THE HISTORY OF GODPARENTING

It is a tradition in the Sacrament of Baptism that goes back as far as the early days of the Catholic Church. In those days, conversions came in two ways. In the first instance, whole families were received into the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism after they had been instructed and prepared by a friend or someone appointed by the Church. In the second instance, individuals were instructed and prepared by a friend or someone appointed by the Church.

During those days, the first four centuries, the Catholic Church was under intense persecution by the Roman Empire. To avoid persecution and the infiltration of pagans into the Church, every person who was received into the Church was required to have a sponsor. This sponsor performed two roles.

  • First of all, he protected the Church by authenticating the sincerity of the convert.
  • Secondly, as a catechist, he supported the person as a candidate into the Church

During the first centuries, emphasis was placed on the baptism of adults. That all changed when the Council of Trent, (1545 - 1563) affirmed that Adam's disobedience not only transfused physical death to the individuals, but also, that all were born afflicted with a sin that is the "death of the soul." "Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin." (C.C.C. # 403; Council of Trent: DS 1514)

In harmony with this new Decree and in consideration of the inability of an infant to speak for himself, more than ever, it became necessary to appoint a godparent who would make the Profession of Faith in the child's name. This same person would also be responsible for instructing the child in the faith, especially if the parents failed in their parental duty.

Originally, godparents were called "sponsores," "offerentes," "susceptores," "fidejussores," and "patrini." These titles emphasized that the godparent had been adopted by the Christian parents to protect the faith of their child. Today, the godparent's role has been adapted to the needs of the Church.

FAQ

THE ROLE OF THE GODPARENT
Godparents, godfathers, godmothers, sureties, sponsors, it is their duty to make a profession of faith during the baptismal ceremony for the one to be baptized, when necessary; and thereafter, to assume perpetual guardianship over the baptized and instruct them in the obligations of the Christian life, to insure fulfilment of baptismal vows. This obligation binds only when parents neglect to do their duty or die. Owing to the spiritual relationship which is created, the Church makes definite requirements by law for this honourable office. (The New Catholic Dictionary; page 407; Copyright 1929.)

"In so far as possible, a person being baptised is to be assigned a sponsor. In the case of an adult baptism, the sponsor's role is to assist the person in christian initiation. In the case of an infant baptism, the role is together with the parents to present the child for baptism, and to help it to live a christian life befitting the baptised and faithfully to fulfil the duties inherent in baptism." (Canon 872)

In both cases, the principal responsibility of a godparent is to give witness to the Catholic faith by his words and actions. When it concerns a child, he must be ready to accept the responsibility of being a part of the godchild's life for the remaining of his/her life.

A godparent must have his eyes fixed on the Lord, believing that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. [Jn. 14:6] Not only must he believe it, he must be prepared to share his belief with his godchild.

Within reason, a godparent must be available to his godchild on a continuous basis. He must have a special interest in the spiritual growth of the child.

When called upon to profess the Catholic faith on behalf of the infant, the godparent must believe in what he is professing.


A GODPARENT VERSUS A SPONSOR
Both words, "godparent" and "sponsor" mean the same. They are interchangeable. According to Catholic tradition, while the sponsor of a child for the Sacrament of Baptism is referred to as a "godparent," "godmother," or "godfather," the proper term to use is "sponsor."

THE OBLIGATION TO EVANGELIZE
Why do we need godparents? The Catholic Church teaches us that "the care for catechesis" (instruction in the Catholic faith) under the direction of lawful ecclesiastical authority, extends to all members of the Church, to each according to his or her role. (Canon 774.1)
Before all others, parents are bound to form their children, by word and example, in faith and in christian living. The same obligation binds godparents and those who take the place of parents. (Canon 774.2)

TO QUALIFY AS A GODPARENT

Not everyone qualifies to be a godparent. The Catholic Church provides a detailed guideline that must be obeyed. "To be admitted to undertake the office of sponsor, a person must:" (Canon 874.1)

"be appointed by the candidate for baptism, or by the parents or whoever stands in their place, or failing these, by the parish priest or the minister; to be appointed the person must be suitable for this role and have the intention of fulfilling it;" (Canon 874.1.1)

"be not less than sixteen years of age, unless a different age has been stipulated by the diocesan Bishop, or unless the parish priest or the minister considers that there is a just reason for an exception to be made;" (Canon 874.1.2)

"be a catholic who has been confirmed and has received the blessed Eucharist, and who lives a life of faith which befits the role to be undertaken;" (Canon 874.1.3)

"not labour under a canonical penalty, whether imposed or declared;" (Canon 874.1.4)

"not be either the father or the mother of the person to be baptised." (Canon 874.1.5)

"A baptised person who belongs to a non-catholic ecclesial community may be admitted only in company with a catholic sponsor, and then simply as a witness to the baptism." (Canon 874.2)


DISQUALIFYING AS A GODPARENT

What follows is a list of personal characteristics that disqualify a person as a godparent:

the person has no intention of fulfilling his obligations as a godparent.

the person is younger than the age that has been stipulated by the diocesan Bishop, usually age 16.

the person is not a Catholic.

the person has not received the Sacrament of Baptism in the Catholic faith.

the person has not received the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic faith.

the person has not received the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist in the Catholic faith.

the person is not living his faith in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church. (Example: The person has not been at Mass for 2, 5 or 10 years. The person employs birth control methods.)

