Godparent: “A person who presents a child at baptism and promises to take responsibility for their religious education.”
I know we’ve come a long way in this now largely secular country since the days when religion ruled the roost. But, my god, it takes a certain type of wilfully blind ignorance not to understand the description of a godparent.
Just because modern godparents choose to ignore that role doesn’t mean the job description changes.
Just because an entire family — parents, godparents, Uncle Tom Cobley and all — can go through all the bells and whistles of a baptism while privately vowing to never bring up the child as religious in any way, doesn’t change the job description either.
And when the Catholic Church puts its foot down and decides to point out one of the rules of joining its club, it is not an example of the old guard regaining some sort of foothold on its old theocracy. It’s just a reminder of one of the tenets of calling yourself a Christian.
It’s basic human decency to recognise this fact and — hey, here’s a radical thought — either agree to abide by the rules, or decide not to have a baptism at all. Even though that may mean missing out on buying a new €300 dress and the chance to pour vast quantities of booze down your neck.
Of course, we live in godless times, and when a Cork priest spoke out on this issue this week, reminding potential members of his flock of their godparental duties, he was roundly condemned for merely doing his job.
Gurranabraher Parish Priest Fr Tomás Walsh denounced parents who select non-believers as godparents to their children. People who had “no faith at all”, he said, were effectively “lying in the face of God”.
Fr Walsh added that it was “outrageous” that such people were permitted to make promises to God that they will oversee the faith formation of the God-child, when it is never their intention to lift a finger in that direction.
His tone was strong and hinted at long-standing exasperation on this issue, but there can be little doubt that the priest was occupying the moral high ground in what he was saying.
Being asked to be a godparent should mean something to a relative or family friend. It is an honour that is meant to carry duties far beyond the baptism ceremony, the mumbled responses, and the inevitable post-drinks reception.
Just because successive generations of godparents have chosen to ignore this, and just because successive priests have allowed families a free ride on it, doesn’t mean a precedent has been set. None of this changes the description of a godparent, as outlined in the description above.
Like most elements of Christianity, godparents have a long and respected history. I guess they have always been viewed as a bit of spiritual insurance, in case anything happens to the parents.
In the very early days, the child’s natural parents assumed the role themselves, although, in 408AD, St Augustine suggested that other people could be godparents too, in exceptional circumstances — perhaps when the parents had died, or perhaps if a relative was a priest or a holy person.
However, within a century of St Augustine’s words, parents had been omitted from the role completely. Indeed, by 813, a Synod prohibited natural parents from acting as godparents to their own children.
By the early middle ages, the tradition of having a godmother and godfather from each sex was well-established.
In the Catholic faith of Fr Walsh, a godparent must be an ‘appropriate’ person, at least 16 years old, a confirmed Catholic who has received the Eucharist.
This clearly qualifies a multitude of people in a place like Cork for the role, but if a family do not choose an ‘appropriate’ person as godparent, who will ‘promise to take responsibility for their child’s religious education’ then they are not entering into the spirit of the occasion — and a priest is well within his rights to point that out.
Sadly, whenever a priest sticks their head above the parapet these days and speaks out on an issue of faith, it is customary for people to throw back the many accusations and terrible instances of abuse within the Catholic Church, as if this precludes the many good people in the Church from having an opinion on anything.
This is unfair and uncivilised. Fr Walsh was only spelling out a basic truth — when you’re selecting someone to be a godparent, the clue really is in the name.
Of course, the prevalence of á la carte Christianity — forsaking all elements of the religion bar the boozy days out — can be seen in other sacraments aside from baptism.
Fr Walsh also spoke out against couples who choose to get married in a church simply because it is a nice building.
“There are a number of alternatives nowadays for getting married,” he pointed out. “A church is not the only option and I always stress this to anyone thinking of getting married in a church. It is a charade if they do not have faith themselves.”
Charade: “An absurd pretence intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.”
I would humbly suggest that Fr Walsh’s knowledge of the dictionary is on a par with his knowledge of the Bible!
The one area where I felt the priest strayed offside in his criticisms, was in his annoyance at young children ruining the solemnity of sacraments.
“It is becoming increasingly impossible to conduct baptism ceremonies with children running wildly around the church,” he complained, “and adults, obviously only present for the celebrations afterwards, not caring about the disturbance they or their children are causing.”
I think that most parents try hard to restrain boisterous children in church, and it can sometimes be an impossible task — take it from me that an indulgent smile from the clergyman in those trying times can be a blessed relief!
Too many mass congregations these days resemble God’s waiting room, and discouraging parents from attending with their children will do nothing to alleviate that.
That said, Fr Walsh concluded his remarks to The Echo about unruly children in the pews with an illuminating point.
“This is happening in every church in the country but ‘political correctness’ forbids one from speaking out,” he stated.
Ah yes, political correctness. The only true ‘religion’ we seem to have left in Ireland...