When parents-to-be prepare to welcome a baby into their lives, one of their decisions might be to have a little help in a holy way. They could ask friends to be godparents of the child.
Being a godparent means different things according to the tradition. A world religion might have a spirit-oriented elder teaching the ways of faith to children. In a family Christian church, “Godfather,” “Auntie,” or “Brother” could be a congregation's youth mentor. Godparenthood can range from an informal title of honor to a close and ongoing life-long relationship.
What goes into godparenting?
“First of all, accept it as a special honor,” said Deb Grisier, office manager at Gesu Roman Catholic Parish. Mrs. Grisier is a godmother, a goddaughter, and, with her husband, Marc, has named godparents for their children. “These people have made a conscious decision and thought it out to ask you, so take it as a gift and an honor that you've been asked, and stay involved.”
“Some people think if you're a godparent, you take the kids if the parents die,” but that's rare, said Margaret McCready, who is a godmother and a goddaughter and is Gesu's director of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. “It's just to watch out for them spiritually."
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Monsignor Charles Singler, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo's director of divine worship and of vocations, who has two godsons and is himself a godson, said, “The church's understanding from the perspective of baptism and baptismal godparents is that no person who enters into the life of the church is alone, and so the aspect of mentoring someone in the ways of the faith has always been a part of the tradition.”
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The ritual requirement is that godparents be baptismal sponsors, standing with the family when the baby is baptized into Christianity. The Catholic Church requires there to be at least one godparent, though there can be two, of opposite sexes.
Other churches have other ways. “When I was a kid,” the Rev. Elizabeth Hoster of Trinity Episcopal Church, a godmother and goddaughter, said, “the tradition was that you had three godparents: two of your same gender and one of the opposite gender. That's not followed anymore.”
The Very Rev. Paul Gassios of St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Rossford said, “Ideally the norm is we want the godparents to be Orthodox Christians. If that's not the case, then we would ask that at least one be, and we hope that they will be practicing their faith.” Father Paul is the godfather of two, and he said his relationship with his own godparents was closer in community and family terms than as religious guides. But “I remember them now. They're departed, so at every liturgy ... I put a little bread crumb for them aside.”
In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the Rev. Chrysanne Timm, senior pastor of Olivet Lutheran Church in Sylvania, “We refer to them as baptismal sponsors,” and informally use the term godparents. “We invite them to be part of the benchmarks: when they have their first communion, when they begin confirmation, those kinds of things.” Pastor Timm is baptismal sponsor of three, and her young-adult children are close to their godparents.
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A lack of religion might enter into a decision at times, Mrs. McCready said. “If you want your brother who hasn't been inside a church since confirmation, you can have him. … It might give him a little spark [in his faith]. You have to look at it both ways.”
The relationship can be challenging. “The streets of the chruch are littered with godparents who feel like they've been failures,” said Rev. Hoster. “I can say I'm one of them.” She and a goddaughter “are still in each other's satellites; there's an ebb and flow to it.”
Godparenting “might be a burden from the perspective of frustration,” Msgr. Singler said, such as “when an individual who the godparents have tried to support and encourage goes off on their own way and they lose their way in the faith.”
Besides moral leadership, godparents in these Christian traditions often also give presents, from as small as a card on baptism anniversaries to major gifts like the house Mrs. McCready inherited from her godparents. Father Paul said that for the Orthodox baptism service, “The godparents would be responsible for buying the first cross. … For an infant they usually buy the baptismal garment,” and the godparent would also pay for other items. “Some godparents can afford to do a lot and some a little,” he said.
Mrs. Grisier said for her family, “For first communion it was the godmother's responsibility to buy their first-communion prayer book.” A big gift she received was the honor of serving as maid of honor at her godmother's wedding. “It was just prior to my eighth-grade graduation.”
“If you're going to get the child gifts,” Father Paul said, “get gifts relative to your role as a godparent. Instead of just getting them a toy or an outfit to wear for Christmas or Easter, buy them a prayer book, buy them an icon, buy them a Bible.”
“My godmother is still alive, my mother's sister,” who lives in Norwalk, Msgr. Singler said. “Up until recently because of being in a care facility, she has always remembered me at Christmas and Easter with a check as kind of a supportiveness to me.”
Rev. Hoster said that presence is most important, not the presents given. “Show up,” she said.
"I guess the first and foremost thing that you can do from a distance or close by is to commit to praying for them,” said Pastor Timm. “That is the one thing I do daily. ... I think we underestimate the power of prayer. Where you can be a physical support, that's great, but prayer for them and their parents is crucial.”
As parents begin to consider choosing godparents, sponsors, or other religious companions, how do they choose?
Tradition works for some. “It's very big in the Greek practice,” Father Paul said, that “the general rule of thumb is that the person who is the best man or maid of honor that's Orthodox becomes the godparent of the first child in many places.”
Important questions serve others in making the decision. Rev. Hoster said. “My three questions would be: Do you trust this person's faith life? Would you trust this person enough to raise your child? And would you trust this person to be your 12-step sponsor? They kind of run on parallel tracks, someone who's been there done that, had the challenges.”
With this advice from knowledgeable godparents, you might safely refuse an offer to choose the head of an influential family. Leave Don Corleone to the Godfather books and movies.