Why choose specific individuals as godparents for an infant or adult catechumen? Why accept the role of godparent? The process by which most of us select godmothers and godfathers illustrates how we usually answer such questions. But the result over time – decreasing numbers of men and women witnessing a life of faith after Baptism – challenges one to reconsider how we should answer those questions.
In the Catholic Church, baptismal preparations begin by discussing the sacrament with a priest or deacon. It is within such initial encounters one discovers the need for godparents, and the canonical requirement that at least one of them practice the faith regularly. Today, this rule usually presents parents (in the case of an infant Baptism) or the adult catechumen with rapidly shrinking candidate lists and growing stress levels. Consequently, and almost always with the express purpose of ending anxiety as quickly as possible, the selection criteria for godparents tend to assume qualities similar to fairies from our favorite tales: helpful, warm-hearted, stable, and capable souls who promise to be there for important life events now and in time to come.
Opportune as it may appear in a moment of need, and by no means seeking to cheapen such admirable character traits, selecting godparents based solely on fairy qualities is a practice ripe with unforeseen hazards. Fairies satisfy immediate wants. But is what we want now always what we truly need later? Fairies tend to prove small in stature, entering into the narrative at just the right times. But a flitting presence can have fleeting effects, and runs the real risk of making one look small in the eyes of others. Promises also aren’t guarantees. Break enough of them and great distances of time and space can metastasize into deep absences of faith.
Genuine faith demands real presence. After all, how is a soul in the infancy of its faith journey going to recognize the Real Presence without a faithful guide beside it along the way?
Prudence must replace pragmatism in our godparent choice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that baptismal faith, though imperfect and immature, is the initiation of a new life in Christ that is called to develop and grow (cf. CCC, 1253-1254). Godparents play a critical role in this development and growth. Godmothers and godfathers “must be firm believers, able and ready to help the new baptized – child or adult – on the road of Christian life.” They stand at the forefront of the entire ecclesial community, sharing in the “responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism” (CCC, 1255). Parents are the first teachers of faith while godparents are their aides. Ideally, godparents remain such faithful presences in the life of the baptized that one of them also will serve as the Confirmation sponsor (cf. CCC, 1311).
If you’re a godparent now, recall the sacramental rite of Baptism wherein you renounced sin and professed the faith for your godchild. Recommit yourself to that pledge today. Dare to transform your role as a godparent into a real responsibility. Help your godchild once again grow and deepen in the faith.
In short, make fairy godparents a myth.
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas.