From a reader…
Could you talk about the responsibilities of godparents when their godchildren are not in close proximity? My wife and I have a goddaughter who lives halfway across the country, and we pray for her every day, but I’m wondering to what extent my responsibilities extend if her parents were to stray from the faith but we still lived several states away.
GUEST PRIEST RESPONSE: Fr Timothy Ferguson
There isn’t clear legislation, or even customary practice on what exactly constitutes the role of godparents (although in some countries and cultures there may be certain expectations) and perhaps that is regrettable. The only clear role for the godparents is to witness the actual baptism (and in these days, it might be good for the godparents to be particularly vigilant in making sure that Father, or Deacon, says the black words and does the red things properly – watch closely!), and to “assist” the parents in raising the baptized child in the faith. That assistance is probably going to vary broadly depending on the situation.
In the first place, there should be good communication with the parents, and expectations laid down prior to the baptism, so that everyone is on the same page. As a potential godparent, I think one has every right to say, “If I’m going to be godfather for little Eusebius here, you better be committed to bringing him to Mass every Sunday, or I’ll feel the need to come over, wake the whole neighborhood up by honking the horn on my monster truck and taking the little tyke myself.”
Depending on your relationship with the parents (are you family? Close friends? Simply someone you know from the parish? A big wig in the local olive oil import business?) your obligations may vary. I think, especially if there’s a geographic distance, one can do one’s duty by the occasional phone call, deftly inquiring about the parents’ practice of the faith (“Ooof! My pastor preached a barn-burner of a sermon this Sunday about loving our enemies, even when they fail to use the Oxford comma. About what did your priest preach?”). Sending gifts to the little one, specifically religious gifts, and in observance of the child’s baptism rather than birthday, can be a solid option. Holy cards, books, statues, can all spark a child’s religious imagination and, if the parents are neglecting their obligations to bring him up in the faith, can sometimes spark a little good guilt in their hearts (“Uncle Peter sent me this cool statue of a guy holding his shirt open and you can see his heart! That’s so cool. Who is this guy, Mom? Is it from a movie? Can we go see it?”). Ask if the parents have a savings account in place to help offset the cost of (good) Catholic schooling for the rugrat.
Lastly, and most importantly, praying for the child and his parents. Maybe even, for special occasions, having a Mass offered for him. To quote Tennyson,
“More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?”