If you’ve ever had a baby, you know the drill: you get pregnant, then halfway through the pregnancy remember your little Catholic baby needs Catholic godparents. You debate everyone on both sides of the family–too Baptist, too lesbian, too young, too old. Some of us even get to the point where we’ve burned through every Catholic family member on both sides and have to start looking to friends. The task isn’t made easier by the fact that the pool of candidates seems to shrink with each new baby; by the time the 7th child comes along, you’re recycling godparents or “voluntelling” your teens to do it.
Most people, when you ask them to be a child’s godparents, are honored. But how many of us understand what it means to be a godparent? Do we really grasp the profound spiritual responsibility we take on when we make those promises at the baptism?
My husband and I went through RCIA when I was pregnant with our first child. Unlike most cradle Catholics, for whom godparenting is hum-ho, we were excited that our baby was going to have another person charged with mopping up all our spiritual mistakes with her. Today, with 13 godchildren, we’re grateful our priest took the time then to explain the history, rights, and responsibilities of this important job.
The history of godparents is rooted in the role of the sponsor, which originated in the Church during the first few centuries. Prior to about the year 300, Christians were heavily persecuted by the Roman Empire. To keep pagans from infiltrating the Church and exposing its members to harm, the Church required catechumens to have a sponsor–a faithful Catholic who would attest that the person’s desire to enter the Church was bona fide. Having another person charged with spiritually assisting you also helped you live up to the promises of your sacramental “grand slam,” since prior to the Middle Ages the Sacraments of Initiation included baptism, the Eucharist, and Confirmation, all administered at once. Though we’ve designated the people stepping up for infants being baptized as “godparents,” the technical term for anyone who promises to vouch for someone coming into the Church is “sponsor.”
We no longer require sponsors to rout out wolves in sheeps’ clothing, but the role of a godparent is still a very serious undertaking that goes far beyond the honor of the title. Just like the child’s parents, godparents assume spiritual guardianship of the child and must help the child to fulfill his baptismal promises, primarily through their own witness of living a faithful and moral life. We promise the parents, the child, and God that we will live a faithful Catholic life and encourage our godchild to do the same.
It’s no surprise that the majority of Catholic godparents, like the majority of Catholic parents, make these promises with little intention of keeping them. For many, it’s just a tradition to baptize their babies, sort of like putting up a Christmas tree every year. But when we stand before God and promise to live according to the faith for the sake of a child’s soul, that is a sacred promise we need to do our best to live up to. If we struggle with a teaching of the Church, we owe it to our godchild to learn more about it. Then we need to pray for our sake, and for theirs, that God gives us the grace to be faithful and submit to that truth.
Obviously, it will be easier to be a positive influence in your godchild’s life if you’re a part of it. I call Cecilia, my 10-year-old goddaughter, several times a month just to chat and we have a warm, loving friendship even though she lives in New Hampshire and we’re in Alaska. Regrettably, I don’t have this kind of relationship with all my godchildren; some families have drifted out of our lives and one couple even left the faith entirely. But even and especially then, I pray for them frequently. Though I have five biological children, I’m spiritually responsible for 18. So I pray for all of my children to remain close to Jesus, not just the ones living in my home.
Few godparents know they also have rights as a sponsor, too, not just responsibilities. We have the right to call the child’s parents to task if they are not living up to the promises they made at baptism. More than once, I’ve sat down with the parents of my godchildren and reminded them that they promised to raise the child to be a faithful Catholic. Which means going to Mass, Confession, observing holy days, and all the rest. Of course, not everyone has taken this in the spirit of love it was intended; the couple who left the faith took offense and claimed I was “overstepping my bounds,” despite agreeing that I shared spiritual responsibility for their children as their godmother. Is it comfortable to do this? No. But when it comes to our godchildren, we ought not to hesitate if they are being shortchanged spiritually by their parents. Most parents will respond positively if we speak the truth in love and bolster it with offers of temporal help, such as babysitting the little ones so they can go to Confession, Mass, or adult education classes.
Being a godparent is an awesome responsibility, but it’s also one of the great privileges of being Catholic. The spiritual link we have to our godchildren will endure forever; even in heaven we will have a unique relationship with them. I used to lament that God had given me such hard pregnancies that we were “only” blessed with five children, but now I realize he’s given me almost 20 beautiful souls to care for in this life. If you are a godparent, may the Lord give you the graces to be a shining witness of faith and love to all the precious children He has so lovingly entrusted to your care.