Without a doubt Baptism is an important and joyful occasion – for the person being baptized and for members of the family and the entire Church community. In preparing for Baptism, however, one of the first questions parents encounter is the selection of godparents.
It’s about the choice and role of godparents that I write today. But first, a few words about the meaning of Baptism.
Baptism, of course, is the primary sacrament of the Christian Faith, the foundation upon which the entire Christian life is built. When we’re baptized, the original sin with which we are born as children of Adam and Eve is taken away, we are filled with sanctifying grace, and we become members of the Church, the Body of Christ.
But Baptism is only a beginning! For Baptism to achieve its full potential, it has to be followed by a lifetime of grace and faith. In presenting their child for Baptism, parents promise to practice the Catholic Faith and to do everything possible to share their faith with their children. How sad and inconsistent it is when parents request Baptism for their children and then walk away from the Church with little or no intention of returning anytime soon.
Supporting parents in the practice of the faith is the particular responsibility of the godparents of the child being baptized. Sometimes, however, it seems that the role of godparents is not properly understood, even by practicing Catholics. (For the sake of simplicity here I use the term “godparent” and “sponsor” interchangeably.)
First, a word about what godparents should not be. The role of godparent is not an honor given to a favorite aunt, uncle or lifetime friend. (“I’ve known John forever, he’s a really great guy and I want him to be the godfather of my child.”) Nor is it a reward in exchange for another favor. (“I was the maid-of-honor at her wedding and I want to thank her by asking her to be my baby’s godmother.”) Nor does it entail the bestowal of a legal right or duty to raise the child to adulthood should “something happen” to the parents.
Being a godparent for Baptism is a serious spiritual responsibility and a commitment of faith. (All that we say here about Baptism sponsors also applies to Confirmation sponsors by the way.)
Because it is such an important role, the Code of Canon Law describes some of the requirements for being a Baptism sponsor.
First it reminds us that, “Only one male or one female sponsor, or one of each sex is to be employed.” (#873) It is not permissible to have two godfathers or two godmothers.
The next canon (#874) lists the specific requirements for being a sponsor, which can be summarized as follows:
• Normally be at least 16 years old;
• Have already received the three sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist;
• Be a Catholic in good standing, someone who leads a life in harmony with the Catholic Faith;
• Not be the parents of the person being baptized.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a broader, more pastoral description of the role of godparents: “For the grace of Baptism to unfold, the parents’ help is important. So too is the role of the godfather and godmother, who must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized – child or adult – on the road of Christian life.” (#1255)
This description is reflected in the Baptism ceremony when the celebrant turns to the godparents and asks, “Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” And they respond, “We are.” And later in the Rite the godparents join the parents in “renouncing Satan, his works and all his empty promises” and professing their faith on behalf of the one being baptized.
All of this emphasizes that the role of the godparent goes well beyond the ceremony itself; it’s meant to last a lifetime. What does the Catechism mean, exactly, when it says that godparents must be “firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized on the road of Christian life?”
Well, the Christian life is just that – a road, a journey, a pilgrimage, and with so many challenges, temptations and distractions these days it can be a very difficult road to travel. Every Christian needs the example and support of the community, represented especially by their godparents, if they are to travel the Christian highway safely and successfully.
In practical terms, then, that means that godparents must be faithful members of the Church, regularly attending Mass and receiving the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation.
Godparents should give a good example of a moral life, keeping the Commandments of the Lord and the precepts of the Church. Their lives should be shining examples of integrity, charity, justice and compassion.
Godparents should try to be present to the person they’ve sponsored, praying for them and with them, affirming them in the practice of the Christian Faith and even challenging them if they’re ever tempted to leave the “road of the Christian life.”
That’s a pretty serious job description, isn’t it? Nonetheless, that’s exactly what’s involved in being a sacramental sponsor in the Church.
So, if at some point you need to choose godparents for your child, choose carefully, with these points in mind. And if you’re asked to be a godparent, congratulations – it’s a real honor and privilege. But before you accept the invitation, be sure you’re willing and able to live up to the expectations your position demands.
This column was previously published in Rhode Island Catholic