Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater: the institution of the godparent in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation


Given the current situation, I believe that in pastoral practice, it would be worth making further efforts to restore dignity and value to the figure of the godfather, taking into account its pedagogical function but, even before, of the typically ecclesial connotation of his presence.

– Theology and canon law –

AuthorTeodoro Beccia

Teodoro Beccia










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The institution of godparents dates back to the early Church, when the duty to baptize children was imposed, though, presumably, at the beginning the children were introduced directly by their parents. Tertullian refers to the sponsores the guarantee, but the terms used in ancient times are different and very evocative: receivers, pregnant women, fideas, protestants who attend the baptism of children (cf.. Of Baptism, 18, 11, in PL I, 1221). The need for godparents was perhaps correlated with baptism conceived as a new birth, which therefore required new fathers.

In continuity with this line of reflection, later Saint Thomas would recall that the spiritual regeneration brought about by baptism resembles the carnal one and, as in this the child needs a nurse and a pedagogue, so in the spiritual one there is a need for someone to instruct him in faith and Christian life (Summa Th. III, q. 67, a. 7). The institute, or godfather ministry, certainly appears to be related to the catechumenate of adults. Taking into account the situation in which Christians found themselves during the persecution by the Roman Empire, to prevent any intruders from entering the communities, it was required that the candidate for baptism be presented by some known believer, who guaranteed the seriousness of his intentions and accompanied him during the catechumenate and the conferral of the Sacrament, as well as subsequently ensuring their fidelity to the commitment made.

Coming to the present day, priests caring for souls often now find themselves in difficulty when they have to deal with the question of choosing godparents. The cases are very varied. There are parents who, in order not to harm any relative, would like to do without godparents on the occasion of their children's Baptism or Confirmation.. Sometimes we are instead faced with the proposal of godparents who are in an "irregular" situation and who therefore cannot be admitted. Moreover, with the intense migratory phenomenon that characterizes our era, it also happens that a request is made to accept as godfather or godmother faithful belonging to Churches or ecclesial communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church, with the exception of the Orthodox Churches (cf.. can. 685 § 3 of the Eastern Code, Cceo and other).

All this leads to asking some questions: Godparents are really necessary and it makes sense to continue to request their presence, given that their office has often become a "liturgical lie" as some have called it? What is their function? What are the requirements to be admitted to this position?

Godparents are necessary? We try to give an answer to this question through the legislation of the Code of Canon Law, which is about the godfather (or godmother) of baptism according to cann. 872-874 and the godfather (or godmother) of confirmation at cann. 892-893. Let it be the can. 872 that the dog. 892, in reference to the obligation to give the person being baptized or confirmed a godparent, they use the same expression: as much as possible (as far as possible): the rule is not exhaustive or preceptive, as it was not in the previous Code of 1917, but it must not be considered merely optional either.

Regarding Baptism, the reasons for the presence are appropriately indicated in a short but dense passage of the General Introduction of the Rite of Baptism of Infants (cf.. 8) and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (cf.. 8):

«The godfather expands the family of the person being baptized in a spiritual sense and represents the Church in her role as mother».

Its function, so, it is not only liturgical ― nor can it be reduced to a merely choreographic presence ― but also pedagogical, as the canon recalls. 872 § 1, that, in addition to the task of assisting the adult being baptized and introducing the infant being baptized, calls for cooperation so that the godchild leads a Christian life in conformity with the Sacrament and faithfully fulfills the obligations inherent to it.

An effective description of the godfather's task, in the case of the baptism of an adult, but which suggests criteria of judgment applicable by analogy also to the godparents of newborns, is indicated at no. 43 of the To be noted to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults:

"The Godfather, chosen by the catechumen for his example, for his talents and his friendship, delegated by the local Christian community and approved by the priest, accompanies the candidate on election day, in the celebration of the sacraments and in mystagogy. It is his task to show the catechumen the practice of the Gospel in individual and social life with friendly familiarity, help him in his doubts and anxieties, bear witness to him and take care of the development of his baptismal life. Chosen even before the "election", when he bears witness to the catechumen before the community; his office retains all its importance even when the neophyte, received the Sacraments, still needs help and support to remain faithful to the promises of Baptism".

Even for Confirmation, what requires the presence of the godfather is not the celebration as such, but the Christian formation of the candidate for confirmation, as the canon recalls. 892, which refers to the dual function of ensuring that the confirmed person behaves as a true witness of Christ and faithfully fulfills the obligations inherent to the same Sacrament (can. 892). Therefore not a mere ornamental appearance next to the candidate for confirmation at the time of the celebration, but a ministry that is founded in the Sacrament and which also asks the godfather for continuity of spiritual presence, as a counselor and guide called to educational responsibility towards a brother, who must express in faith and works the maturity received as a gift and to be acquired existentially.

