A friend just wrote to request ideas for how to be a responsible and faithful godfather (he prefers the title “sponsor”) to his godchild who turns 4 this year. He doesn’t find many resources available in print or on the Internet to advise him. A quick review suggests that he’s correct. (One internet posting advised “renounce the devil.” That’s good advice for us all, but I don’t see that it addresses my friend’s question very directly. So I’m going to start with some of my ideas. And then I hope that some who read this will contribute their own suggestions.
First a disclaimer: I am a godfather to several Christians. I have been a lousy one to some, a so-so one for a couple, and a faithful one to probably only one or two. I lament that, having learned from my misdeeds and my maturing, I will likely not have the chance to “prove myself” again. Hidden in that confession is the assertion that I have learned more from what I regret not having done than I have insight from the history of faith!
In thinking about this, I assume that the godchild is a child. That is really the only condition that exists in the Church today, I think. For adult catechumens, baptism ordinarily includes “confirmation” in the same rite – which is as it ought to be. For bad historical reasons, we now separate baptism from the bishop’s approval and sealing with the Holy Spirit -- which is what confirmation is supposed to be and which, in earliest times, was the way confirmation was offered. So now, when we baptize children, we impose a period of catechesis on them that lasts until their “confirmation.” Thus, the godparent’s responsibilities officially end with the child’s confirmation.
Two responsibilities head the list of ways that godparents fulfill their responsibilities to the child placed in their care – for godparenthood is a care-giving role. The first is to pray regularly for the godchild. The second is to spend time with the godchild.
It ought to go without saying that godparents keep their godchildren constantly close to their hearts in prayer. In this way, the godparent advocates for and represents the child to God. Does that need any expansion?
Hand-in-glove with prayer is the responsibility of a godparent to be involved in the life of the child. The godparent is bound to be a model of the Christian life, an educator and mentor into the ways of faithful living, a support through easy and difficult times of doubt and question. In short, the godparent is “Church” to the child. It’s hard to do that from afar (which is why, in most situations, I advocate choosing as godparents members of the home congregation – not a relative from across the country or a “best friend from childhood” who practices an entirely different kind of faith. And don’t get me going about godparents who aren’t practicing Christians!). In fact, the invitation to become a godparent carries implicit permission for the godparent to stick your nose into the child’s life, the parent’s “caretaking,” the theological matrix within which the child is reared, and the like. That responsibility, too, cannot be carried from afar.
So, a godparent should spend time with the child from the very beginning of her new life of faith – plain, old, ordinary, no-agenda person-with-person time (in addition to “special times – e.g., the baptismal anniversary Sunday, birthdays, school performances, and the like). The structure of that time together will change according to the developmental stage of the child: “Babysitting” once in a while during the child’s infancy and toddlerhood is not unreasonable; outings to the zoo or the park are a good way to stay connected and to bring up issues of faith. Heck, I recommend a tour with the child of the English minsters – and take me. (I regret that I did not offer my godchildren that opportunity, but since I have not done it for some, I cannot in fairness offer it to the children still under my care, can I?) Teaching songs, liturgical gestures, and the like can be integrated into “play time.” (This is, of course, not the exclusive realm of the godparent – but it is one that ought not be ignored in the often mistaken impression that the parents will do that.) The point is to develop a relationship with the child that is intimate, confidential, mutual, trusting – so that if the godchild needs counsel or a shoulder or something because of some crisis of faith, the godparent is there as an additional resource to the child.
Time together also allows the godparent to model the Christian life into which the child will grow. Thus, time in church together is phenomenally more important that instructing the child in the canons of the Council of Nicea in 325 (as enjoyable for all as that latter activity might be). But time outside church is just as influential. As the saying goes, Faith is caught, not taught. (That might come from the language: “Influence” comes from the same root as “influenza” – both suggest a kind of implanting of something that will come to fulfillment in the other.) Beware of the implicit meaning that the child can draw from the time together: Watching a godparent smoke, for example, teaches more than a dozen heart-to-heart talks about “respecting one’s body.” (In this way and with this awareness, having godchildren makes us godparents better people and better Christians: It keeps us on our toes on all sorts of levels.)
Now to the commercial aspect: Kids like to be remembered at traditional gift-giving times, and that’s a reasonable thing to keep in mind. I have always given my godchildren a gift on the anniversaries of their baptisms. (With two of them, the anniversary falls right around Christmas, so we’ve been able to elide the Christmas mess.) I tend not to remember birthdays – not on principle, although I could make the point that that “holiday” is the purview of some other set of intimates. If the baptism is not at Easter, an Easter remembrance seems a good thing to do.
Books are my preferred gift – big surprise there. I think personal libraries are cool, so I try to seed them when I can. But more importantly, there is a slew of pretty good (as opposed to schlocky and downright creepy) child-oriented fare of religious and theological value. Gail Ramshaw, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and eventually Wendell Berry, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walter Wangerin, and a host of others have written books of high quality that deal with issues of faith and life in the Church. (Check out Liturgical Training Publications, e.g., for some valuable ones on worship, liturgy, and saints; AugsburgFortress has some, too, that are fun to read with kids.)
In addition to books, CDs, DVDs, tapestries for the walls, toys (I’ve seen a neat Noah’s Ark, e.g.) all work. But in all of this, I discourage misidentifying godparents with “sugar daddies” and “sugar mommies.” Not only does that eclipse what the relationship between child and godparent is, but it’s a really bad example for life in general. So it’s not necessary to spend gobs of money on the godchild. The important thing is to show with some tangible trinket that you remember the godchild and that her Baptism is an important reality to both of you.
I don’t think any of this is particularly insightful (or helpful to my friend), but it’s a good thing for everyone in the Church to think about. We are pretty cavalier about godparents – or “sponsors” – even in the best of liturgical churches. (I was accepted by a Roman Catholic congregation as a godparent for my niece, but I was not asked to be her confirmation sponsor. Go figure!) I hope that the Church and congregations can be encouraged to take that issue more seriously. We ought to teach about relationship in confirmation (congratulations to the overseer of confirmation at my congregation for requiring the kids to write a letter inviting their godparents to their confirmation), in adult fora, in worship conferences, in premarital counseling sessions. (If anyone wants the rest of my views about how to structure a ministry of godparenting, I’ll be happy to provide! :) )
And now it’s your turn. What do you think? Do you remember a gift from a godparent that was particularly memorable – or one you gave a godchild that went over really well? Do you remember who your godparents were? Do you pray for them now?