Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Baptism By Fire: The Unwilling Godparent's Dilemma

But he has to, Don! He's not Catholic!
Recently, a good friend of mine contacted me because he is facing a particularly awkward family situation. My friend was born into a Catholic family, but he is not religious himself. His brother asked him to be the godfather to his newborn niece, and he is incredibly uncomfortable being placed into such a situation. The first half of this post is our exchange on the matter, with only minor edits for clarity. For the sake of confidence, I have changed my friend's name to Tim and his niece's to Lily. Tim's words are in italics:

I don't think it's right for me to be given such a role as a godparent. First of all, one of the first things I have to do is apparently get permission from a local church priest to be a godfather, which means I have to flatly lie to a priest about being a church-goer. I'm not a religious person, as you know, but I still am not comfortable with this. I may not be a believer, but I do like to keep the option of a God in my mind, just in case I'm wrong and need to make some serious deathbed repentance. God's supposed to be forgiving, but I feel like He wouldn't be pleased with me lying to a priest like that.

Now, I have attempted to tell my brother and his wife that I am not the right choice, but they laugh it off as, "Ha, ha, Tim is bad with kids." I've repeatedly tried to inform my family that I don't share their beliefs, but they refuse to accept it. I could simply step away from the role and refuse to take part, but then that will likely cause a ripple effect in which I become a prick in the eyes of my whole family. If they are going to baptize Lily, it should be with someone who is at least tangentially attached to the faith. That's only right. My participation in such a sacred ceremony would be making a mockery of the whole thing, and I don't wish that. You may recall I'm not even comfortable celebrating Christmas, because it is a religious holiday, and since I don't practice the religion, I feel my exploitation of the holiday for gifts is rude.

So, I guess the question is, how pissed would God be if I did this?

You're actually approaching this in a very mature and thoughtful way. Ironically, your discomfort with taking on the role of godfather to your niece is in better keeping with Catholic teaching than your family trying to shoehorn you into it. A godfather isn't just an honorary title. It is a serious position in which the adult mentors the child in the Faith. For you to become a godparent and yet not be willing to uphold the Faith would cheapen the role and do Lily a disservice. Remember: You are not rejecting being her uncle. You can still love her and spoil her, no matter how bad you are with kids.

And keep in mind as well, you participate directly in the religious rite:
Celebrant: Do you reject Satan?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Celebrant: And all his works?
Parents and Godparents: I do.
Celebrant: And all his empty promises?
Parents and Godparents: I do.
I doubt you would be particularly comfortable during that part! This isn't about shirking responsibility or being a bad uncle. It's not even really about you. It's about Lily. She is the one being baptised. She is the one who will (theoretically) be formed into a Catholic. This is her day, not yours or even her parents'. Familial pride in naming you as her godfather is not a valid reason to make you her godparent. Neither of my godfathers, for example, was a blood relative, but I still call them "Uncle", just as my niece and nephew call their godparents aunts and uncles, despite their not being our relatives. Sometimes, polite rejection is the greatest act of love one can perform. It is for Lily's spiritual welfare that you not accept this role. If anything, you could probably talk to the priest (or any priest, if you are unsure as to who will be forming the baptism) yourself, and he can help you with this. He will appreciate the respect you are affording the Sacrament and the Church in consulting with him. And God will, too.


Tim's situation isn't really anything new. Godparents are very often merely close family or friends, regardless of their particular devotion. I am reminded of an interview with comedian Simon Pegg. He is an atheist, but he is also the godfather to Apple, the daughter of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Martin is the godfather to his daughter, in return. When asked what makes a good godparent, Pegg responded:
Chris is a great godfather to my daughter. It's about being a good influence and a fun presence. I conferred those duties upon Chris because I thought he would be inspirational as a person and a musician. He bought her a beautiful vintage 1968 Epiphone guitar for her first Christmas. He's doing well so far.
Notice that there is no religious significance to Pegg's role whatsoever. This is unsurprising, given that the UK is a far more secular country than our own. Even the State-established Church of England has gutted its baptismal rite, so that the language does not offend irreligious participants.

The appropriate response to the C of E's watered-down baptismal rite.
In short, a godparent by definition (and really, by its very etymology: godparent) should be a member of the Church in good standing. Technically, the baptismal candidate only needs one godparent, not two or three or even four-plus. Baptism is the "doorway" to the Faith. In fact, many older churches keep their baptismal fonts near their entrances to convey that symbolism; moving the font to the front of the church is largely a post-Vatican II innovation.

We should all hope that our children — and those baptised later in life — have positive, faithful role models to guide them in the Faith. Likewise, we should also hope that those who are not devout would refrain from taking on the role of baptismal sponsor. There are many ways to love and cherish our youngest family members, but imperilling their souls with misguided social rites is not one of them.

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