Sponsor’s Role in Ensuring the godchild grows strong in Faith
By Fr Joe Babendreier
I can’t remember the girl’s name. I will never forget her tears. She was sitting in the back of the church. She had just received the sacrament of Confirmation. It was a typical ceremony for the youth in a parish. About a hundred boys and girls were confirmed by the bishop. The Mass was over. I expected her to be outside with all the others, celebrating.
Her hair was all messed up. She had been running her hands across her head, like someone in physical pain. I thought that maybe she was feeling sick, except it looked more like despair. She was weeping silently, all alone in the back of an empty church. She was only twelve years old.
This was the South Bronx, the poorest slum in New York City. I was a visiting priest, helping out with the candidates doing confirmation, mainly to hear confessions a few days before Confirmation. I didn’t know the students very well. Still, I was worried about this girl.
Instead of approaching her directly, I looked for one of the ladies who was acting as sponsor for some of the candidates. I asked her to find out what was wrong. A few minutes later, she came back and said: “All the other boys and girls have someone who came to the ceremony. The girl is crying because no one in her family came to watch her get confirmed.”
The news didn’t surprise me. Family life in the South Bronx for some children was minimal. Very few children lived with both biological parents. Even so, there was usually someone to turn to: an uncle, an auntie, a grandmother, etc. I could understand how the girl felt: no father, no mother, no brothers, no sisters—none of her relatives was there to share the moment with her. Not even a distant cousin cared that she was doing Confirmation that day. If I was twelve years old, and I had been abandoned by my own family, I would probably be crying too.
THE USUAL CASE
I have just described an extreme case. It serves to highlight the need people have, above all children, for someone to guide them through life and watch over them, especially when no family member is able to do so. That is the whole reason for sponsors.
Normally, the parents with a new-born baby arrange to have a sponsor for Baptism. After the child has been baptised, the sponsor will accompany the child through his or her formative years to reach the fullness of faith.
Following a long-standing tradition, we call the sponsors at Baptism the godfather and godmother. This peculiar combination—adding the word God to the word father or mother—implies a kind of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. The godparents take upon themselves the responsibility of caring for their godchild. They commit themselves to making sure that their godchild grows strong in faith.
It doesn’t mean that the parents are supposed to step back and let the godparents take over. That would be ridiculous. The idea is to make sure that every child has somebody to turn to, if, for whatever reason, the parents are no longer able to help the child. Even when the parents are able to guide their children, for instance, teaching them to pray, godparents still have their role to play.
TEACHING OF THE CHURCH
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says very little about godparents, and even less about sponsors. It assumes that this age-old custom will be properly fulfilled. The same is true for the Code of Canon Law, which limits itself to saying: “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” (CCL, c.774 §2).
The Code then goes on to speak of the sponsor for Confirmation, saying that the sponsor should, “Take care that the confirmed person behaves as a true witness of Christ and faithfully fulfils the obligations inherent in this sacrament” (CCL, c.892).
The main thing the Catechism stresses is continuity, when possible: “Candidates for Confirmation, as for Baptism, fittingly seek the spiritual help of a sponsor. To emphasise the unity of the two sacraments, it is appropriate that this be one of the baptismal godparents” (CCC, n.1311). In other words, parents should try, if at all possible, to arrange for one of the godparents to be the sponsor when the child receives the sacrament of Confirmation.
The other thing the Catechism mentions about the godparents has to do with choosing a name for the child who is going to be baptised. A sponsor should feel responsible for making sure that the child is given a Christian name when being baptised (CCC, n.2165).
When you agree to be a godparent for a child—or for an adult who is converting—you are taking up a lifelong commitment. You become a “spiritual father” or a “spiritual mother” to the person you are caring for.
If you are ever asked to be the sponsor, remember that you are taking up the responsibility to “bring the candidate to receive the sacrament, present him to the minister … and later help him to fulfil his baptismal promises faithfully under the influence of the Holy Spirit” (Rite of Confirmation, n.5).
Though written in the context of an apostle speaking to many Christians, a text from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians expresses the idea of spiritual fatherhood and spiritual motherhood: “My children, I am going through the pain of giving birth to you all over again, until Christ is formed in you; and how I wish I could be there with you at this moment and find the right way of talking to you…” (Gal 4:19-20).
If you are the sponsor, and if for some reason the parents are unable to care for the spiritual needs of their own child, do not hesitate to step in and say: “I’m your sponsor. I made a commitment before God to help you with your spiritual life.”
Perhaps you know all these things already but you have your doubts. The principal doubt may arise when a friend asks you if you would like to be the sponsor for a child. You may look at yourself and feel inadequate. You don’t see yourself as a good example of how Christians live close to God.
To be honest, as a priest, I prefer that attitude. Humility makes many things possible because, as St Peter wrote: “God rejects the proud and gives his grace to the humble” (1 Ptr 5:5). St James adds: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up” (Jam 4:10).
See the invitation to be a sponsor as the perfect opportunity to come closer to Jesus Christ. Remember that, when he chose his first disciples, he did not gather to himself a group of men and women who were models of sanctity. They became models of sanctity because they agreed to repent of all their sins, follow him and allow the Holy Spirit into their hearts. Before the resurrection, many of them abandoned Jesus and fled from the cross. After Pentecost, filled with the Spirit, they spread the Gospel in the midst of a pagan world.
Like those first disciples, listening to God’s word attentively will be the first step towards your own conversion. Take up the challenge of being a sponsor and put a little more effort in to learning what God has revealed to us through Jesus Christ and through his Church. You can start by getting a copy of the Catechism and reading it.