Why Godparents Matter


A few months ago we wrote about the Catholic Church’s teaching on infant baptism, specifically the Church’s command to have infants baptized as soon as possible after they are born. Not surprisingly, we encountered a diversity of strong opinions in the comment box. One frustrated commenter defined the godparent selection process as a “minefield.” No kidding.

We know parents who regret their selections of godparents even before their children are out of diapers. Some regrets stem from being young and not well formed in the faith. For others, one or both sides of their extended families were not Catholic, leaving the parents scratching their heads over potential guardians of the faith. And then there are those who felt pressured, a sense of obligation, into choosing a family member who they would not have freely chosen. The list of reasons goes on and on.

Given we are expecting another child this fall, the godparent selection process is once again the topic du jour in Das Schmidt Haus. We are hoping not to detonate any landmines in the process, so it seems timely to break open this topic. Let’s pause for a moment and clarify that per canon law, the technical term for the godparent role is “sponsor.” Given the terms godparent, godfather, and godmother are traditionally used, we use those herein.

So what’s the starting point, the minimum requirements, for a godparent? Canon law (can. 873 – 874) is quite clear.

  • At least one godparent is required; if there are two, one must be male and the other female. No two godfathers or two godmothers allowed.
  • Typically a godparent must be mature, usually interpreted as a minimum of sixteen-years-old.
  • The godparent must be a practicing Catholic in good standing with the Church who has received the sacraments of holy Eucharist and confirmation and “leads a life in harmony with the faith and the role to be undertaken.”
  • The sponsor must not be the father or mother of the one to be baptized.
  • Under certain circumstances, such as mixed marriages, one may be a “Christian witness,” essentially defined as a baptized Protestant Christian, as long as the other is a practicing Catholic.
  • In case of an emergency baptism, such as imminent death, no sponsor is needed.

The godparent, as official representative of the community, is called to participate in the child’s spiritual development in a particular way. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out:

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. Their task is a truly ecclesial function. The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism. (CCC 1255)

This theological point — the community’s participation in the child’s spiritual development via the godparents — is precisely why the naming of godparents is an integral part of the Sacrament. So now let\’s go a bit deeper, beyond simply the minimum requirements.

When it comes to choosing a godparent, what should parents be seeking? Historically the role of godparents was practically very significant. In times past, it was not uncommon for a parent to die prematurely before children had reached adulthood. In the event both parents died, either of the godparents would be the first choice to raise the child. This is why godparents were usually family members, often one from each side. Today the role of godparent carries far less, if any, custodial expectations. Rather, the godparent should serve as a Christian witness and role model by regularly, actively, and authentically practicing the faith. Parents have the Christian obligation to choose godparents who are sincere in their lifetime commitment. Consider taking the following questions to prayer to aid the discernment process.

  • Does this person firmly believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church?
  • Does this person understand the obligations associated with the role of godparent, to instruct the child in matters of faith and morals?
  • Can this person be trusted to maintain a long-term relationship with the child?
  • Does this person model a prayerful life?
  • Does this person have high moral character and serve as an exemplary role model?
  • Is this person prepared to guide the child towards salvation?

Another reason to take these questions to prayer is to avoid the awkward possibility of your choice being rejected. Did you know the Church has the final say when it comes to assessing the suitability of a chosen godparent? In the case, albeit rare, when the Church determines a candidate is not suitable, the parents must choose another person who meets the requirements established by the Catholic Church.

Indeed, the selection of godparents is so important that it should be prayerfully discerned. Perhaps a Novena to the Holy Spirit is in order to help the discernment process? Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated into choosing someone who is not likely to take the role seriously. Once the Baptism is completed, you don’t get a do-over. The godparents you have chosen are part of your child’s Baptismal record. Forever.

So what can you do if you find yourself in the position where the chosen godparent has failed to live up to the responsibilities, perhaps even left the Church? Adopt-a-godparent? While you can’t officially name new godparents, you can name unofficial ones. It’s never too late to find someone you trust who will take a genuine interest in your child’s spiritual development. You may one day have to answer some questions about why someone else’s name is on the Baptismal certificate, but it’s probably not a difficult conversation if you have earnestly put your child’s spiritual development first.

© 2013. Joel and Lisa Schmidt. All Rights Reserved.