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 task of selecting and being a godparent can lead to hurt feelings, dashed expectations—and the occasional influx of unexpected grace.
One common miscomprehension: Parents sometimes assume that “godparent” is the same as “legal guardian,” while the godparents themselves expect to give 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 a rite.
“Asking someone to be a godparent is a big deal, is similar to asking someone to walk you down the aisle at your wedding.”
Choosing a friend or relative as godparent may enlarge the family, but it can also add to family drama and disagreement. Once a godparent is named, that person remains a godparent for life, no matter what else changes or falls apart.
Choosing the Right Godparent
Despite the life-long implications of selecting 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 select someone they consider to be unsuitable for the task.
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 assist the newly baptized.” They are a relevant part of the “ecclesial community [that] bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at baptism.”