their creative ideas and make them our own, but at the same time, essentially Catholic. I recommend getting a copy of Newland’s book or one like it, and reading it not necessarily as a strict ‘what-to-do’ book but as a ‘how-to-do-it’ book: how to follow your own creativity, ethnicity, education, background, situation and time constraints, family make-up, etc., actively to foster and create a Catholic culture in your own family. And by all means invite other families to share and show by example.

    I love the idea of a St Francis Harvest Day party. So much closer to real harvest-time than the third week in November (isn’t it? Is for me). And it dovetails with many connections I personally have with the Franciscan Order. I’m going to steal that idea.

    I’m all for giving children saint-names and winced when we got a ‘Lance’ in the family (at least our surname is not O’Boyle). But when I am talking about the Communion of Saints and ‘looking up your patron saint’ based on your name, and I’m confronted with a Webster or Madison, I remind them that the first saints were often converted pagans, so the ‘saint-names’ we know were not ‘born Christian’ but became Christian (Blessed Kateri Takakwitha, anyone?). It is definitely Webster’s and Madison’s destiny to become Saint Webster and Saint Madison. Perhaps another way of Christianizing the culture, even when the child is named ‘Khaleesi,’ is to remind the child that she/he may be called to be the first canonized Saint Khaleesi in the Roman calendar, and to become that saint will require being as counter-cultural as his/her name is untraditional for a Christian. The culture was Christianized once; it can be Christianized again. And it will be christianized by the future St Forrest and Saint Moon Unit, Saint Vaughn and Saint Tiffany as much as by the Mary-Margarets and Thomases. I suspect that parents who rediscover their faith in middle years may sometimes regret not giving their children traditional saints’ names. But God has a way of making saints of sinners, so all is not lost if your children present you with a grandchild named ‘Cotton.’

    May I also suggest that if you live in the western US, you get children interested in questioning why their towns might be called things like ‘San Antonio’ or ‘Los Angeles’. Go on a quest for ‘hidden’ references to our faith in common language: marigolds are called that because they are ‘Mary’s Gold’ – a golden flower that is beneficial to gardeners. ‘Ladybugs’ (or Ladybirds in England) are so called because they are ‘Our Lady’s Bug’ – a harmless garden insect. On the 4th of July, set off Catherine Wheels, and explain why they are called that (do you know how St Catherine was martyred?). When you hear about the Red Cross going to assist at a disaster scene, there’s a chance to mention that the Red Cross first was used by St Camillus of Lellis in 1591 – he established the first ‘ambulance’ unit in the action at the Battle of Solferino. Have you ever wondered why men have an ‘Adam’s apple’ instead of ‘Peter’s peach’ or ‘Gregory’s grape’ or ‘Fred’s filbert’? Think about it for a moment and you’ll undoubtedly guess the reason. So will your kids. And they’ll love it. There are almost limitless references to the Bible and the Catholic Church in our language and culture.

    Also, let’s support our priests and encourage them in bringing back Catholic customs. I know two Polish priests in the US who have had to fight serious battles with their ‘liturgical committees’ of lay-people to introduce, for example, a Corpus Christi procession in the parish. The priest won that battle over almost unanimous opposition, and said that after the procession, he had only one complaint from a participant: the procession didn’t last long enough. Another priest tells me of the division that was created in his American parish when they introduced bells during the Eucharistic prayer. ‘Bells!’ he exclaimed. ‘All that anger and opposition over bells! And forget about incense! They won’t hear of incense!’ These things are taken for granted in Poland and other parts of the Catholic world where such customs were not destroyed years ago.

    The problem is that our parish churches were raped and pillaged in the late 1960s and 1970s, so that now, no statues (no visible Communion of Saints in church art), no traditional sacred music, no ‘smells and bells’ has become normal, and people are angry when the ancient traditional sacramentals (or serious music or reverential language and behavior) are reintroduced.

