Celebrant: Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?
Godparents: We are.
(The Rites of the Catholic Church)
Most of those promises made by well-meaning godparents at the baptismal font are more often than not left at the door of the church. Friends of mine tell me that they rarely have contact with their godparents. Some don't even know where they are, or worse yet, who they are. According to many surveys, a majority of Catholics are clueless about the role of godparents in the child’s spiritual life. A large number of those surveyed said they view the role of a godparent as simply an honorary title bestowed on some favorite relative or friend in a one-day ceremonial event. More time seems to be spent on choosing a saint's name for the child and a venue for the post-baptismal festivities than on choosing a suitable godparent.
Yesterday, my colleague Michelle Arnold discussed in her blog post Once a Godparent, Always a Godparent the tendency many parents have of treating the godparent role as a social honor rather than a religious obligation. The idea of choosing a godparent for more sentimental reasons rather than sound, spiritual reasons is no big surprise; at least not to me. While godparenting is not a hot button topic in the Church, it has suffered spiritual neglect over the years and I believe it deserves some attention. I say it's time to dust off the "role of godparenting" book, sweep away the cobwebs, and get back on a catechetical course—especially during this Year of Faith. After all, as Michelle's post explained, once the choice for goparent is made, it is permanent and cannot be changed.
So where do we start? Start with your parish. Pope John Paul II reminds us in Christifideles Laici that "the parish . . . has the essential task of a more personal and immediate formation of the lay faithful." Any faithful Catholic who has either been through a baptism preparation class, or knows someone who has, understands that one of the contributing problems to choosing poorly qualified godparents stems from a lack of education on how the Church views the role of a godparent. This can be remedied by offering topics for discussion during preparation class that would include things like how to choose a suitable godparent, the role of the godparent, and practical ways a godparent can interact in the spiritual life of the child. I know of one parish that offers a class especially for godparents.
What is the basic role of the godparent?
First and foremost, the role of a godparent is to help the child grow in the practice of the Catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says "the godfather and godmother . . . must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized-child or adult on the road to Christian life. Their task is a truly ecclesial function (officium). The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at baptism" (1255). Godparents must be good witnesses to the faith and willing to share the faith with their godchildren. They should be faithful to the teachings of the Church.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in a 2010 homily, exhorts godparents to strive to be a good witness to their godchildren:
The children who are about to be baptized must walk in this light throughout their lives, helped by the words and example of their parents and their godparents. The latter must strive to nourish with their words and the witness of their lives the torch of the children's faith so that they may be shining example in this world of ours, all too often groping in the darkness of doubt, and bring it the light of the gospel which is life and hope. Only in this way, will they be able, as adults, to recite with full awareness the formula at the end of the profession of faith present in the rite: "This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Some time ago, I spoke with a woman who wanted to know how to get back on track with her ten-year-old goddaughter who she has not had contact with since her baptism. She was a little nervous about reestablishing contact but realized that she needed to put her discomfort aside and press forward in faith. I recommended she send a card and follow it up with a phone call. She emailed back to say that her goddaughter was thrilled to hear from her and that they will be getting together soon.
Pray for your godchild. Send cards to mark their baptism and confirmation anniversaries. Keep in contact with them, so they will know you are praying for them and that you care. Be encouraging, supportive, and available to your godchild, especially during their teen years, so "that the divine life which God gives them is kept safe from the poison of sin" (homily, Benedict XVI).