In most countries of the world, to immigrate from another country and to become a permanent resident you will require a sponsor. A sponsor has to be someone who is already a citizen or a permanent resident in that country to which you wish to emigrate and who is willing to vouch for you, look after you, help you get ‘on your feet’, find a job, find a place to live, learn the rule of the country and adopt the local way of life. Can you imagine if the new migrant did not have a sponsor? Imagine how hard life would be with nobody to show them the way. Many migrants would fall into despair and fail in their new country. Quite possibly, they would eventually leave their new country and go back to their old country.
In the Church the same logical principles apply. When welcoming a new person (a catechumen) into the Church, it is a rule of the Church that they are assigned a sponsor. The sponsor is often given the name ‘God Parent’, especially when the catechumen is a child. The sponsor must be a baptised member of the Church and in good standing with the Church. In the early Church, the Bishop had to approve people to be allowed to sponsor others into the Church. Church literature of the second century suggests that the sponsors of the first centuries were usually deacons, deaconesses, hermits, virgins, and in general, persons dedicated to the service of the Church and thus capable of teaching the newly-baptised in the truths of the Christian faith. According to the “Apostolic Canons” (3, 16), a male Christian was obliged to take one deacon, and a woman one deaconess as sponsor. This practice has been maintained in the Church ever since, i.e., a person baptised is required to be sponsored by one person of the same sex. According to the Rudder (ch. 50, pt. 2), the person baptised, “when he leaves the saving bath, must be received by one faithful person.”
People can be baptised at any age. Usually if they are born into an Orthodox Christian family, they are baptised as soon as possible. However, other people learn about God later in life and may choose to be baptised as teenagers or adults. If one is baptised as a baby, then the Godparent takes on the responsibility of promising, on behalf of the child, to keep the Faith. If the catechumen is of age when baptised, then the sponsor is more of a coach or guide for the catechumen who must take personal responsibility for their own decision to become a Christian. So as you can see, to serve as a Godparent is both a special honour and imposes responsibilities.
The rules of our Church are that a sponsor must:
- Be older than 12;
- Have a sound knowledge of the faith;
- Not be guilty of overt sins, or in general a person who in the opinion of the community has fallen in his or her moral life;
- Be a baptised Orthodox Christian.
The Responsibilities of the Godparent only begin at baptism, the role really expands and hopefully blossoms as the Godparent and Godchild develop a close and loving relationship. As with any relationship, this spiritual one needs to be fostered and cared for in order for it to develop. The best way for this relationship to grow is through prayer. Pray for your Godchild and his or her parents, and the parents should encourage their child to pray for the Godparents. By doing this you are encouraging a relationship and giving it the spiritual basis on which to mature.
(Optional Extra bits)
If you are a godparent you might consider the following advice:
- Model your faith through your actions. Understand the sacraments as well as the teachings of the church so that you will be able to answer questions that your Godchild may have.
- Encourage the faith life through the types of gifts that you give your Godchild. Some examples of gifts are a bible, prayer book, books on the lives of saints, prayer rope, etc. By doing this you are giving tools to help your Godchild grow in the faith, and are helping him/her to start a personal library of Orthodox teachings.
- If you live in close proximity to your Godchild make yourself available to spend time with him or her. Find out when school activities and sports events are scheduled and try to go to a few. Plan a special time, whether for lunch or a trip to the zoo, to be with your Godchild. These times together will only help to make your relationship closer.
- If you live far away, call, write, or e-mail your Godchild. Send a letter at the beginning of a church season (Advent, Lent, etc.) to let him or her know that you will be praying for him. If possible, plan visits to see your Godchild.
- Emphasize the spiritual aspects of holy days. Make it a tradition to read the stories of the Nativity and Pascha with your godchild, and help his or her parents downplay the material and commercial aspects (Santa, the Easter Bunny, loads of loot in pretty wrapping). Give emphasis to the feasts of the Church instead.
- Ask what your godchild is learning in Sunday school… Discuss the lesson of the week.
- Help your godchild serve God. Choose a service project to work at regularly together, such as working at a hot-meal program or visiting parishioners in the hospital.
- Make your godchild “one of the family”. Include your godchild, and his or her parents and siblings, in your own family’s “social” events: reunions, picnics, camping trips, and zoo and museum outings.