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Why Godparents Matter

June 8, AD2013

\"Joel

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.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Marriage & Family • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Joel and Lisa Schmidt co-founded The Practicing Catholic, an antidote to the perception that piety is boring or that the Church is filled with “sour-faced saints”. In their writings, the Schmidts provide witness to the adventure of living an integrated Catholic life ... not just on Sundays. For more about the Schmidts, please see their individual bios (Joel's bio; Lisa's bio).

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  • Kelly Catz

    For most of my life learned the meaning grew up with faith become who I want to be the significance of life. What we’ve found is to determine the things that people most want to accomplish in life. We simply don’t know how to live within our means, prioritize properly, and say no when we should admire and what we admire convince ourselves that they’re right, because we all know everything, circumstances and
    the environment influence on our lives.

    I was made to understand that my knowledge was not for everyone. It’s a simple way to begin understanding what happiness means ourselves and what we want of this life of ours. It’s too easy to get worked up in life and forget to enjoy the simple things where we feel safe; it’s almost a natural human instinct. If God made the day to be perfect, He wouldn’t have invented me.

    “It is when we begin to inquire that we arrive at realization, not when we believe, or think we know. Not everyone is plagued by questions of life’s meaning, and a good test of life is to live and to live means to be aware, an understanding of the world in which we find ourselves”.

    Faith must trample underfoot all reason, that he may find the love of his life and that he can really experience happiness. As with all things it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, we do not know if those receiving this message believe or not in GOD, but think my timely viewpoint you are able to make your life into what you want it to be now. I don’t write about my parent’s religion here – know it all – we want everything personal knowledge of a person his whole life. Oh, by the way it clearly tells me that not everyone is a son of God; actually this is not really true, almost everyone claims to do it, but most don’t understand it.

    They actually see him, they know he is alive, yet their faith is not as firm as we might know me, then you will also know my Father. My son is only 4, so we’re probably not anywhere being my own god, you now what I mean? Tell me Christians, if God asked you to do something like, oh, I don’t know, to help as many people as I possibly can to have hope and believe what God can do for them. Yet I must believe that God allows things to happen that He may not like, and which we may not like. Also give him something that makes him know he can actually do something like a man.

    I knew that this was not what I was here for, Love is what breathes life into us and gives all living things this chance. I don’t know if it’s a headache, a stomachache, a runny nose, or an ingrown toenail! God understands our prayers even when we can’t find the words to say them. They may not have a mom and dad who love them and empower the fullest and choose love now, is definitely an example but I know that if we don’t give up all that really faith into this article, here is to great health and happiness!

    BUT do we know either way if there’s some life form that created us? I have learned to be open, to say ‘I don’t know’ and that it ain’t over till it’s over! Good people give you happiness; we come home and he’s all over me and wants to make love. May they know that they know that love and walk in it, For example, brotherly love–phileo in the Greek—is our type of caring. My motto has become “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up” you ask of his reason to want to change, well he tells me that he doesn’t. That way, people can see all the more I don’t want any of that to ruin what we have, that is very wonderful. My brother and me I used to be one, until I found GOD! Say whatever you want. (Now let’s not get started on loving the person but not his actions) Life can be anything you want it to be – enjoy the journey! But
    this clearly is not the case when you try to love God that all things work together for good that God most certainly works in His own way and in His own time. But that not apply to everything in life?

    Who clearly didn’t care about those things, you can believe in God, we’re not alone with these experiences! Because time is precious, we don’t know, and now are here. I not YOUR help! So have a good day! I love you!–Author Unknown

  • Abby

    What do you do when you literally know no one who meets even the minimum standards, much less the higher standards, for being a godparent? My husband’s family are all very devout Christians, but all Protestant. I have “cultural” Catholics on my side, but none in good standing or even remotely devout. I feel like I am stuck deciding whether it is more important to get our girls baptized sooner with lack luster godparents or later with better ones we may be able to befriend after being at our current parish a little longer. I am really at a loss as to what to do.

    • FunnyThought

      Go with the lackluster ones and get the girls baptized. The reality is, bad Godparents can’t really do any damage. Good ones can help, but bad ones aren’t going to ruin your children. The most important thing is getting the children baptized.

    • Joel Schmidt

      I think FunnyThought is right on point. Please see our previous Catholic Stand post, “What Does the Church Teach About Infant Baptism?” (http://catholicstand.com/what-does-the-church-teach-about-infant-baptism/)

  • Jewel

    What if the parents themselves are not practicing Catholics but are merely giving the child the rites of baptism to avoid family displeasure? My husband’s brother married a non-Catholic (Hindu) and they are expecting a second child. My husband and I will most likely be chosen as the godparents. Their first child who is now 7 years old was also baptized but no effort has been made to bring up the child as a catholic. They did not enroll him in a Christian school (as my mom-in-law wanted) nor did they enroll him for Catechism classes. The child is being brought up as a Hindu. His parents themselves do not attend Sunday mass. In light of all this, I am reluctant to take on the role of godmother. I know I should feel honored but it pains me to see the manner in which my nephew is being brought up. I feel it would hurt twice as much to be a godparent and see this happening with the second child. They live in a different city altogether and it would not be easy for me to guide the child in the Christian faith…not that they would permit it. Please tell me what I should do.

    • Joel Schmidt

      Tough one, indeed. This reminds me of the frequent Catholic Answers question about standing-up in non-Catholic weddings and the like. Here’s my two-cents, if it’s even worth that. You need to ask the question of what’s in the child’s best interests. In my view, that is to have one (or two) faithfully Catholic godparents, if at all possible. Accept the role and exercise whatever positive Catholic influence you can by doing things to commemorate the child’s baptismal anniversary, saint name-sake feast day (if applicable), etc. Be advised that if you take this approach, you should probably expect some friction with the parents, but you can point to the fact that they are the ones who invited you into their child’s spiritual life. If your Catholic gestures toward your godchild become explicitly unwelcome, it might be best to back off to preserve the relationship. Minimally, the child will have two good, faithful Catholics holding him/her in prayer. Don’t underestimate the power of that.

  • Marie Meints

    I try to emphasize the importance of choosing good godparents when I help teach baptism prep classes at our parish. Unfortunately, we ourselves are out of good godparents to choose from. We have used up the practicing Catholics in our family (one couple on each side), and we don’t feel close enough to any of our Catholic friends. We are also not anyone’s godparents, and that makes me sad. I would love to have a godchild to pray for and be a part of their life!

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