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Simcha FisherOctober 05, 2018

The presider at baptism asks the godparents, “Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” And the godparents respond, “We are.”

But are they?

Baptism rites all over the country use the same words, but what it means to be “ready to help” varies by region, culture, generation and even by individual Catholic. The work of choosing and being a godparent can lead to hurt feelings, dashed expectations—and the occasional influx of unexpected grace.

One common misunderstanding: Parents sometimes assume that “godparent” is the same as “legal guardian,” while the godparents themselves expect to provide nothing more than a greeting card and an occasional prayer. While some faith communities may expect godparents to raise their godchildren if the parents die, neither civil nor church law recognizes such an obligation.

“Asking someone to be a godparent is a big deal, kind of like asking someone to walk you down the aisle at your wedding.”

Leticia Ochoa Adams, a writer who lives in Texas, said that in Hispanic culture choosing godparents is almost like adding to the family. At a recent family funeral, she found herself awash in “cousins” with whom she had no actual blood or marital ties; they were simply bound together through godparenting relationships.

“Asking someone to be a godparent is a big deal, kind of like asking someone to walk you down the aisle at your wedding,” Ms. Adams said.

Ms. Adams was raised culturally Catholic—“statues all over the place,” she said—but her mother did not go to Mass, and Ms. Adams drifted toward the Baptist Church. When as a teenager she gave birth to her first child, Anthony, she chose her uncle as the godfather. He was the one who had rescued her from an abusive household and raised her.

“It was 100 percent a choice of respect,” Ms. Adams said. She said her tio was a “good Catholic,” but she never expected him to teach her son any theology. It was understood that he would help raise the boy if the parents died, though. Anthony reciprocated by respectfully calling his padrino on his birthday and on Father’s Day.

“My tio was super serious, but he was like a dad to me and Anthony, so the godparent thing just took it a step further. He was traditional like that,” Ms. Adams said.

Non-Hispanic Catholics are sometimes taken aback by the warmth and enthusiasm Hispanic godparents or confirmation sponsors (often the same person) bring to the relationship. Barbara Dawson said that she barely knew Ruby, her daughter Bailey’s confirmation sponsor. But as soon as Bailey asked Ruby to sponsor her, she excitedly launched plans to buy Bailey a dress, shoes and jewelry.

“Her family was already buying candles and rosaries in Mexico, and she was planning to get Bailey stuff on her trip to Israel. I was absolutely floored. Basically, Ruby and her family adopted all of us,” Ms. Dawson said.

Choosing a friend or relative as godparent may enlarge the family, but it can also add to family drama and discord. Once a godparent is named, that person remains a godparent for life, no matter what else changes or falls apart.

When Ms. Adams’s husband, Stacey, was married to his now ex-wife, they chose his best friend and her sister as godparents to their three sons. After a series of divorces, remarriages and other upheavals, Ms. Adams’s husband’s sister is now her ex-boyfriends’ children’s godmother, and the man for whom Stacey’s ex-wife left him is his children’s godfather—for life.

Choosing the Right Godparent

Despite the life-long implications of choosing godparents, the parents themselves are often not the only party with a say in the decision. Some describe feeling pressure from friends and family to choose someone they consider to be unsuitable for the task. This was the case with Ms. Adams’s own godmother, who no longer acknowledges their relationship. Ms. Adams herself chose some of her children’s godparents under duress, simply to avoid offending family members.

“I was absolutely floored. Basically, Ruby and her family adopted all of us.”

“Now that I understand the role of a godparent, which is to be a support in teaching the faith and helping with the formation of the child, I feel like I was cheated and like some of my kids were, too,” Ms. Adams said.

But she calls her granddaughter’s godmother “the ultimate godparent,” who brings Christmas and birthday presents, lets her goddaughter walk the Stations of the Cross with her during Lent and prays the rosary for her every day.

So what does the church actually require of godparents? How are they supposed to be chosen, and what are their duties?

Canon law says godparents must be practicing Catholics, be at least 16 years old (with some exceptions) and have received the three sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist). A non-Catholic Christian may serve as a Christian witness, but there must be at least one Catholic godparent. It is possible to have only one godparent, but if there are two, there must be one male and one female.

If the person to be baptized is a baby or young child, the godparent or godparents speak on his or her behalf at the baptism, responding to the question, “What do you ask of God’s church?” with the answer “Faith!”

But on the godparents’ role after the baptism, the church is less specific. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “faith needs the community of believers,” and it names godparents as the most immediate members of that community for the newly baptized as their faith “unfolds.”

Godparents, according to the catechism, “must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized.” They are an important part of the “ecclesial community [that] bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at baptism.”

