Godparents Are Guides to Holiness
COMMENTARY: As the Catholic Church prepares to celebrate All Saints Day, let’s ponder not just those who have been canonized but those whom Pope Francis beautifully calls the ‘saints next door.’
On Oct. 16, The New York Times ran an article on how the Archdiocese of Catania, Sicily, had prohibited godparents or sponsors for the sacraments of baptism and confirmation for the next three years.
Entitled In the Land of the Godfather Comes a Ban on Them, Jason Horowitz’ article described how Archbishop Salvatore Gristina, after having consulted with his priests and the laypeople on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, had, beginning Oct. 1, suspended the role of godparents. He did so, he decreed, because the office had largely lost its religious context and had not only become a “sort of formal fulfillment or social custom in which the dimension of the faith is rarely visible,” but also because the “complex and irregular family situation of so many persons proposed to fulfill this duty has made the question more delicate.”
That was a diplomatic way of saying that many of those nominated to serve as godparents were unqualified, not simply because they were not practicing the Catholic faith, but because the role of godfather and godmother were frequently being manipulated by mafiosi to solidify bonds of loyalty.
The Archdiocese of Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city and the place of the martyrdom of St. Agatha, is not the only Sicilian diocese to take such action. The Diocese of Mazara del Vallo will implement a similar ban in January. The Diocese of Acireale had made godparents optional and required that all those nominated for the office swear that they’re believers and not members of the mafia. The Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria, on the Italian mainland opposite Catania, has been lobbying Pope Francis since 2014 to put a 10-year ban on godparents throughout its ecclesiastical province.
Part of the issue is unique to the mafia-infested culture of southern Italy and Sicily, where the role of godfather can bear less resemblance to canon law and more to Francis Ford Coppola’s depiction of Michael Corleone.
But the other part of the issue transcends Sicily and Calabria. Many of those proposed as godparents in dioceses throughout the world don’t come close to meeting the criteria defined in the Catechism that they be “firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized — child or adult — on the road of Christian life” (1255) or in the Church’s Code of Canon Law, that they live “a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on” and thereby help the person baptized or confirmed “to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it” (874.3 and 872).
The ban was put in place to try to catalyze a conversion of the general culture with regard to godparents. The vicar general of Catania said in an interview, “We hope that things will change, and whoever is about to become a godfather or a godmother will really do so because they intend to be a witness to the journey of faith.”
As we approach All Saints Day, it’s fitting for us to remember the function and importance of godparents in raising kids in the fullness of the Catholic faith. Their role is to help their godchildren become the saints that baptism calls them to be and to lead them faithfully on the pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.
In the early Church, especially during the age of persecutions, godparents (also called at the time sponsors, presenters, guardians or faith-swearers) were devout Christians who would vouch for the faith of adults presenting themselves to the bishop for baptism and who would assume the responsibility of accompanying them in their preparation for, and life after, baptism. In the baptism of children, godparents would reject Satan and make the profession of faith on behalf of their charges, taking responsibility — as “co-parents” — to raise the children in the faith.
Over the course of the centuries, the qualifications were codified. Today one must be Catholic, at least 16, not the child’s mother or father, have received the sacraments of baptism, confession, confirmation and Holy Communion, live by the faith, and not be excommunicated or under other canonical penalties. One godparent or sponsor is required “insofar as possible” — hence the possibility of suspending them — but there may be two of different sexes for baptism. The responsibility to raise children should tragedy strike both parents has never legally been an official part of the role of godparents, but may be stipulated by parents in wills.
Because godparents do not receive an honorary title but an ecclesiastical office with important responsibilities, priests have the duty to verify that they’re qualified. While in most places, the situation will not be nearly as extreme as what happens in Sicily or Calabria, many priests would share the assessment of their Italian counterparts that one of the more frustrating parts of their ministry is having to deal with manifestly unfit and unrepentant candidates for the office.
Often those asked to be godparents haven’t practiced the faith in years. Some never attend Mass. Some have not made the sacraments of initiation. Others have married outside the Church, cohabitate, participate in same-sex or transgender lifestyles, work for the abortion industry, in vitro fertilization clinics, or work as drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes or other labor incompatible with the faith.
When they are nominated and present themselves to priests looking for “sponsor certificates” — attestations that they are Catholics qualified to serve as godparents — honest priests can’t give them. Most priests will use the occasion to try to lead the person gently to conversion, to regularize their situations, and to develop the habits expected of all good Catholics, so that, as soon as possible, they might be worthy to receive a certificate and fulfill the office.
Many, however, with an air of entitlement, refuse such accompaniment, preferring to define the role and its qualifications on their own terms rather than the Church’s. They become indignant that a priest won’t lie and give the equivalent of a letter of recommendation attesting that the person is a practicing, exemplary and fully-initiated Catholic. No matter how meek the priest’s invitation to metanoia, they feel judged and deemed wanting.
Sometimes they will hunt for priests who have a reputation of giving out such sponsor certificates to anyone who asks, no matter the consequences to the child, the potential scandal to others, or the eschatological risk of the millstone Jesus promises for those who lead the young astray (Matthew 18:6). Such pastoral malpractice normally causes only greater confusion and deprives the child — often in situations of greater need — of a valuable tutor in the ways of faith.
There are, of course, many happier situations when parents, wanting the best for their kids in the ways of faith, ask fervent Catholics in good standing who are eager to fulfill the responsibilities associated with the office and who often humbly ask for advice about how to discharge their duties well.
In addition to the obvious stuff about living the faith with integrity, praying for their godchildren each day and remaining involved in their life, I suggest a few things.
First, I urge them to get a good photo of the baptism, frame it and try to get it in their godchild’s room, so that the child may more easily and regularly remember the most important day of his or her life.
Second, I encourage them, if they’re going to get an annual gift for their godchild, to do so not on Christmas or on the child’s birthday but on the anniversary of the baptism, so that, as the child grows, the child will remember the date and look forward to it. I urge them to celebrate that anniversary in a special way, taking the child out for ice cream or a meal, perhaps spending a few minutes watching a video of the baptism, lighting anew the baptismal candle received and praying, and blessing oneself with holy water saved from the ceremony.
Third, I suggest they make a particular commitment to accompany the child up close when the child hits the teenage and college years and may be tempted to rebel against faithful parents or go the way of the crowds in terms of Mass, faith and morals. At such critical juncture in life, a young person needs such guidance more 16-year-olds need to be shown how to drive.
Jesus affirms that the greatest in his kingdom are those who live by his commandments and teach others to do the same (Matthew 5:19). Faithful godparents have the opportunity, therefore, to become truly great in this way.
As we prepare to celebrate All Saints Day, and ponder not just those who have been canonized but those whom Pope Francis beautifully calls the “saints next door,” it is a time to pray that God reward our godparents living or deceased, to recommit ourselves to the sanctification of our own godchildren wherever they are in their journey, and to ask the Lord hastily to renew the understanding and faithful practice of this important office in the Church.