Baptismal sponsors were necessary on both a practical and spiritual level.
Godparents in today’s world are typically seen as spiritual uncles or aunts, who play a small role in the baptismal ceremony and then send cards on their godchild’s birthday. Outside of those instances, the role of godparents in modern culture is virtually absent.
However, in the Early Church, Christians needed sponsors for some very important reasons.
Baptism in the first few centuries was typically conducted in secret, as frequently Roman emperors were busy persecuting Christians. This meant that Christians had to be wary about those whom they admitted into the faith. It was entirely possible that someone desiring baptism was actually a spy trying to infiltrate their secret meetings! A random person was not allowed, unless accompanied by a Christian known by the priests and bishops of the local community.
Writer D.D. Emmons at Our Sunday Visitor explains another reason why sponsors were needed.
Christians were cautious and worshiped covertly. Anyone who wanted to join their community was carefully evaluated; in the vernacular of today, they were “vetted.” Each person who came forward, called an inquirer, was always accompanied by someone already Christian, a sponsor, who would vouch for the inquirer. The sponsor specifically attested to the person’s sincerity and moral character.
Basically, someone wasn’t admitted into the Christian community unless an already existing member could present them and attest to the authenticity of their desire.
The sponsor would also accompany the inquirer throughout the process of becoming a Christian, helping them every step of the way. This is also why sponsors or “godparents” would be required for the baptism of infants.
While parents of a child were primarily responsible for the education of their children in the faith, this was not an easy task in the Roman Empire and they needed the assistance (and accountability) of others.
The current Code of Canon Law reflects this early Christian custom.
“Insofar as possible, one to be baptized is to be given a sponsor who is to assist an adult in Christian initiation, or, together with the parents, to present an infant at the baptism, and who will help the baptized to lead a Christian life in harmony with baptism, and to fulfill faithfully the obligations connected with it” (No. 872).
If the parents died or failed in their ability to raise the child in the Christian faith, godparents would step-in and ensure the child was properly educated.
Godparents today follow in this tradition, and while they are often viewed in a more symbolic manner, they are encouraged to live-up to their obligations and be a strong example of Christian discipleship for their godchild.
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