Who could forget Marlon Brando as “The Godfather?” He ruled both his family and his community; “the godfather” king who granted favors, protection and “friendship” — and only asked for undying (or else) loyalty in return.
Don Corleone was not what the church had in mind when it said all the baptized need a godfather and a godmother. In some places, though, the notion of what a godfather is has gotten out of line. The Mafia is one example — and not just in the movies.
Following Pope Francis’ June 21 condemnation of the Mafia in the Calabria region of Italy — saying its members “follow the path of evil” — the bishops of Calabria considered banning godfathers altogether. (They would need an exemption from canon law and may petition the Vatican for such an exemption, Catholic News Service reported in August.)
Banned for a decade?
Archbishop Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini of Reggio, Calabria, has already asked if he could suspend any new godfathers for 10 years. He told Vatican Radio that “being a godfather at a baptism or sponsor at confirmation forms a bond between families.” This, in itself is not a bad thing. However, he added, the local Mafia, known as “the ‘Ndrangheta,” have used these bonds to “better dominate more territory.”
It isn’t just the Mafia who misuse — or at least misunderstand — godparents. Catholic Answers apologist Peggy Frye wrote in a recent blog: “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. … 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 thought given to names
Many people choose godparents with less thought than they choose a child’s name — wanting friends (who might not even be Catholic) or not wanting to offend a relative or even based on what gifts their child might get. Catholic Doors Ministry, which offers online sacrament preparation, notes that, “Some parents, seeking gift-givers, choose godparents who are financially rich, but spiritually poor.”
Let’s look at what godparents are supposed to be. Here is what canon law says:
The “one to be baptized is to be given a sponsor who is to assist an adult in Christian initiation, or, together with the parents, to present an infant at the baptism, and who will help the baptized to lead a Christian life in harmony with baptism, and to fulfill faithfully the obligations connected with it” (n. 872).
Could be a spy?
Godparents — more correctly called “sponsors” and, yes, there should be one of each sex — date back to the church’s earliest days. (The term “godfather” came into usage only when infant baptism became more prevalent after the church’s first seven centuries.) Early Christians were a persecuted minority in imperial Rome. When someone asked to enter the church, there was a real possibility that the person was a spy for Rome and not a true convert. So if someone within the church community agreed to step forward to sponsor them, that sponsor was both vouching for the one seeking baptism and agreeing to be their teacher in preparation for joining the church.
That hasn’t changed much over the past two millennia.
As Pope Benedict XVI said in homily before he baptized children on the feast of Christ’s baptism in 2010: “The children who are about to be baptized must walk in this light (of Christ) 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 examples in this world of ours.”
To do this, a sponsor must be well-versed in the faith. The church lists the following requirements for sponsors (canon 874.1):
- Must be at least 16 years old;
- Must be confirmed and have received the sacrament of Eucharist;
- Must be leading “a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on”;
- Must not be bound by any canonical penalty “legitimately imposed or declared” (which can mean a range of things, but most often applies to those who have been divorced and remarried without receiving an annulment);
- Cannot belong to a non-Catholic church. Such a person can act as a witness to a baptism, as long as there is one Catholic sponsor. (A member of a non-Christian religion cannot be a witness or sponsor.)
Clearly, choosing a godfather — and godmother — is serious. And for life. One cannot get a new godparent later on if they move, leave the church or even die. Baptism happens only once, just as confirmation does. Both sacraments leave indelible marks on our souls and those who stand beside us are witnesses to those sacraments and are meant to continue to do so before God for the rest of our lives.
As Michelle Arnold, another apologist with Catholic Answers, notes: “It is not possible to go back and ‘redo’ the sacrament of baptism, substituting in new and improved godparents. Once a choice is made, parents are stuck with that choice. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do you part.”
Finally, while the relationship between godparents and godchildren is lifelong, spiritual support works two ways.
“Godparents do have responsibilities to their godchildren, and deliberate negligence and absenteeism cannot be excused,” Arnold added, “but godchildren are expected to participate in the relationship by offering their love, prayers and sacrifices for the sake of their godparents.”
Remember, it’s about faith and love and not about earthly goods or the protection of a Mafia don. Sounds like an offer too good to refuse, doesn’t it?
Sources: Catholic News Service; the Vatican web site at vatican.va; The 1983 Code of Canon Law; Catholic Answers at catholic.com; and Catholic Doors Ministry at catholicdoors.com.