Fr. Thom Hennen
Q. What are the requirements for godparents and confirmation sponsors?
A. Canon Law states that insofar as possible there should be a person to assist the person to be baptized “to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism,” and similarly, “to take care that the confirmed person behaves as a true witness of Christ” (Can. 872 and 892).
What we typically call “godparents” are simply called baptismal “sponsors” in Canon Law and you don’t actually need two. One sponsor of either sex is sufficient, though if you have two, one is to be male and one is to be female (Can. 873).
Sponsors for both baptism and confirmation are to be at least 16 years of age, must “have the aptitude and intention of fulfilling this function,” must themselves be fully initiated Catholics (having received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist), and very importantly, must “lead a life of faith in keeping with the function being taken on” (Can. 874). Further, they should not be bound by any canonical penalty and cannot be the parent of the one to be baptized or confirmed (Can. 874).
A person who is not Catholic is “not to participate except together with a Catholic sponsor and then only as a witness of the baptism” (Can. 874 §2). In other words, if you have a baptized but non-Catholic “godparent,” that person cannot technically be the sponsor for baptism. Typically, the baptized non-Catholic party is listed as a “Christian witness.”
Such was the case for me personally, as my sister and brother-in-law were my “godparents.” At the time, my brother-in-law was not Catholic, though later came into the Church. So, as an interesting aside, when he was received into full communion with the Church, did he then officially become my baptismal sponsor too? I don’t know, but in either case, I absolutely consider him my “godfather” and he has more than capably fulfilled the role. I later asked him to be my confirmation sponsor as well, which I learned is actually the preference of Canon Law. Canon 893 §2 states: “It is desirable to choose as a [confirmation] sponsor the one who undertook the same function in baptism.”
Many people still mistakenly think that the “godparents” are responsible for raising and supporting the child in the event that the child’s parents would die. This may have been the long held cultural practice in the past and the expectation of some still today, but Canon Law mentions nothing about this. Again, on a personal note, if this were still the expectation, I would really be in trouble, as I am the baptismal sponsor/“godfather” for five children. (By the way, family and friends, I am capping it at five, as that is what I can count on one hand or five decades of the rosary.)
Perhaps at the heart of this question is what qualities are ideal in a baptismal or confirmation sponsor? Apart from those more concrete canonical requirements, ideally baptismal and confirmation sponsors should be people who truly live a life of Christian discipleship, which is not to say they are perfect, but that they are believers striving for greater holiness. They should be a good example of the faith and someone who can really help the young person in their journey of faith. Rather than just choosing a relative or family friend out of a sense of social obligation, parents and confirmands would do well to really discern this choice. And if you are baptized and confirmed, pray for your sponsors, whether still living or deceased.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org)