Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Godparenting, once a religious role, is now a social media hit. According to Pinterest, “godparenting proposals” are “One of the 100 Hottest Trends in 2019.” It is ranked in the “Pin Picks” with “Pegan” (Paleo Vegan) diets, goat milk soaps, and acrylic pour painting.
With popular fads and celebrities, it’s a “chicken and egg” situation. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Lady Gaga is godmother to the children of singer Elton John and his “husband,” David Furnish. Country singer Dolly Parton is godmother to Miley Cyrus. U2’s front man, Bono, is godfather to the children of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Singer Taylor Swift is godmother to actress Jaime King’s son, Leo Thames. Wouldn’t you want to be a godparent too?
The role has degenerated into a merely ceremonial title; an excuse for a party and accessories. In the blog Scary Mommy, writer Sa’yida Shabazz posted “I’m not religious, but it was important for me to choose ‘godparents’ for my son,” whom she calls spiritual mentors and “glorified aunts and uncles.” This April, Glamour magazine had an article titled “Will you be my… godparent? How a religious rite of passage swept social media.” According to the author, Marris Adikwu, “the latest trend in parenthood is elaborate, expensive, and all over Pinterest.” There are now godparent proposal parties, some costing up to $3500. Etsy and Amazon have capitalized on godparenting goodies.
Secularism has redefined the sexes, marriage and the family; it is no wonder that confusion over godparenting has followed in its wake. Like Christmas and Easter, godparenting has become commercialized, disconnected from its spiritual roots. It is time to reclaim godparenting and make it meaningful again.
Secularized godparenting skips the baptism. It’s about being the “fun” parent and being friends with the parents. As the old song says, “Is that all there is?” The answer ought to be a resounding no.
Spiritually, godparenting means providing guidance over a lifetime and setting a good example. Our Lord warns about causing scandal to the “little ones” (Luke 17:2). Godparenting is more than a party, or a title that obligates gift-giving; it is a lifetime of positive Catholic counsel and example.
It can be challenging for parents to find suitable godparents who are practicing Catholics, taking their duty seriously. Canon law stipulates that for a person to be a suitable godparent, they must be at least 16, have had all the sacraments of initiation (including Confirmation), and live their life according to the Church (Canon 874). Parents can look within their family circle, their parish or among their friends for people who fit these criteria. Homeschooling co-ops, for example, can be a helpful source.
Family members should discuss with potential godparents their responsibilities and expectations. They need to convey that godparenting is more than showing up for the baptism. Parents need to find godparents who take their role seriously.
Sacramental milestones such as Baptism and First Communion are important to a godparent’s life, but daily life is also essential. It is rewarding to watch godchildren grow up — taking their first steps, learning to communicate, eating solid food. Everyday life is also a way to introduce godchildren to Catholic practices outside Sunday Mass such as the Rosary, daily prayer and devotional reading. It is important for parents to find godparents who are committed to being in their children’s lives regularly, not just for major events.
Today’s Catholic situation being what it is, the case of a lapsed godparent or one who has lost their faith has to be considered. Canonically, they do not lose their status. One can’t “divorce” negligent godparents who fail their duties. However, parents can find better spiritual role models for their children, and they can find different confirmation sponsors. Serious parents, who don’t want to face this unhappy scenario, should ponder the quality of faith that they want their child’s godparent to have.
In a culture often lacking imagination, godparents can show their godchildren the richness of the Catholic imagination. For example, a godson might find dragons fascinating. When there are heroic figures such as St. George and St. Margaret of Antioch depicted with dragons, or that Revelation 12 speaks of a woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars having a son who battles a red twelve-headed dragon, one can show that Catholicism has plenty to offer.
It also means taking godchildren’s questions about the Faith seriously. Memorizing the Nicene Creed and learning the Catechism have their place, but godparents need to have the imaginative flexibility to meet godchildren where they are, not where they wish them to be. The conscientious godparent looks to the long-run reward.
Godparents provide reinforcement. They show that Faith is a gift, not to be taken for granted. In the baptismal rite (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1253), godparents ask for faith from the Church, for the infants and themselves. Even when adults are baptized, godparents ask for faith. When parents ask for baptism for their children, the godparents back them up. The godparents are there to sustain them in the quest for heaven for their child.
Just as weddings have become increasingly elaborate and expensive while marriage has diminished in importance, so have “godparent proposal parties” become a trend while genuine godparenting itself has diminished.
Godparenting is pro-family. It means reinforcing the parents as their children’s primary religious teachers, following the Commandment, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). As Sirach says (Sirach 3:2-4), “For the Lord honored the father above the children, and he confirmed the right of the mother over her sons. Whoever honors his father atones for sins and whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure.” Godparents can help parents reinforce the faith, and be mediators between generations.
Though the secular definition of “family” is now more expansive, there is a lack of support for families in our culture. But diligent godparents can aid parents in communicating the faith joyfully and affectionately.
In a society hostile to families, godparenting is a refuge. Godparenting is more than a Pinterest trend — it is a way to guide children to God. In fairy tales, fairy godmothers help the suffering, like orphaned Cinderella or the cursed Sleeping Beauty, find Prince Charming — the happily ever after. Godparents help their children reach salvation. As Our Lord told his quarreling Apostles (Luke 9:48), “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” So the gift of godparenting, ultimately, is reciprocal.