Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Last week, this column dealt with the subject of the sacrament of Baptism. This foundational sacrament, necessary for salvation, brings us into the life of the Church, opens us to the grace of God available in the other sacraments, washes us free of original sin, and bestows on us our true identity as sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. We saw last week how important it is to make planning and preparing for baptism (especially of children) a priority, and how the administration of baptism should not be delayed unnecessarily. An important component of Baptism is the role of the sponsor or godparent(s). According to the Church’s ancient tradition, the purpose and role of the sponsor is twofold: to represent the Church (together with the deacon, priest, or bishop who celebrates the sacrament) in receiving the person into communion with the Catholic Church, and to support the person in living the Catholic Christian life. The sponsor professes the faith on behalf of a child being baptized and stands as a witness that the sacrament has taken place. Over many centuries, other cultural customs have come to be attached to the role of the godparent(s), but those additional things are not meant to interfere with the primary purpose of the sponsor in the administration of the sacrament. Only one sponsor/godparent is necessary, and the Church’s canon law (canon 874) requires that they be a fully initiated Catholic (they have been baptized, confirmed, and received Holy Communion), at least 16 years of age, not be the parents of the person receiving the sacrament, and be living a life that befits the sacred responsibilities outlined above. If there are to be two godparents, one is male, one is female.
There are a number of concerns that can be raised by parents trying to select godparents for their children. Applying the role and responsibility of sponsors and the canonical requirements for sponsors, what follows will be an examination of some of those concerns.
Can a non-Catholic be a godparent?
While only a Catholic can profess the faith on behalf of the child, and thus only a Catholic can represent the Church, a non-Catholic Christian can have an important spiritual role in the life of a child being baptized. We refer to such a person as a Christian Witness. A Catholic sponsor is still necessary, but a non-Catholic Christian may have a role. A non-Christian cannot serve as a godparent (we cannot ask them to profess the faith on behalf of the child being baptized, as doing so would be to ask them to say that they believe something they do not believe; in other words, we cannot ask them to lie!).
What if the godparent(s) cannot be present for the baptism?
It sometimes happens that a godparent is unable to be present for the administration of the sacrament. This may have to do with travel complications, illness, military service, or some other scheduling conflict. However, they can still fulfill the role of godparent! A proxy can be appointed to stand in for the godparent at the ceremony, but the godparent will still assume the other responsibilities. For example, my godmother was unable to travel from out of state for my baptism and was represented by a proxy. Though she was not present, she has taken her role as godmother very seriously throughout my life.
The intended godparent has not been practicing the faith. Can they still serve as sponsor?
It is not at all unusual to find that someone you might want as a godparent fulfills the requirements of being initiated and is willing to serve as a godparent, but is not regularly attending Mass or practicing the faith. When this is the case, it is a good opportunity to invite them back to a regular practice of the faith! When they are reminded of the spiritual role of godparents and the importance of being both a spiritual example and spiritual companion, they can often come to a new appreciation of their faith. Extending the invitation is worthwhile, and when accompanied by an invitation to come back to the practice of the faith, can be a powerful moment. For example, my brother was asked to be godfather to our youngest cousin. He realized that he had not been regularly practicing the faith and made a point to prepare for the baptism himself by getting back to Mass and making a good sacramental confession. If a possible godparent does not wish to practice the faith, it is better that they not take on the role, and instead, with honesty and integrity, decline the invitation.
Is there an obligation to ask certain people to be godparents?
The requirements for sponsors listed above are the only factors about which the Church concerns herself. No one should feel that they have to ask a particular person, but rather should make the choice of godparents freely.
It is difficult to find practicing Catholics to serve as godparents. Can people who served as godparents for an older child serve as godparents again for the younger child(ren)?
Only the requirements above need to be observed. The Church has no opinion on whether or not the same godparents can be called upon by the same family for multiple children. There is certainly nothing wrong with “repeat” godparents! In fact, there is something beautiful about all the children in one family having the same godparents!
What if we cannot find anyone to serve as godparents? Does that prevent baptism?
No! Fortunately, some arrangement can always be made to have a sponsor. Baptism will never be denied just because a godparent is not available. When preparing for baptism, parents can talk with their priest about this kind of dilemma and work out a solution with peace.
What if our relationship with the godparent changes, or the godparent later renounces the faith? Are they still the godparent?
Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that a conflict in a family or between friends arises that leads to a rupture in the relationship. It also may happen that a sponsor later stops practicing the faith or becomes openly hostile to the Church. Less painful but still challenging could be a move to a different country or great geographical distance making regular contact difficult. Should this happen, be at peace; the sacrament of Baptism cannot be undone by a change in circumstance or relationship on the part of a godparent. In the Baptismal Registry, the person who served as sponsor on the day of baptism remains written, because they were, historically, the witness of the sacrament, regardless of what may change later.
Baptism is a great gift. To serve as a godparent is an honor and a tremendous responsibility. The joy of new life present in a child is amplified for the family and for the whole Church in the sacrament of Baptism. When we understand the importance of the sacrament and understand the proper role of godparents, we can prepare for and approach this gateway sacrament with confidence and joy.