Monday, October 8, 2018

There is a great need for careful discernment when choosing godparents.

In the Catholic tradition, there has always been the need for a godparent to be specially chosen for the newly baptized.  The role of the godparent is deemed necessary for every person who is entering the faith, and this is not dispensed even for one who is baptized on his or her deathbed.  

In the infancy years of the Church after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the embryonic church faced plenty of persecution.  The initial converts were almost always adults who had the guidance of a sponsor in their formation.  But later on, it was quite normal for newborn infants of Christian parents be baptized, and not just adults.  The godparents were people who assisted the parents in the development of their Catholic faith.  This role is still primary and pivotal for godparents now as it was before. Certainly, most parishes have catechism classes for children, forming their faith until they reach Confirmation age, but these classes only have the children being taught about 40 hours a year. These classes at best only scratch the surface of what needs much more unpacking, discussing and sharing.  This is where the godparent/s are required to step in and supplement in the very important area of journeying personally with their charges.

In many of the baptism preparation sessions that I have conducted for parents and godparents before the Rite of Baptism, I have noticed that there has been a trend that has been somewhat passed down from former generations – that of appointing relatives like aunts and uncles to be the godparents of the children.  I can understand the sentiments behind this. But what isn’t often discerned is whether these relations can actually fulfill the role of forming the faith of their godchildren.  Sentimentality alone cannot be the criteria of this important choice.  

The people that parents choose need to be people who are first and foremost practicing Catholics who are clear about the doctrines and teachings of the faith.  While it may be somewhat romantic to have Aunt Geraldine for a godma as she is the mother’s sister or BFF, it is far more important that Aunt Geraldine was chosen or asked to be godma because she is articulate about her faith, clear about Catholic doctrine and won’t lead the child astray to paganism or superstitious practices that ignore the Church’s teachings.  In other words, in the eyes of the parents, Aunt Geraldine is the model Catholic.  Sentimentality unfortunately, isn’t what being a model Catholic is about.

As far as the Church’s instructions are concerned, the requirements for being a godparent are actually very basic – that they must themselves be Confirmed Catholics who are 18 years of age or older, and be in good standing with the Church.  I am sure that many people can name many in the Church circles who fulfill these two requirements, but the parents need to go much further in their discernment before approaching potential godparents.  

It takes a village to raise a child
For us Catholics, we need to be clear, right off the bat, that no man is an island.  We are a community of believers, made up of different individuals who are members of the Body of Christ, who are part of the Communion of Saints.  Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so too does it take a spiritual village to raise a saint.  Growing and maturing in the faith-life isn’t something that is attained by oneself. Certainly, the Catholic parents (or the one Catholic parent when the other parent isn’t a baptized Christian) bears a very large part of the responsibility to ensure that as the child grows physically, his or her growth in her faith doesn’t lag far behind.  It is this part of the growth of the faith life of the child where the godparent/s helps the parents by carrying out this co-responsibility.  

Being physically present in the life of the godchild
At milestone events of the godchild, like at their First Holy Communion, their Confirmation later on, and at their marriage much later on, the presence of the godparent is expected. But the time that is in between these milestone events are just as, if not, more important.  Regular interaction with the child prevents any awkwardness of just showing up at those events.  I often recommend that godparents go to Sunday Mass once a month with their godchildren and their families to foster this familiarity between godchild and godparent.  

This familiarity helps to create a trust where later on, in the child’s life, he or she knows that the godparent can be the one to turn to when facing situations that may be deemed either sensitive or awkward to broach with one’s parents.  As well, the parents will be able to take comfort that their child is properly guided in life when they seek the counsel of their godparents, someone whom the parents are familiar with, and who was specially chosen to do this very task – giving guidance to their child.  For this reason, I would discourage parents from asking friends or relatives who live overseas to be the godparents of their children, as their physical distance does prevent this familiarity from developing.  As much as FaceTime and Skype can bring people together despite being physically separated by thousands of kilometers, there are limitations to what technology can do.

I do empathize with Catholic parents who face this challenge of asking the right people who are effective and exemplary Catholics to be the godparents to their children.  And if the parents themselves are not people who interact with other Catholics in the parish or similar settings, it makes this doubly challenging.  How would they even begin to start looking for people who are such exemplary Catholics, and would they be amenable to welcome a member of their new Catholic family by asking someone whom they are not familiar with?  Highly unlikely.  Catholics who live privatized faiths with little or no interaction with fellow Catholics will always face this dilemma, and often will end up settling for Uncle Bob for mere sentimental reasons, and he will probably only end up being a nominal godparent.

When should parents start discerning?
Many parents scuttle around for godparents only after their child is born, perhaps a few weeks before the baptism date.  That, in my opinion, is akin to last-minute shopping.  No one buys good and thoughtful gifts when one does that.  

The irony is that many parents do so many other things to prepare for their baby’s arrival months before they are born – doing up the nursery, getting baby things like prams, walkers, clothes, and yes, even planning their child’s education savings plan with financial planners. But if one is clear that the most important future for their child is their child’s eternal life and their child’s relationship with God, planning for and praying for the godparents of the child need to go hand-in-hand, alongside the planning for these other things. 

The life of our children cannot only be limited to his or her time on this earth.  We are made by God and for God, and the children that we have are not really ours.  They are ‘on loan’ to us by God, who deems in his divine plan that we are the best parents for these lives.  The best thing that we can do for them isn’t material.  The best thing that we can ever do for them is to give them the needed preparation for what awaits them after this life is over, and doing this will also ensure that the life now is well lived as well.

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