The indication of the Code it is therefore oriented not by minimal choices, but for a pastoral care to be renewed. Outside of extraordinary cases, the Confirmation godfather must be there (the science, about it, a response from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the discipline of the Sacraments (cf.. Information 11 [1975], pp. 61-62).

The requirements. The can. 874 is responsible for presenting the necessary requirements to be admitted to the office of godfather/godmother at both baptism and confirmation (cf.. can. 893 § 1). Let's limit ourselves here to focusing on just a few points, starting from previous legislation:

1) for both Sacraments, the godfather must have received all three Sacraments of initiation (signifying the intimate union between them), not just the one for whom he acts as godfather;

2) the dog. 893§ 2 remember the opportunity (expedient) that the godfather of confirmation is the same as that of baptism (to underline the profound connection between the two Sacraments), whereas previously this was prohibited;

3) a godfather of the same sex as the person being baptized/confirmed is no longer required;

4) the prohibition on clerics and religious men and women from acting as godfathers and godmothers no longer exists, without express permission from the ordinary or at least the local superior. However, religious institutes could establish their own rules.

5) Regarding age (16 year old), with a particular law the bishop can establish a different one, but also the parish priest or the minister, for just cause, can introduce the exception, taking into account a rather broad criterion but which should never obscure the ecclesiological reason motivating the presence of the godfather.

6) The godfather must be a faithful Catholic. The reason for this apparent "ecumenical restriction" is to be found not only in the danger of indifferentism, from which the Council itself warned (cf.. To nations 15 e Eastern Churches 26), but even more so in the ecclesial value of gift of godfather: from the nature of the matter you cannot represent an ecclesial community with which you are not in full communion, nor even express faith in it. In this perspective, the code provision is consistent with the awareness that the Church has of its own identity, and therefore it is also profoundly ecumenical. That being the case, members of ecclesial communities separate from the Catholic Church are excluded from the role of godparents, who can act as witnesses together with a Catholic godfather.

As for the "Orthodox", united with us by very close bonds (UR 15) the dog. 685 § 3 of the Eastern Code (Cceo) admits that one of their followers can fulfill the role of godfather, but always together with a Catholic godfather. In the baptism of a Catholic, by virtue of the close communion existing between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, it is therefore allowed, for a valid reason, admit an Eastern faithful with the role of godfather together with a Catholic godfather (or a godmother), provided that the suitability of the godfather is recognized. However, Christian education will primarily be the responsibility of the Catholic godfather, as it represents the Christian community and is the guarantor of the faith and desire for ecclesial communion of the baptized person and/or his parents (cf.. Vademecum for the Pastoral Care of Catholic Parishes towards non-Catholic Orientals, the, n. 16).

Other requirements too indicated by can. 874 § 1, 3° they are very qualifying to define the profile of the godfather. Dutifully respected, have a profound impact on both the designation of the person, and on the way of understanding the task.

It is up to the particular legislation determine what it means to “lead a life in conformity with faith”: Different environments and situations lead to different determinations. The case history is as broad as ever: we range from the whole range of possibilities relating to those who find themselves in an irregular marital situation, to those who profess atheism and agnosticism; from those dedicated to magical arts to those who are notorious members of a sect, of an association that plots against the Catholic Church (cf.. can. 1374: so for example Freemasonry), or appears to belong to some criminal group (like the Mafia, at N'drangheta, the Camorra or other mafia-type criminal groups).

In the end, against the practice of replacing godparents with parents, without foundation and justification, remember (can 874, § 1,5) that neither father nor mother can act as godparents, for it would be absurd to think of parents as helping themselves as godparents to their children. About the number, the dog. 873 states that only one godfather is enough, while in the case there are two, they must be of different sex. The can. 892, which deals with the godfather of confirmation, instead it prescribes only one godfather or godmother.

The role of the witness: it cannot be forgotten that among the tasks of the godfather there is also that of proving that the Baptism or Confirmation has taken place. Can. refers to this function. 875: it introduces the figure of witness of baptism that, unlike that of the godfather, it is not subject to any conditions and plays a role similar to that of marriage witnesses (cf.. can. 1108 §2) albeit without being, as in this case, ad validity. In order to obtain valid marital consent, ad validity the simultaneous presence of two witnesses is required, the assistant as a qualified witness and the valid consent of the bride and groom. In the case of Baptism or Confirmation, the witness only has the task of certifying the conferral, therefore it is not necessary for the validity of the Sacrament (cf.. cann. 875-877). Consequently, the figure of the witness is not subject to any conditions. The only requirement is that the person chosen as a witness has the use of reason and is capable of testifying.

The possibility is thus offered to deal with some particular situations in which the chosen person could not otherwise hold the role of godparent: thus for example in the case of a believer belonging to a Protestant ecclesial community (cf.. can. 874 §2), or is cohabiting, divorced, remarried or in another irregular marital situation, or declares himself an agnostic or atheist, or has formally and publicly abandoned the Catholic faith through the so-called "banging". This is a solution that can potentially generate ambiguity, misunderstandings and misleading interpretations, it must be adopted with prudence and caution, while, on the other hand, it will be necessary to explain with absolute clarity that the baptism witness is in no way "a kind of godfather", but a completely different figure.