Godparents, according to the Catechism, “must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized.”

Joan Nelson, the director of evangelization for young families at St. Edward the Confessor Church in Richmond, Va., is intimately familiar with that need for community. She has spent many years preparing parents for their infants’ baptism and preparing children over the age of 7 who come into the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

Ms. Nelson said that many older children who seek baptism are not being raised Catholic but attend Catholic school. They see their peers receiving sacraments and want that for themselves. Their parents, if they are Catholic at all, are usually agreeable to the idea but are not always invested or catechized. Even if they are practicing Catholics, she said, many do not know a single person who fulfills the criteria to be a godparent.

Ms. Nelson often has the unpleasant task of telling them they cannot honor friends with the godparent role because they are not Catholic or because they are in an invalid marriage.

“No one gets involved in church ministry because they want to make people unhappy,” Ms. Nelson said. “It’s very difficult. If this person is taking tentative steps [toward the church] and is hit with obstacles, he’s going to say, ‘Why did I bother?’ and give up. And then I’ll think it’s my fault he’s turned away from Jesus.”

She tries to present the church’s teaching on godparents as a positive opportunity rather than a list of rules. “But sometimes the rules bring people back,” Ms. Nelson said.

“They want something for their kids, or they see something in their fiancé’s family, and they want to be a part of it.”

She said it is common for people who were not confirmed, or even refused confirmation earlier in their lives, to ask to be confirmed as adults just so they can become godparents. Not long ago in Ms. Nelson’s parish, a Catholic mother married to a non-Catholic man chose her younger brother as godfather. Her brother asked to be confirmed so he could be “a proper and good godfather” for his nephew.

“It brought him back to the parish, back to Mass, back to being engaged in the life of the church in a way he hadn’t been before,” Ms. Nelson said. And she holds out hope that the child’s father will also draw closer to the church. Ms. Nelson said, “I say he’s not Catholic—yet.”

Baptism Basics

In the early days of Christianity, when persecution was rampant, the situation was reversed. Rather than using baptism as an opportunity to draw in sponsors, the church needed to be wary of infiltrators posing as catechumens. It was the baptismal sponsor’s job not only to assist the new Christian in the development of his faith but to vouch for his sincerity.

Today, it is far less likely that some impostor would seek baptism under false pretenses. Instead, parents often turn up at the parish office asking for baptism without understanding in any depth what the sacrament means. Sometimes the grandparents are pressuring them to go through with it; sometimes they are simply looking for a beautiful backdrop for what they see as a purely cultural rite of passage for their baby.

But sometimes, said Catherine Crino, they want something more. Ms. Crino is the director of religious education and a pastoral associate at St. Emily Church in Mount Prospect, Ill. She has been working for the church in Chicago for 34 years.

“They want something, but they can’t articulate it at all,” Ms. Crino said. “These are folks who are raised with nothing. They want something for their kids, or they see something in their fiancé’s family, and they want to be a part of it.”

Years ago, she co-authored a book on baptism preparation, but she said it would not be useful now, considering how poorly catechized so many parents are. She said the book “assumed a level of conversation with the faith that a lot of parents just don’t have.”

“Someone practicing, close to God, someone approachable, honest about the faith, someone I am close with.” 

Early in her career, Ms. Crino would try to engage new parents in “long conversations about St. Augustine and original sin,” until she realized that the new moms were “ready to kill [her] because it was time to nurse.”

“I got out of that mode pretty fast,” Ms. Crino said. Now she speaks more simply about what parents are asking for when they seek out baptism for their children.

“I talk to them about picking out a cross and putting it in their child’s room, about getting a children’s Bible and reading it to them. Super simple stuff,” she said. “You’re trying to take people where they’re at.”

When parents choose godparents, they often do not look to people who know more about the faith than they do and who might fill in the gaps in their child’s religious education. Instead, Ms. Crino said, “They pick nice people who sometimes have less of a clue than the parents do.”

Sometimes, parents want to honor (or appease) so many people that they choose six, seven or eight godparents, even though canon law allows for no more than two.

“Only two go on the register, but we put them all on the certificate,” Ms. Crino said. “It’s not worth it to fight it.”

Ms. Crino said that her religious education class now includes very few Hispanics, a group that had previously attended in larger numbers. Today her class is about half Filipinos, Poles and Indians. When Catholics come to the United States, they transmit their faith for about a generation and a half, she said.

“If they don’t [know their faith], their mother certainly does, and she makes sure things happen,” Ms. Crino said.