    By all means introduce sacramentals and Saints Days as much as possible in the family, and when a priest attempts to restore Catholic culture in your parish, GIVE VOICE to your approval; speak supportively about it to others in the parish; and volunteer your time and energy to support his efforts. You may not know it, but your priests are often torn apart by ‘wolves’ in the parish who oppose them constantly in their role as ‘alter Christus.’ It is a great cross of the priesthood that most of us don’t see or realize: the ingratitude and opposition, even arrogance and contempt they are shown by parishioners and – sadly – by deacons and various lay members of the ‘parish committees.’ They need our support, encouragement, gratitude and the assurance of our prayers (pray for them regularly and tell them you pray for them), because they are on the front lines in publicly trying to restore Catholic worship practices to the American Catholic Church.

    • John

      “The Year and Our Children” has indeed been reprinted, by Sophia Institute Press.

    • Bono95

      We have a huge patron saint names book that covers both tons of traditional saints names, some more obscure and funky ones, and even several names that aren’t currently held by any saints. For those names, you find the meaning and then find a saint who’s name or life fits that meaning the best, or go by something in the sound and spelling. For example, “Cheyenne” sounds like “shy Ann” (St. Ann), “Chelsea” is a fashionable London neighborhood, and was once the home of St. Thomas More, and Semaj is “James” spelled backwards. You can find a saint to match up with just about any name there is.

  • DXM

    We should imitate the Jews, who have done such an impressive job of keeping Hebrew alive. I have long thought that all Catholic schools should teach liturgical Latin starting in the first grade. This would substantially improve Catholics’ memory of their own heritage. It would also foster the growth of the old Mass, which in itself perpetuates Catholic heritage. The dumbing down of the Mass has contributed significantly to the dumbing down of the laity.

    Catholic high schools and colleges should also offer a course on Catholic literature: Dante, Manzoni, Francois Mauriac, George Bernanos, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Horgan, etc. I have two kids in a Catholic high school and it is distressing to see the garbage that they read in their English class.

    • Traditium

      Great points! I’ve put together a little site for those curious about “Church Latin” at if you’re curious.

    • Bono95

      Hey, don’t forget Chaucer and Shakespeare on that reading list! 😀

  • Anna Githens

    Great article, however I wouldn’t be so quick to say that America was founded on Protestant soil. Although many of the Founding Fathers were Protestant, America’s discovery was due to the persistence of a devout Catholic, Christopher Columbus, and the support of a Catholic queen and king of Spain. America was named after a Roman Catholic, Amerigo Vespucci, and many of our cities are named after saints. America’s first Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida by Catholic Spanish explorers. The following article summarizes this points quite accurately:

    • Ford Oxaal

      And St. Brendan the Navigator and Leif Ericson were Catholics as well :).

    • Li Min

      Excellent points!

  • Anna Githens

    “San Miguel Mission, also known as San Miguel Chapel, is a Spanish colonial mission church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Built between approximately 1610 and 1626, it is claimed to be the oldest church in the United States.”

    “The first hospital was erected before 1524 in the City of Mexico by Cortés.”

  • Ford Oxaal

    Revival will come from the ground up — an inspiring article.

  • Nordic Breed

    Well done. I am a lifelong Catholic in love with our sacred traditions. All of them are an outgrowth of the Church’s expanding understanding of God’s love for us and the response He desires from us to that love. The feast of Divine Mercy is an outgrowth of devotion to the Sacred Heart, for example, and both are tied to our Eucharistic devotion. We have to take the time to know our Faith and our history, not as it is expressed by Catholic haters, but as it really is.

    • Li Min

      The Divine Mercy devotion is also my favorite–and as a convert, wife, and mom–I display this picture of Jesus where all the children can see it every day.

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  • hombre111

    Nice article. With children, I think it really does begin with the choice of a saint’s name, with the child understanding the story of the saint. And then a plethora of Catholic reminders in the home, like the celebration of baptismal feast days, Catholic art, a crucifix in the bedroom, and on and on.
    But I do quibble with the term “apostate,” the same way I argue with someone who says “I was raised Catholic.” Did the Faith ever sink in? Was there ever a real commitment to our Catholic faith. Lots of kids reject their faith as part of their adolescent rebellion, or because they fell in love with a non-Catholic, or on and on.

  • JohannaNemo

    My husband went to an Acts retreat last year, and I was a little in a panic being an introvert at such a large social gathering. So, I prayed for a little help and was inspired to come up with a tactic to help me socialize. I should have so much in common with these Catholics even though it was a parish I had never been to before.