The CEI document We meet Jesus, the 29 June 2014, he claims:

«The regional Episcopal Conferences are asked to discern on the matter and evaluate the pastoral opportunity of supporting - only as witnesses of the sacramental rite - those people indicated by the family who, despite not having prescribed requirements, they always express a positive parental closeness, affective and educational".

A for this purpose they can be found online various pronouncements on the matter. We cite for example the provisions of the Sardinian Episcopal Conference and the Diocese of Aosta. Therefore, as much as possible, it is necessary to give training to GodparentsWitnesses to accompany the Baptized in the choice of Christian life, without prejudice to the freedom of the Witness who cannot be forced to share or embrace this life choice.

The usefulness of the figure of the Witness it is merely legal or responds to the need for certification of the conferment of Baptism or Confirmation. From a pastoral point of view, the document also presents it as a possible solution to meet those situations of incompatibility of the requirements for the role of godparent.

The age of the witness at Baptism or Confirmation it is not specified as in the case of Marriage, where the age of majority is required, or in the case of godparents where the age of the child is required 16 year old. Logically, for the age of the Witness, the evaluation of the Parish Priest or the Diocesan Bishop could be applied as a criterion., as in the case of the Godfathers can. 847 §1 n.2. During the celebration, differently from the Godfather and the Godmother, the Witness must not be given any active participation since their role is solely that of guarantors for the certification of the conferment of the Sacrament. Each diocesan bishop will be able to give further provisions regarding the celebratory context

As regards the registration of the baptismal certificate in the parish register it must be underlined that, in the case of the witness of a Baptism foreseen by can. 874 §2, the name and surname of the witness and the personal details must be noted as required by canon. 877 [5].

The certificate problem. The Code of Canon Law, in the canons dedicated to the godfather of baptism and confirmation, he never mentions the need to produce, from the godfather, or the parish priest, of any type of certificate / certificate / self-certification. We are faced with a case in which the practice has now taken on a meaning Besides the, often linked to the fact that the priest caring for souls does not have full knowledge to establish the admissibility of a person to the office of godfather, because he doesn't know him, comes from another parish, often far away, etc. etc…

“Canonizing” the civil order, we can observe how already in various dioceses and parishes, the "certificate of suitability" has been replaced with a "self-certification of suitability". But let's see what self-certification is: civil law has introduced the possibility of providing the Public Administration and private individuals with a declaration made and signed by a citizen which completely and definitively replaces some administrative certifications. This is why it is also called "substitute declaration". AND, so, a way to avoid bureaucracy and unnecessary waste of time, especially when you choose to self-certify online. According to the law, public offices are obliged to accept self-certification for the required practices. If not, would incur a violation of official duties. The situation is different when it comes to private individuals: whether or not to accept this declaration remains a matter of discretion for them. Therefore, the self-certification has the same legal and administrative value as the certificate or document it replaces. As long as the truth is told: if the data contained in the self-certification turns out to be false, the interested party loses all benefits.

Self-certification, being a declaration made personally by the interested party, it could reveal itself, if implemented in the local legislation of the diocese, a substantial simplification of work for priests caring for souls: the interested party will be able to declare himself the existence of the requirements for access to the office of godfather and commit himself in this sense to the Church directly in front of the parish priest who will have to administer the Sacrament, without requesting a certificate from the parish priest of residence which often the parish priest himself could not issue for the reasons set out above, that is, the impossibility for the priest to be able to certify a situation of which he may not be aware for a whole series of reasons that we know well.

Given the current situation, I believe that in pastoral practice, it would be worth making further efforts to restore dignity and value to the figure of the godfather, taking into account its pedagogical function but, even before, of the typically ecclesial connotation of his presence. We cannot hide the fact that the deviations of the past weigh on the figure of the godfather, but this cannot justify the emotional reaction of those who now consider it useless, nor of those who easily access the convenient solution of not requiring the presence of godparents, because he can't find any suitable ones. If there aren't any, they must be trained, through appropriate paths that enhance this office, which has the characteristics and dignity of a true lay ministry (cf.. The lay 23).

Among the various proposals, there are those who suggest engaging the godparents to keep watch, albeit discreetly, on the education of godchildren, warning the parish priest about deficiencies and deviations, in order to provide, within the scope of possibilities and limits, for a return to goodness. Somebody else, then, believes that they could be given the task of taking care of the godson in the event of an early orphan. Perhaps a reminder of that spiritual kinship that, de facto, comes to be established between godfather and godson, and to which the Code of 1917, recognizing its high sacramental and pastoral value, it connected a marital impediment, today no longer in force in the Latin code but fully understood and implemented as a law on marriage by the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.


Velletri of Rome, 11 November 2023



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