But Maria Hayes, who immigrated from Warsaw two years ago, said that at least in Poland, strong religious identity does not always translate into strong personal faith. She estimated that 90 percent of Poles consider themselves Catholic, and religion is routinely taught in the schools. But this ubiquitous Catholicism, she said, is mainly a cultural identity and lacks a spiritual component.

“Many Americans would be surprised at how liberal Poles are,” Ms. Hayes said. “The majority probably aren’t practicing [Catholics]. You still get the sacraments, though. I never went to church as a child, but I went to first Communion and got a party.” Her own godparents were friends of her nonbelieving parents, and she has no relationship with them.

Ms. Hayes left the faith but reverted as a young adult. When she married and gave birth to her daughter, she and her husband chose a close friend to be the godmother; but since the friend's husband is a Methodist pastor, she chose her husband's friend to be the godfather. 

“We wanted my kids to have an example in the faith, which is hard to come by—someone practicing, close to God, someone approachable, honest about the faith, someone I am close with,” Ms. Hayes said. Then her friend asked her to become the godmother of her first son. “Now we’re connected forever, both ways,” she said.

Although the godmother’s husband (and father of her godson) is not Catholic, the couples talk about faith all the time and laugh about it.

“It’s part of our friendship to discuss the faith, and I don’t feel like I need to tiptoe around the topic,” Ms. Hayes said, adding that she did not have a “big plan” to bring him into the Catholic Church. “It’s not a matter of finding the most accurate argument for the faith. You can’t drag someone into the church. But we pray for them, and they know our views. It’s [a matter of] God’s grace and his own path.”

Children of the Light

When Ms. Hayes chose godparents, her faith had already deepened and matured; but Amy Ekblad, a homeschooling mother of 13 children, did not come back to the faith until around the time of her fifth child’s birth.

“I was a nominal Catholic, at best, until about 15 years ago,” Ms. Ekblad said. “I just picked people I liked [for godparents].”

After her reversion, Ms. Ekblad said, she realized godparents should be more than “just buddies.” But she did not know any practicing Catholics other than her parents; so she chose them as godparents for her fifth child.

Some of her children, who range in age from 1 to 26, are now old enough to be godparents for their own siblings. Ms. Ekblad does not know if the relationships between these pairs would be as strong as they are without that spiritual tie, but she is certain it is good for the older kids to have the responsibility of praying for their siblings and being active in forming their faith.

“My job was to pray with them and to pray for them and to be present as much as they needed me.”

Ms. Ekblad, a charismatic Catholic, said that she lets God guide her choice for godparents.

“I just feel it in my heart,” she said. “Sometimes I hear a voice; it’s different every time.”

Sometimes it is someone she would have never considered on her own or someone the family does not see often.

“But we know they’re praying fervently for my kids. Praying and intercession are almost more important than contact,” she said.

Ms. Ekblad has suffered many miscarriages, and she chooses godparents for those children, too. “I don’t know if that’s a thing,” she said. “But I think the babies intercede for them.”

Godparents are often chosen before babies are born. When Joan Nelson’s lifelong friend Cathy asked her to be the godmother for her unborn daughter, she readily agreed. Then they discovered that the child had a severe heart defect and encephalitis. The doctors said that if she survived birth, she would be blind, unable to walk or talk and would only ever suffer. They pressured the parents to abort, but as staunch Catholics, Cathy and her husband resisted.

“While Cathy was still pregnant, my role was to pray for them,” Ms. Nelson said. “They didn’t need anything material at that point. There was nothing that could be done. My job was to pray with them and to pray for them and to be present as much as they needed me.”

The baby, named Betsy, was born almost full term. She had heart surgery and lived to be 9 years old before her shunt finally failed.

“She walked, she talked, she was the school spelling bee champ, she played soccer, she was in plays. She had a beautiful life,” Ms. Nelson said. When Betsy died, over 1,000 people attended her funeral, where the priest reminded the congregation of the candle that Ms. Nelson and her husband had held on Betsy’s behalf at her baptism nine years before.

“She was a child of the light,” Ms. Nelson remembers the priest saying. “She brought a lot of light into the world for a long time.”

Afterward, more than one person told Ms. Nelson that they had been away from the church but that the funeral sermon made them rethink things, and they wanted to start going to Mass again.

“We think of water when we think about baptism, but what about the light, the way that light gets spread and who’s responsible for maintaining and sharing that light?” Ms. Nelson said.

As with all things infused with grace, the godparenting relationship can work in more than one way, drawing both child and godparent closer to Christ. It enlarges the family by adding names to the roles, but it also strengthens the family ties within the communion of saints—even before birth, even after death.

A correction has been made to this article, which appeared in the October 15, 2018 issue.

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