I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my firstborn son and looking forward to his baptism to add another member to the Body of Christ. The rite of baptism includes the participation of a godparent/sponsor. However, I was surprised to see how difficult it was for me to find a suitable sponsor. The factors of family members not authentically practicing the Catholic faith and moving to various parts of the country made it difficult to select a sponsor who can live up to the responsibilities such a role entails. I think these issues of constantly moving families and families with extended members not practicing the Catholic faith are concerns that the recent synods on the family could have addressed instead of the controversial ones but I digress. After a conversation with someone who thought the sponsor did not have an active role in the life of a baptized child whose parents were still alive, I looked into the responsibilities of a sponsor because I was certain the Church did not have in mind for them to be a passive spectator.
People often use the term godparent for a person who assists at the baptism while the term sponsor is used for a person supporting someone who is being confirmed. However, the godparent and the sponsor are essentially the same thing and this post is concerned with the sponsor/godparent at the baptism of an infant. I was raised in a family where my sponsor and those of my siblings were not very involved in our lives. This gave us the impression that the sponsor was only a backup if my parents died and could not teach us the faith but I realize now that I am older that sponsors are not to merely be distant relations.
The Old Catholic Encyclopedia says that sponsors are persons who,
assist at the ceremony to make profession of the faith in the child’s name…[t]hese sponsors, in default of the child’s parents, are obliged to instruct it concerning faith and morals…the sponsor contracts a spiritual relationship to the child and its parents…[t]hey are required, moreover, to have the intention of really assuming the obligations of godparents
This is not a magisterial document but it is convenient to describe the role of a sponsor. First, the sponsor has an obligation to teach the child the faith. Second, it seems from the encyclopedia that they only need to raise the child in the faith if the parents fail to do so. It is not true that the sponsors only teach if the parents do not carry out this responsibility and this will be shown below. Third, the sponsor contracts a spiritual relationship with the child. The sponsor, or godparent, often seems to be reduced to an honorary role today because many people do not see it as a responsibility but the truth is that they are entrusted with the duty of raising the child in the Catholic faith. Even if someone admits that they have this responsibility, simply because the parents of the baptized child are alive does not mean that this obligation is taken away because the parents may call themselves Catholics while not following Church teaching. For example, I know a couple who recently had their child baptized but the father—who is Catholic while the woman is not—intends to teach the child a sexually immoral way of life that is contrary to Church teaching. In this case, the godparent is obligated to provide the child with the proper teaching of the Church and not fulfilling this duty can have eternal consequences on all involved including committing a sin of omission. Carrying out this responsibility in this type of situation can cause friction between the biological parents and the sponsor which means that it is important to discern whether to be a child’s sponsor or to respectfully decline. If a sponsor is willing to provide the child with proper Catholic teaching if the parents intentionally fail in their responsibility, it is important to follow Jesus’s words to be as clever as serpents and innocent as doves in all charity to the child and their parents.
Turning to more official documents and the new rite of baptism, a decree (Italian, p. 548) was published after Vatican II that promulgated the new rite of baptism which was revised with a goal that, “the role and responsibilities of parents and godparents might be more clearly expressed.” Accompanying this decree in the new Rite of Baptism for Children (RBC) is Christian Initiation, General Introduction, which specifies that adults to be baptized choose godparents who, “after baptism will help [the baptized] persevere in the faith and in their lives as Christians” (no. 8). It also states that godparents of children are to help the parents to raise the child in the faith. In the Introduction to the RBC, the parents have the primary role in forming the baptized child in the Catholic faith and the sponsors have a secondary role (no. 5. Also in no. 29 HERE). It is incorrect to think that a secondary role is unimportant because they may be the child’s only access to authentic Catholic teaching as in the example above. It is important to see that the role of a sponsor does not end at the celebration of baptism. Rather, it begins and lasts throughout life because they now have a spiritual relationship with the child.
In the actually liturgy of the RBC, the godparents are to assist asked if they are ready to help the parents in raising the child and they often answer affirmatively (no. 78). Some of the Intercessions in the rite ask God to enable to godparents to be good examples of the faith to inspire the child to follow God. Immediately before the baptism, the celebrant tells the parents and sponsors,
On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring him (her) up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him (her) is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his (her) heart. If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism (no. 83).
Parents and godparents must do their best to ensure that the grace of baptism in the child comes to fruition in forming the child to follow God. Finally, after receiving the lighted candle, the celebrant says to both parents and godparents, “This light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ” (no. 100). He does not say that this child only belongs to the parents. The child is the responsibility of the parents and godparents in their primary and secondary roles.
Nowhere does this mean that the sponsor has a passive role. Quite the opposite! From the new liturgy on baptism, it is clear that the sponsors have an active role in raising in the child but in the act of handing on the faith to the child they have a secondary active role unless the parents default on their obligation. If a godparent contracts a spiritual relationship with the child at baptism, it is unhealthy if not possibly sinful in some cases to abandon that relationship with its responsibility by becoming a passive spectator.