In the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism a very prominent part is taken by the sponsors or god-parents, who present the child at the baptismal font and make a profession of faith and certain promises in his name. As this is an office which may fall to the lot of any of our readers, it may be well to explain just what the duties of sponsors are, and what are the obligations which they assume; for there is danger of undertaking these duties without due consideration and of estimating these obligations lightly.
An Ancient Practice. From the very beginning it has been the practice of the Church to have certain persons assisting at the administration of Baptism, whether of an infant or an adult —to offer the infant at the font, to answer for it, to make profession of the Christian faith in its name, and to receive it from the hands of the priest after it is baptized; to act as witnesses of the Baptism of adults, and to attest their acceptance of the Church’s teaching and their avowal of allegiance to her authority. These persons, from these various duties were called, in the Latin of the Ritual, “Sponsors,” or Promisers, “Fidejussores,” or Attestors of Faith, “Offerentes,” or Offerers, or “Susceptores,” Receivers.
In later times they have usually been “Patrini,” a medieval Latin word signifying those taking the place of parents, since they undertake the office of spiritual parents towards those whom they bring to the sacramental font. In English they are called “god-fathers” and “god-mothers,” which words denote the spiritual relationship which they acquire.
The Duties of Sponsors. The Catechism of the Council of Trent directs that “all sponsors should at all times recollect that they are bound to exercise always great vigilance over their spiritual children, and to take particular care that, in those things that pertain to the Christian life, the baptized persons shall act through life as the sponsors promised for them at the solemn ceremony of Baptism.” If for any reason the natural guardians of a child are unable or unwilling to attend to its religious training, this must be looked after by the god-parent. Of course, in the case of an adult there is less likelihood that such responsibility would come upon a sponsor; but for those who assist at the Baptism of a child there is a serious obligation, and one which every god parent should understand and appreciate —that if the child’s parents do not provide for its Christian training, the burden comes upon those who have assumed a spiritual relationship with it.
The sponsor at the administration of Baptism holds the child or physically touches it while the sacrament is being conferred —or at least receives it from the priest’s hands immediately after it has been baptized. The actual holding of it by both sponsors while the water is being poured is the custom with us.
It is allowed in certain cases for a person to become a sponsor “by proxy”— that is, to assume the office and obligations without being actually present, by having an agent take his place. This is the case sometimes in royal families and elsewhere, when it is desired to have as god-parent some person who cannot be present. In this case the proxy or agent contracts no obligations whatever, these being assumed by the real sponsor whom he represents.
Impediments from Sponsorship. How many sponsors are allowable? Only two at the most —a man and a woman; and only one is strictly necessary. Why is the number so restricted? Because a spiritual relationship is contracted by the sponsor with the baptized person, and this relationship is a “diriment” impediment to marriage between them unless a dispensation is obtained. Formerly this impediment extended to the parents of the person baptized; but by the new code of Canon Law (in effect at Pentecost, 1918) it has been restricted to the sponsor and the god-child. This spiritual relationship is looked upon by the Church as a real relationship, binding almost as strongly as a tie of blood.
Do sponsors contract any impediment in regard to each other? Or, in other words, if a man and a woman become god-parents of a child, is there any obstacle thereby to their subsequent marriage? No; the impediment exists only between the god-parent and the god-child. There is no spiritual relationship between the god-parents themselves.
The Qualifications of Sponsors. On account of the all-important duties which sponsors may be called upon to perform, it is not surprising that the Church requires her pastors to make diligent inquiry regarding persons selected for this office, and to enforce the rule that none but those who would be suitable guardians of the child’s spiritual welfare can become god-parents.
The two sponsors should be of different sexes —not two men nor two women; for it is deemed proper that there should be an analogy between spiritual and natural parentage. When there is only one sponsor, it is usual (but not necessary) to select one of the same sex as the child, for thereby it is made certain that there will never be any question of marriage between the god-parent and the god-child. Parents are not allowed to be sponsors for their own children, to mark more strongly the difference between spiritual and carnal parentage —for it is not deemed proper that one person should hold both relationships.
By the new code of Canon Law, a sponsor should be provided at a private Baptism when he is available, and he contracts a spiritual relationship. This is the case also with the person who adminsters the Sacrament. If there was no sponsor at the private Baptism, one should be on hand at the subsequent supplying of the ceremonies; but this person contracts no impediment.
If a doubtful Baptism be repeated conditionally, to remedy some supposed defect in its original administration, the same sponsor who acted before should be employed again —and the impediment of spiritual relationship then comes into force. But if this sponsor cannot be present at the second ceremony, no other is required (though one may be used) and no impediment is contracted.
A member of a religious community may act as a sponsor only in case of necessity and by permission. It is forbidden to clerics to be sponsors unless with the express sanction of the Bishop.
The Church directs that small children shall not be chosen as sponsors. They shall be fourteen years or more of age. The choosing of non-Catholics is not permitted, for the Church does not wish that the Christian training of her children should be entrusted to those who are themselves in error. And, in general, all those who are unable or unwilling to discharge with fidelity the duties of spiritual parents should not be admitted to this sacred trust.
In the chapter on “The Ceremonies of Baptism” the duties of the sponsors at the font have been sufficiently mentioned. If the father of the child is not present, the god-parents should be prepared to answer the various questions which the priest may ask —as to the names and residence of the child’s parents, the date of birth, the name to be given, whether the infant has been privately baptized or not, and, if so, by whom. When it can be conveniently done, the person who has baptized privately should be present, to explain to the priest how the Baptism was administered, and thereby to enable him to ascertain whether it was valid or not.
The Name of the Child. As one of the duties of the sponsors is to tell the priest the name which is to be conferred on the child at its Baptism, it may be well to say a word about the choice of the name. The Church, in her rubrics and in the writings of her teachers, has expressed the wish that it should be really a Christian name —the name of a Saint. The use of that name will serve to stimulate the imitation of the virtues of the Saint and the attainment of holiness like to his; and the blessed one in heaven who is thus made the patron of the new member of Christ’s flock on earth will, by his advocacy and intercession, become the guardian of the soul and body of the person upon whom his name has been bestowed.
Is this an obligation? It is not. The priest is merely admonished by the Church’s rubric to do what he can to have every child baptized in the name of a Saint. But it may easily happen that in some special cases there are reasons for giving another name —as in the contingency that an inheritance might depend upon it, or that the memory of a loved relative might be thus perpetuated. In such cases it is recommended that another name, that of some Saint, be added or prefixed to the name desired. Outside of these exceptional instances, our Catholic parents should remember that the name of a Saint is better for their child than the name of the heroine of a novel; that our ordinary English names are finer and more appropriate than French ones, which are usually mispronounced; that the use of a “stylish” baptismal name in conjunction with a good old Celtic patronymic is incongruous, to say the least; and that it is no evidence of refinement (except the refinement of cruelty) to inflict such combinations upon their helpless offspring. To quote a caustic bit of Irish wit: “There are three hundred and sixty-five saints’ days in the year, and they named their child after a nut. They called her Hazel!”