    I decided that everyone I met, I would ask about the patron saint they were named after. I was so happy about this, I was ready to tackle my social fears and embrace some awesome new knowledge about saints. I like to read about them quite a bit, but there are so many!

    The first person I met was Barbara. So I immediately started talking about the very, very little I knew about St. Barbara – kind of the patron saint of odd things. Lightning, towers? I asked her to enlighten me. She was very surprised and had no idea what I was talking about. I smiled, and thought, well the next one. All of the people I met had saints names, and not one of them knew who they were named after. I got really frustrated when I met a young man named John – I mean there are like hundreds of St. Johns, surely he knows something about ONE of them. Specifically, the one he was named after. Nope. He was very quick to change the subject.

    It seems we definitely need as Catholics to dust off our knowledge of the saints and brighten up our world a little!

    I help my hubby teach 7th grade CCE, and I couldn’t help but attempt to find special names and ask the children about who they were named after. Usually at the beginning of class so they wouldn’t get embarassed for being pointed out (Jr. High is a difficult time, I get the feeling at this age that fitting in is important). The first student? Emmanuel! I felt pretty lucky. I asked him if he knew what his name meant, and he said he had no idea why he was named Emmanuel, or what it meant. So I taught him. Pretty easy since we have plenty of bibles on hand AND Christmas was coming up, “O come, O come Emmanuel…” I hope he remembers, and can connect a little better to his Catholic faith.

    I was a little disheartened when the new catholic translation of the Bible came out and they changed virgin to young woman, still:” Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.”

    God is with us! Let us celebrate his friends in heaven!

  • Yankeegator

    OoRah Sister!!!

  • RCPreader

    Until recently, Seton Hall University had two buildings named after convicted felons (Wall Street insider traders). I think they’ve change the name of the building named after the guy who was sent to prison, but not the one named after the guy who got probation for turning state’s evidence.
    Their priorities, and the sort of models they offer their students, couldn’t be clearer.

  • musicacre

    Great article! We all have to do our little part in our part of the world! Our homeschooling group brought the annual All Saints’ Day celebration to our parish many years ago, it’s always been a hit! When it came time for guessing the Saint, one year even my one year old participated. ( She’ now 15.) While I was holding her she held up a cloth that had an image of Christ drawn in pencil (an artist in our parish had done it for us..) Everyone yelled, St. Veronica! (My daughter’s name is also Veronica.) I’ve had several comments over the years about my daughter, Jacinta, by Portuguese women that wished they had been bolder and not used contemporary names. I’ve always felt that naming children is a privilege, but also fun!

    • Bono95

      My 2-year-old sister (now 12) was an adorable little Bl. Mother Theresa at one of our All Saints parties. 🙂

      • musicacre

        Very sweet! Jacinta also was one year, since her 3rd name is Theresa! Our eldest daughter used to go for the obscure almost never- heard saints’ names.

        • Bono95

          Good for her! 🙂 I was Mother Theresa in a saint’s play and for past All Saints Days have been St. Therese the Little Flower, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Lucy (my patron), St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Catherine of Siena, and Our Lady of Sorrows.

    • JohannaNemo

      All Saints’ Day at our parish was so awesome. All the classrooms had a different theme. Of course what did me and the hubby get? Purgatory. Yep, one of the most little understood teachings. Hubby was Archangel Michael, and I was just an angel helping him. When you came into the room, we asked the children questions from the catechism. If you didn’t get the question right? You went to purgatory (it was separated by a see thru shower curtain. You had to have other children intercede on your behalf to get out, either by reciting a prayer that the next child knew – or answering another question. If “Jesus” or “Mary” came into the room, purgatory was emptied and everyone got candy.

      Parents would usually get the questions right, but most of them went into purgatory anyway – to give their Grace to another. One Father was instructing his 8 boys to pay attention carefully, because he wanted them to pray for him a lot when he died. It was touching.

      Funniest moment? One little boy came in dressed as Jesus, and when he opened the door, turned to me and said, “Should I be concerned that my whole family is in purgatory?” I said, of course not Jesus! And let them all out. I certainly learned more about purgatory that night!

