Of God and Godparents

baby-hand-bwEveryone loves seeing the babies baptized early Sunday morning. Some squeal with delight while others cry their eyes out as the cold Holy Water runs across their heads. I’m always curious though about who the parents chose as godparents for their child.

If physical similarities matter, many seem to have chosen a sibling or two to light the candle. My friends with children followed this trend, a sibling and a friend, or perhaps, when possible, another married couple.

If you have had the blessing of being a godparent or confirmation sponsor, you may have attended classes prior to the baptism, at least usually that is the case. Which carries us to my questions for this article: Are there criteria for choosing a godparent or confirmation sponsor? How important is this choice?

Baptism and Grace

Before we do anything else, we must understand that baptism is a sacrament. A sacrament, CCC 1113-1134, is a conduiet for grace and acts ex opere operato, or ‘by the very fact of the action’s being performed.’

In baptismal waters, Original Sin is wiped away and we receive sacramental grace. But, baptism is also a sacrament of initiation (CCC 1229-1231) and thus requires post-bapistmal instruction in the faith.

Baptism is the door into God’s house but we do not remain in the foyer. We walk deeper into our King’s home. As such, this means baptism is not a mere sign or imitation referring to Christ’s baptism but is a channel of grace which draws us closer to our creator.

Promises and Candles

During the administration of the sacrament, there are several different points before, during, and after the child has been baptized where the godparents are addressed. But, if you’re a fellow cradle Catholic, you may not notice them. Once you’ve seen one baptism, you’ve seen them all.

The celebrant calls forward the parents and godparents with the child. Asks them several questions before taking them to the bapistmal font. Finally, we see the candle lit, the white garment or bib placed, and the chrism oil anointed upon the child and we are done and ready to move on in the liturgy.

In the whirl of sounds, smells, and sights did we take in what is happening to the child? Did we pay attention to the role the parents and godparents are promising, before God and Holy Mother Church, to carry out until their dying day? I know I used to hear what they said but I did not listen to them.

Here is a brief overview. Beginning with the priest saying,

You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

Then, he asks, “Godparents, are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?”

If both parents and godparents answer ‘I do’ and after the liturgy continues, then the priest proceeds to ask the parents and godparents this question,

On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring him (her) up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him (her) is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his (her) heart.

If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism. Reject sin; profess your faith in Christ Jesus. This is the faith of the Church. This is the faith in which this child is about to be baptized.

Following this are a series of questions, baptismal promises, beginning with the rejection of Satan and sin and concluding with the profession of the Christian faith. The parents and godparents answer both as individuals renewing their own promises and on behalf of the newly baptized infant. After the anointing the child, the bapistmal candle is lit and the priest says,

Parents and godparents,
this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly.
This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ.
He (she) is to walk always as a child of the light.
May he (she) keep the flame of faith alive in his (her) heart.
When the Lord comes, may he (she) go out to meet him
with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.

Misconceptions and a Perfect World

In case you didn’t count, during the liturgy the priest speaks of the duties and responsibilities of the parents and godparents to nourish the child’s faith in the coming years three separate times in both questions and exhortations. Within this, they are also asked if they clearly understand the responsibilities they are undertaking.

Canon 774 §2. states that “Parents above others are obliged to form their children by word and example in faith and in the practice of Christian life; sponsors and those who take the place of parents are bound by an equal obligation.” The Catechism (CCC 1311) also explains that, whenever possible, the Confirmation sponsor is to be one of the godparents to emphasize the unity of these two sacraments of initiation.

No one walks alone in the Christian life. So, parents have an obligation to prayerfully select individuals who will assist the child as the grow in the faith. In a perfect world, the parents would have a variety of choices of individuals who devoutly practice the faith in all circumstances, possess an active prayer life in their relationship with Christ, and do their best to live out the moral teachings of the Church. What’s more, all of these choices would be near at hand and desire to be an active aid for the child.

But, we do not live in a perfect world.

Depending on where you live in relation to family, friends, and other Catholics, your choices will more or less limited by circumstances. That being said, there are two last misconceptions of baptism and godparents I wish to dispel. First, you need not necessarily choose individuals on the basis of who will take care of your child in the event of both parents’ deaths. Godparents and sponsors are there to help the child remain close to Christ but are not by necessity the ones to act as guardians.

For example, many priests and religious could be perfect godfathers or godmothers but would not, due to their vocations, be the best candidate to act as guardians in the event of death. Or, perhaps your sibling is to act as guardian but your Catholic friend would be suitable as a godparent.

Additionally, those with 2+ children would be perfectly happy with different godparents for each of their children but would not want many individuals acting as separate guardian so that children be separated in the event of death. Thus we can see the two are separate even if they may be linked in special circumstances.

Lastly, the idea that ‘godfather,’ ‘godmother,’ or ‘Confirmation Sponsor’ are honorific titles which must be bestowed carefully so as to avoid any hard feelings needs to be jettisoned. Is it an honor to act as your nephew’s godfather? Yes. But, as we have seen, with this honor comes duties, responsibilities, and obligations before God.