the person belongs to a religious Order (preventing him/her from making this commitment).

the person is the spouse of the one seeking Baptism.

the person is a biological or adoptive father or mother of the child.

the person has incurred an official excommunication or "latae sententiae," by the very commission of the offense. (Example: involved in one or more abortions.)

the person is a member of a condemned society.

the person is a public sinner. (Example: Prostitution, living common-law.)

the person is a heretic. "Heresy is the obstinate post- baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same." (C.C.C. # 2089)

the person belongs to a schism. "Schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him." (C.C.C. # 2089)

the person is involved in a mix-marriage and believes his/her children should choose their own religion when they grow up.

the person believes that all religions are equal or that other religions are equal to the Catholic Church.

the person is involved in an invalid marriage. (Example: Justice of the Peace, marriage outside the Church.)

the person is not registered with a parish, not belonging to any specific faith community.


THE NUMBER OF GODPARENTS
How many godparents can a child have? According to the instructions of the Catholic Church, "One sponsor, male or female, is sufficient; but there may be two, one of each sex." (Canon 873) No one can have more than two godparents, nor can anyone have two godparents of the same sex.

THE GODPARENT AT CONFIRMATION
The parents of a child to be baptized have the Christian obligation to choose godparent(s) that are sincere in their lifetime commitment. While the parents choose the godparent(s), the Church has the final say when it comes to assessing the suitability of a chosen godparent. In a case where the Church determines that a candidate is not suitable for godparent, the parents must choose another person(s) who meets the requirements that have been established by the Catholic Church.

The choosing of a godparent is not the responsibility of the young child. Considering all the conditions that apply, it is impossible for a young child to know which relatives or friends qualify or do not qualify as godparents. It is not uncommon to hear that parents have left their children to choose a relative that they loved, only to learn that the chosen relative was disqualified by the Church. To ensure that the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are a time of joy rather than a time of tears, parents should fulfill their responsibilities as expected by the Church. To pass on the responsibility of such a task to a child is not realistic.


WHO CHOOSES THE GODPARENT?

The parents of a child to be baptized have the Christian obligation to choose godparent(s) that are sincere in their lifetime commitment. While the parents choose the godparent(s), the Church has the final say when it comes to assessing the suitability of a chosen godparent. In a case where the Church determines that a candidate is not suitable for godparent, the parents must choose another person(s) who meets the requirements that have been established by the Catholic Church.

The choosing of a godparent is not the responsibility of the young child. Considering all the conditions that apply, it is impossible for a young child to know which relatives or friends qualify or do not qualify as godparents. It is not uncommon to hear that parents have left their children to choose a relative that they loved, only to learn that the chosen relative was disqualified by the Church. To ensure that the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are a time of joy rather than a time of tears, parents should fulfill their responsibilities as expected by the Church. To pass on the responsibility of such a task to a child is not realistic.


THE AFFIRMATION OF THE GODPARENT
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that baptism is a Sacrament of faith. "Baptism is the sacrament of faith. [Cf. Mk. 16:16] But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: "What do you ask of God's Church?" The response is: 'Faith!'" (C.C.C. # 1253)

In the absence of the parents, the godparents are obligated to instruct their godchildren in matters of faith and morals. The absence of the parents may be voluntarily or involuntarily. Voluntarily is defined as a loss of faith or simply the parent's neglect of the parental role to raise the child(ren) in the faith. Involuntarily is defined as being prevented from raising the child(ren) in the faith due to death, severe disability, or even long-term psychological or psychiatric illness.

For these reasons and possibly more, it is required that godparents be firm believers in the teachings of the Catholic faith to ensure that they will be able to walk the faith with their godchildren as affirmed during the Sacrament of Baptism.


A GODPARENT AND A WITNESS
In answer to the many inquiries that the clerics receive, asking if Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist or United Church friends and relatives may act as a godparent at the Baptism of their child, the answer is "No" The non-Catholic may be appointed as a witness, providing there is a Catholic person who has been appointed as godparent. In such a case, where there is a non-Catholic witness, there can only be one Catholic godparent.

As an example, let us suppose that Mrs. Smith wants Mrs. Jones, a Lutheran, as the godparent of her infant daughter who will be baptized in the Catholic Church. Mrs. Smith may only appoint Mrs. Jones as a witness, providing that she appoints someone else who is Catholic as godfather to the child. If Mrs. Smith wants Mr. Jones as a witness, then she must appoint a Catholic godmother to the child. The combination of godparent and witness must be male and female.

This restriction ensures that whoever is appointed as godparent, that person will be able to represent and attest to the beliefs of the Catholic Church, the community of faith in which the child is being baptized.


CHOOSING A CHRISTIAN NAME
The Catholic teaching regarding choosing a name for a newborn states that, "Parents, sponsors and parish priests are to take care that a name is not given which is foreign to christian sentiment." (Canon 855) "In Baptism... the Christian receives his name in the Church. This can be the name of a saint, that is, of a disciple who has lived a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord. The patron saint provides a model of charity; we are assured of his intercession. The "baptismal name" can also express a Christian mystery or Christian virtue. "Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to see that a name is not given which is foreign to Christian sentiment." (C.C.C. # 2156)

To ensure that parents do not choose ridiculous names for their children, when such is being done, the priest is directed to guide the parents towards the adoption of the names of saints. In cases where the parent persists on using a questionable name, the priest may add the name of a saint to the one that the parent insists upon using.