Monday, February 2, 2015

The Godparent Police

Please don't put me in the middle. I thought as a college chaplain I would, at last, be free from dreaded requests from prospective godparents to sign a letter of "good standing."  Pastors get these requests all of the time, but as a college chaplain I thought I had been liberated from this particular torture. The requests, however, still come.  And, it always puts me in an awkward position.  

Here's how it often works.  Somebody either calls the priest or shows up.  They say, "I have been asked to be the godparent for my friend's baby, but the parish requires me to have this letter signed by my priest saying that I'm in good standing."  Inevitably, the baptism is "next Sunday and we need the letter today." The letter often asks me to testify that the person is a baptized and confirmed Catholic, (if applicable) married according to the laws of the Church, and attends Mass on Sundays.  Nine times out of ten, I've never met the person asking me to sign the letter.  

I try to be polite.  I try to make the person feel at ease.  But eventually, I have to ask that very awkward question.  "Honestly, I don't always recognize people, so maybe I just don't remember your face.  Do you come here for Mass?"  Now, we both feel awkward.  "Well, I haven't been to church recently, but when I do go, I come here."  I remember numerous times in my previous assignment having this discussion and it got really awkward when the person would say, "Well, I don't think I've been here since you came, but this is where I go.  When did you arrive at this parish?"  I'd get that pit in my stomach and I'd say, "Well, I came here thirteen years ago."  Awkward silence.  Then, the person would say, "Well, what if I promised that I would start coming to Mass more often?"  While I would encourage the person, it ultimately would come down to me having to sign the paper.  And, as gently as I would try to explain that I really couldn't testify to something that was untrue, the person would be upset with me (and the Church) for being so difficult.  I hate those forms. 

Sometimes I would write on the form, "John Smith assures me that it is his intention to begin attending Mass."  Then, I'd sign it.  I figured that put the ball back in the court of the parish that put this person in front of me in the first place.  From what I can tell, no parish ever rejected somebody as a godparent when I wrote that line on the form.  But, parishes that require this form (in that particular format) put priests in a very poor situation.  The priest either has to testify to something that is untrue or he has to refuse to sign it.  Neither option is particularly helpful.  

We often talk about baptisms, confirmations, first communions, marriages, and funerals as evangelization opportunities.  But, these letters don't help.  I wish priests wouldn't put me in this situation.  If the goal is to get godparents at least to meet a priest, then re-write the forms.  Just ask the priest to be a witness to what the godparent testifies to be true.  In other words, make the prospective godparent sign a letter saying "All of this is true."  Then, just ask the parish priest to sign saying, "John Smith testified in my presence that the above is true and accurate."  But please don't make me be the godparent police.

If parishes are really concerned about the quality of godparents, perhaps they should ask the prospective godparents to write a letter talking about their faith.  Or, maybe the godparent could meet with the parish priest where the baptism will take place or with a member of the baptism preparation team, either live or via Skype.  Perhaps the parish could send a letter to the person with a description of what it means to be a good godparent and then ask the person to write a letter explaining how they either fit that description or intend to begin living up to that description. 

If baptisms are indeed a key moment to reach out to Catholics who aren't practicing the Faith, the "Letter of Good Standing for Godparents" just isn't a good way to do it.  Making the priest the one who either approves or disapproves of this godparent is a recipe for alienation.  It's one of those small things that has a big impact.  I bet there are some parishes that are doing great things to help prospective godparents reengage their faith.  I'd be curious to know what others have found fruitful.  In the meantime, if you're a priest, please, please, please stop sending prospective godparents to me with those letters!  They don't like it and neither do I!


  1. Hey Padre,
    This unfortunate and awkward situation could easily be avoided, (& should not be put on the parishes nor priests) if the parents of the child to be baptized takes THEIR responsibility seriously and CHOOSES people who are practicing the Faith. Believe me, with a large brood, it was no easy task for us, and often families assume you will choose each brother and sister at some point as a godparent, as is only "fair". It takes deliberate and prayerful consideration. Sorry you have been put in this situation so often.

    Hope you are enjoying all this snow...aforementioned children are!

  2. I never knew about these letters. Interesting.