If an individual would be a detriment to the spiritual life of the child then why should he ore she be godparent? Those who would negatively impact the child’s spiritual life absolutely shouldn’t be godparent or sponsor regardless of their blood or friendship ties to the parents. Remember, before God, Holy Church, and the parish, parents and godparents promise to help the child grow in faith and closer to Christ.

The ability and desire to be of aid to the child’s faith must be considered above all else, feelings, past promises, reciprocal godparenting, or anything else. Baptism is about the child not someone else’s pride or sensitive feelings.

Who is Struggling

You may be thinking I’m telling you to hold out for a living saint. For an individual whose sanctity lights up the room and banishes sin into the  darkness. No, but if such an individual walks in, do chose them.

We face a fallen world and through concupiscence have the tendency to sin, even desire sinful ways (CCC 405, 1264, 2515, 2520). No one is perfect. So, how do parents chose a suitable individual(s)? Below are several bullet points to consider when choosing either godparents or confirmation sponsors:

1) Active faith life: individual is committed to faithfully practice the faith, partakes in the Church’s sacramental life, prays regularly or tries to, his or her faith impacts how he or she lives day to day.

2) Struggling: individual who acknowledges his or her sinful ways and does the best to purge sin from life through God’s grace and a commitment to finish the race (2 Tim 4:7). Though beautifully grace-filled at baptism, your child will sin later in life, and will need the help of someone who is not morally relativistic or uses the phrase “if it makes you happy it’s okay.” This is not a green light to ask those who ‘struggle’ by living in mortal sin constantly.

3) Prayerful: in conjunction with praying regularly, the individual should bring God into his or her life and allow Him to permeate his or her decisions.

4) Willingness to learn: many of us have one or more Church teachings or practices we struggle with or, maybe, desire to openly reject. Parents should seek someone who is willing to accept on faith the Church teachings while reading and asking questions so as to better understand why the Church teaches what she does rather than reject the teaching(s) outright simply because he or she doesn’t like what they hear.

5) Eyes set on heaven: whether we like to admit it, or not, this world is passing. Disordered desires abound in our sinful times, but at their heart is the ultimate disorder for a Christian: the earth is our only home and death is the absolute end, for from this all else builds upon this disordered earthly affection. This falsehood is used to justify hedonistic gobblings of experiences and people without a thought to consequences, responsibility, charity, or God.

When we set our eyes on heaven we assign importance differently because our goals and means fundamentally change: sacrificial love instead of self-centered ‘love’, relationships instead of materialism, charity instead of selfishness, mercy and forgiveness instead of hardheartedness, patience and understanding instead of indifference.

These are just broad categories which will manifest themselves differently and in varying degrees for each individual. But, if you’re looking for a few specifics it’s, unfortunately, easier to go negative. Avoid:

1) Mass is important but just go when you can. You don’t have to go if you don’t feel like it.

2) If you decide to not be Catholic that’s okay, just do whatever works for you and makes you happy. (Lapsed Catholics deserve patience, love, and understanding so, please, do not mistake this for anything other than pointing out a manifestation of relativism.)

3) There is no such thing as ‘sin’. We each have different points of view on morality.

Some positives might be: spends time with Christ in adoration, frequently goes to confession, reads the Scriptures, or simply does their best to do more than just be in Mass on Sundays. We are not all on the same point in the spiritual life and that is okay. But, we are each called to continually strive to grow in holiness.

I would, lastly, advise that the ‘best-looking’ candidate might not be the most effective if they will never be able to be involved in the child’s life. Your sibling might be a devout Catholic and your first choice, but how much help will he be from across the country? This might be something to consider if you’re being asked to be a long distance godparent.

I hope what I’ve shown here is that the choice of godparent and confirmation sponsor is not one to be taken lightly or to be simply given to the sibling or best friend. The domestic church (CCC 1657, 1666) is where we all first learn to live the Christian life and first encounter Christ.

I’ve heard parents voice the need for Catholic schools and parishes to help them more with raising their children in the faith. The Church heard the call centuries ago and gave parents (and new Catholic adults) the means to find that assistance: godparents and sponsors.

You don’t have to spend weeks going through résumés, but you should sit together and pray about who would best serve your child in their faith journey. If you don’t know whom to ask or how sort through your choices, ask your priest or another trustworthy individual for help. And, in the end, place your trust in God’s love to guide you through.

Michael is a Texan living in self-inflicted exile as he finishes his PhD. in the history of early modern Britain. After completing his undergraduate degree at Baylor (Sic 'em!!), he decided his faith life needed re-evaluating and reinvigorating. He quickly realized that spiritual growth is a life long affair and not a quick fix. This created a thirst for a deep knowledge of the faith and a desire to share every nugget with others who may benefit. Michael is addicted to movies and books and enjoys quality time with friends and family.