      • Bono95

        haha, that’s awesome! 😀

      • musicacre

        Wow, you guys had way more fun than us; very ingenious! We just had the kids do presentations complete with costume of course, and at the end we had to guess the Saint. We actually had a retired Anglican priest once and he and our 82 year old priest were kind of competing … and the Anglican guy got more right!!

  • Brennan

    Excellent article. It is absolutely imperative we cultivate a Catholic culture and there is no reason why we can’t do it in our families and no reason why we shouldn’t be doing it in our parishes. As Fr. George Rutler noted, it isn’t some irrelevant nostalgic exercise:

    “…It is immensely saddening to see so many elements of the Church, in her capacity as Mother of Western Culture, compliant in the promotion of ugliness. There may be no deterrent more formidable to countless potential converts than the low estate of the Church’s liturgical life, for the liturgy is the Church’s prime means of evangelism. Gone as into a primeval mist are the days not long ago when apologists regularly had to warn against being distracted by, or superficially attracted to, the beauty of the Church’s rites. And the plodding and static nature of the revised rites could not have been more ill-timed for a media culture so attuned to color and form and action.”

    (“A Crisis of Saints”, Ignatius Press pp. 107-108)

  • biscuits&gravy

    Wanna restore Catholic culture a little bit at a time? Have babies. Lots of babies. And catechize them properly, raising them in the love and fear of God. That’s it. Not a brain-buster.

    • JohannaNemo

      And for the ones whose marriages suffer from barenness (like mine), teach kids! Also, I end up naming my dogs after saints, hope they don’t mind. They are God’s consolation to me and have somewhat eased my huge maternal instinct.

      • biscuits&gravy

        May God bless you!

      • Bono95

        What are your dogs names? I’m certain no saints are offended. St. Francis certainly wouldn’t be, and neither would the Hound of Heaven. 😀

        • JohannaNemo

          Gabriel was a stray, and we named him Gabriel because he is big and he is my protector. He makes me feel safe since I spend a lot of time at home alone. Lily (Archangel Gabriel’s flower) is the heart, sweetest thing ever and very small. Then we have Maryland; she is a hoot and a little bit bossy, doesn’t like to share, and is capable of stealing anything from the other dogs- so maybe we should have given her a more fiery saint’s name!

          • Bono95

            Most of the fiery saints I can call to mind are men; James and John the “Sons of Thunder”, St. Jerome with his harsh words for heretics, the zealous and passionate St. Bernard of Clairvaux . . .

            Awesome dog names all around.

  • Joseph

    The straight line is combined by many little dots.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • LisaSpear

    I can top this. The Catholic grammar school that 4 generations of my family attended removed the NAME OF THE LORD (Sacred Heart) and replaced it with the name of a bishop who had been a student there. Talk about elevating man over GOD!

  • lelnet

    “When I explain this to fellow Catholics, I find that many regard the custom of naming children for saints as something of a quaint anachronism. They mention that their grandparents did it, but for their own children they follow the mainstream culture”

    When people speak of “Cultural Catholicism”…well, these are the kind of Catholics they’re speaking of. People who are “Catholic” because that’s what they call themselves because their parents and grandparents called themselves that, but in whom no trace of the actual teachings or practices of the Church remains, as it hasn’t remained in any ancestor recent enough for them to have been known in the current generation. (You know…the sort of “Catholicism” that the Kennedy family — not to mention my own family of origin — practices.) There may be millions of them still nominally in the Church, but it’s never much of a surprise to me when they leave.

    For too many of the Church’s leaders, for FAR too long, it’s been good enough that these people continue to call themselves Catholic and maybe think about showing up for Mass once or twice a year…maybe even bringing along their latest live-in partner and some of their step-children. No attempt has ever been made to call them to account for their flagrant rejection of the Church and all its works and teachings…how could such an attempt be justly made, since no attempt was earlier made to actually _educate_ them in the Church’s works and teachings?

    Cultural Catholicism is dead? Good riddance, say I! Makes more room for a reinvigoration of genuine Catholic Culture — which, don’t kid yourself, never had anything to do with Cultural Catholicism.

  • patricia m.

    I totally agree with naming children after saints. And please oh please don’t be ashamed to explain to your so modern friends why you chose the name. I always say: this is Antonio (my son), named after St Anthony, and this is Caterina (my daughter), named after St Catherine of Siena. Isn’t that beautiful?