I was struck by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue’s recent post concerning godparents. He reported that a diocese in Italy has suspended the ministry of godparent for a three-year period of reflection and reform, the bishop giving as a reason that those chosen as godparents are often not suitable and are unprepared to undertake this ministry. The question of how to help godparents to fulfill their role is one of several issues surrounding infant baptism (the preparation of parents is another) with which everyone in parish ministry is familiar.
Leaving aside the question of godparent selection — which is important and deserves its own post — I’d like to share my thinking and process concerning the preparation of godparents. I worked in this area in parish ministry, with positive results. I see godparent preparation as part of the parish’s obligation to provide suitable catechesis for all sacramental celebrations, but also as an enjoyable and rewarding opportunity for faith renewal all around.
My views concerning godparent catechesis are influenced by my understanding of the conciliar reform of baptism, in which baptism is seen as one of the three sacraments of initiation. My ideas are also very much influenced by the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which I have worked to implement over many years in both parish and diocesan settings — a rite that highlights the importance of the faith community, evangelization, and ongoing conversion.
The reform of adult initiation, as students of the liturgy know, was always intended to be a fundamental reform that would give shape to other endeavors in the life of the church. Although the reform may not always be implemented fully, that’s the idea. Certainly adult initiation can and should have a salutary influence on how we imagine our practices surrounding infant baptism. The RCIA situates liturgical questions concerning baptism in an organic and integral relationship with both catechesis and pastoral care. This is a valuable approach for infant baptism as well.
The General Directory for Catechesis tells us that “the catechumenate is the model for all catechesis.” This is no accident. As Aidan Kavanagh, and many others who came after him, observed: the way one becomes a Christian is the way one remains a Christian. Indeed, baptism is not an isolated event in the life of a Christian; it is a paradigmatic passage that shapes an identity which endures. This is why we continue to reference baptism throughout the Christian life, all the way up to and including the funeral rites. It’s that fundamental. Thus everyone who participates in the rites of Christian initiation, at whatever level, is touching something very basic at the core of belief and belonging. By this very act, they are invited into faith renewal and engagement. When we take the RCIA as the model, new horizons open up and new tools come into play. The question is: How do we use them in particular pastoral settings?
Unfortunately, I’ve found through the years that although fruitful baptismal preparation for parents and godparents is a goal, we lack a variety of models of what it might look like in practice. It’s not uncommon for parishes to hold some sort of baptismal preparation “class.” Yet seldom are these gatherings influenced in any real way by what we have learned of the dynamics of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. They owe more to a model of institutional affiliation (the bureaucracy of joining the church) and classroom education than to liturgical catechesis or faith formation or evangelization.
To offer an illustration: the typical “baptismal prep” consists of a lecture on what baptism is and a rehearsal which is really neither catechetical nor liturgical — and which generally sucks the mystery out of the rite, reducing it to its functional minimum of “stand here” and “move there.” “Explaining the symbols,” which also frequently is a feature of these sessions, is a terrible idea that many liturgists rightfully avoid. Yet some pastoral ministers who conduct baptismal preparation do precisely this — despite the fact that the symbols, if they are big enough, speak very well for themselves.
For many parishes, the godparents are not even invited or required to participate in any preparation. Somehow it is considered too much of a burden. The effect of this is clear. Godparents are treated as “extras” in the baptismal event, supernumeraries, and they know it. We tacitly acquiesce in the assumption that being a godparent is a ceremonial one-shot deal. Better models are needed.
When I conducted the infant baptismal preparation program at a parish, it was my hope to configure the process so that it would be more fruitful. The norm was set that attendance of godparents at the preparation was required. This was a practical necessity. If it wasn’t required, it would not be seen to be important, and no one would do it. Establishing this norm is a hurdle, for sure. But once you’re over it, and the expectation is clear, it helps people to know that they are considered important players in the process.
One time a godparent said to me, “We’ve been to a baptismal preparation class before, do we have to go again?” To which I replied: “Is it the same child?” This reply (offered with a twinkle) startled them, but it also put them on notice. What we were going to do was not merely to convey information or explain a few things they already knew. Rather, we were going to reflect together on what this child meant for their faith today and what baptism would mean for the child’s life to come.
We made good on that promise. When they gathered we began by inviting them to tell the story of the birth of this child and to share something of what this new life meant to them. In other words, we began with their experience and discovered the good news embedded in it. Then we transitioned to the Word of God, the “Great Story” that enlightens our own personal stories and takes us further into the mystery of God’s grace.
