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Q&A: What are the rules for godparents?

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Father Earl FernandesDear Father: I have a question regarding godparents. It seems mandatory that a godparent be a Catholic. I could have a Catholic be a godparent and move three years after the baptism to another state. The child would only rarely see them, possibly only on holidays. I could ask a non-catholic to be the godparent; that person could live in the same city, close to our neighborhood, and see that my child is enrolled in the parochial school and goes to Mass each week. Which is better?

Dear Reader: Not knowing the particular persons involved, it’s hard for me to answer your question, but your question provides the chance to clarify a few things about godparents or sponsors with respect to children. The Code of Canon Law (cc. 872-874) deals with sponsors (patrinus, matrina).

There may be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each (c. 873), but if there are two sponsors, they should not be of the same sex. If there are two sponsors, one must be Catholic. Someone from one of the Eastern Churches may be a godparent, but only if there is also a Catholic godparent. Members of the Eastern Churches are distinguished from members of ecclesial communities. The Code of Canon Law (c. 874§2) allows the participation of “a baptized member of a non-Catholic ecclesial community” but only “together with a Catholic sponsor and then only as a witness of the baptism.” Thus, there is a distinction between a godparent and a Christian witness. It appears that the church law has a preference for a Catholic sponsor.

The General Introduction to Christian Initiation speaks to the role of the godparent(s) for children: “In the baptism of children too, the godparent should be present to be added spiritually to the immediate family of the one to be baptized and to represent Mother Church. As occasion offers, he/she will be ready to help the parents bring up their child to profess the faith and to show this by living it.”

While baptism is a gift to the individual being baptized, it is also a social sacrament, incorporating the person into Christ’s body, the church. The idea of a godparent being added spiritually to the immediately family reminds us that our bonds as Catholics and Christians are stronger than blood. The godparent(s) represent the church, including the church’s faith. The ecumenical directory Ad totam Ecclesiam states that godparents “do not merely undertake a responsibility for the Christian education of the person being baptized (or confirmed) as a relation or friend; they are also there as representatives of a community of faith, standing as guarantees of the candidate’s faith and desire for ecclesial communion.”

Practically, the godparent assists the parents in bringing up their child to profess the faith and by giving good example. Parents are the principal educators of their children in the way of faith; godparents assist them, while guaranteeing that same faith. Practically speaking, without knowing the individuals involved, it is hard to say who would assist more. Today people are far more mobile than in previous eras and can travel more easily. They can communicate readily via Skype, Facetime, or through telephone. A godparent who lives out of town could be quite “present” to a godchild. Similarly, one might choose a Christian witness who lives locally, but that person might move away for work or another reason.

My godparents lived in India and could not be present for any of my sacraments, except for my priestly ordination, which my godmother attended. I know that from a distance they prayed and fasted for me. They sent me letters and cards. They made hidden sacrifices from a distance. I have a few godchildren. Three live a few minutes from me. One lives in Columbus, another in Rochester, and another in Spain. I try to keep in touch, attend their sacraments, call regularly and send cards, and, following the example of my own godparents, I pray for them. I even try to “squirrel” some money away for them (for Catholic school) just like my godparents did. I try to take the call seriously, knowing that at Mass, we are united. I think many Catholic godparents take the responsibility seriously.

I do not want to say that a non-Catholic cannot give good Christian witness. They most certainly can. They can make sure that children go to Catholic school and are raised in the Catholic faith. Many inter-denominational marriages demonstrate this. Perhaps you will choose someone to be a Christian witness for your child to be baptized. I thank you for your question, because it highlights the fact that godparents should not be chosen for purely social reasons. I think important criteria are the church’s faith and good example.

This Question of Faith column originally appeared in the January 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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