I felt it was important in the preparation to make a strong and explicit link to the Easter Vigil, because the Vigil is both the center of the church year and the premier setting for baptism. I told them so explicitly, in order to introduce the story of The Crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus — a text so critical that it is the one obligatory Old Testament reading of the Vigil.
After telling that story, which is quite dramatic, I supplied a very brief interpretation, presenting the saving act of God in the Exodus as one which illuminates the meaning and the promise of baptism. The Israelites were facing an immovable obstacle, with an implacable foe at their back. Their situation looked desperate, yet God opened a way. Just as God opened a way for the Israelites, so God will open a way for these children — in the storms of life that are sure to come. In the event at the sea, the water is dangerous, but it is also the medium of God’s saving work.
From the New Testament I chose Matthew’s account of The Great Commission. This establishes that it was Jesus’s will that we should baptize. It was also a reminder of Jesus’s promise: “I will be with you always.” Thus the church baptizes in obedience to the command of Jesus. What we plan to do therefore is to extend the promise that was made to those first disciples to these children today, incorporating them into the community of disciples that is the church.
The dynamic embedded in the idea of promise and fulfillment is very important to an adult understanding of conversion, Christian life, and mission. This is not just my idea, but has been supported by research into the catechumenate. Promise propels us forward. I found that, when working with parents and godparents, the idea of promise resonated. Baptism is not merely about “getting the baby done,” or rescuing the child from limbo if it should die, or celebrating one special day. It is about the whole of the life of faith.
Our reflections on the Word set the stage for the next piece of the preparation. I asked them to work in small groups (parents and godparents, groups of four) to craft their own words in response to the questions at the doors of the church. “What do you ask of God’s church?” is a very important question, after all. Seeking and asking are part of the ritual. I believe that we need to inhabit those spaces intentionally and make them our own, if they are to bear fruit.
They worked at their responses and wrote them down on index cards. I circulated around the room, previewing what they came up with to be sure they were on the mark (which they usually were). These were not one-word answers! Their responses were real, they were beautiful, and the words were their own. People in the congregation always remarked on this afterwards. You could see that they were not just “saying a line” but had thought through what they were seeking for this child.
We then did a walk-through of the ritual, in church. Practical questions were asked and answered. But by then they knew why we were doing what we were doing, and could easily grasp the underlying flow of the service. We used all the stations of the baptismal liturgy: the doors, the ambo, the font, and the altar.
On the day of baptism itself, we had one final step of the preparation. We all gathered in a separate room fifteen minutes before the liturgy, and prayed earnestly — as you might before an important undertaking. We sang a refrain, read a short patristic reading and prayed a litany to conclude. Just as the RCIA has preparation rites on Holy Saturday morning, the parents and godparents had a preliminary “liturgy preparing for liturgy.” Many of these folks were not very liturgically-oriented, but they were “all in” for all of it.
To sum up: what were the elements of this preparation of godparents? Gathering in community, sharing, reflecting on human experience, hearing the Word and relating the Great Story of God to this moment in our own journey, proclaiming the good news of Jesus and the mission of the Church, engaging in the ritual *from within* enhanced by legitimate adaptations, sharing group prayer in proximate preparation for the liturgy, and experiencing the fullness of the ritual itself taking place throughout the church.
These strategies are all inspired by the RCIA. The one element that was missing was mystagogy, but that was largely what the liturgical homily provided.
Did everybody have an “aha moment” during the experience of baptismal preparation? Did all the godparents experience a deep conversion on the spot? Of course not. We didn’t expect it. But, here again, the RCIA comes to our aid with its talk of a “gradual process in the midst of the community.” The exercise of godparent preparation should be seen as part of a longer journey. The hope is that by proclaiming Good News in this encounter, the parish helps these people take a step that further opens up the journey of faith for them in a helpful way — and encourages them to keep on walking. I will say this: Nobody ever found it “too long” or “boring.” In fact, many of them came back, joyfully, when we offered a reunion for the families later, as we did on an annual basis.
The bishop who suspended godparents for a period of three years must have felt he needed a break with the past and a new beginning. Presumably he knows his people and his priests, and felt it was time for drastic action in order to foster meaningful change. For most of us, however, the task is to progress, step-by-step, in renewal of the ministries of Christian initiation.