Six times a year I turn the page in my diary and feel a stab of remorse. There it is, etched in block capitals: “SAM’S BIRTHDAY NEXT WEEK”, followed by five similar warnings over the course of the year – one for every godchild’s birthday. My panicked scribbles reflect my guilt because I must confess I’m not a great godparent. Sending a birthday card on time is the least I should do.
But what else are godparents supposed to do? Pray for our godchildren is the obvious response, but this isn’t the part I struggle with most. I suppose that, like other godparents I have spoken to over the years, I just feel a bit lost as to how to be a good one.
According to the Code of Canon Law, godparents should “help the baptised to lead a Christian life in harmony with baptism, and to fulfil faithfully the obligations connected with it.” This interpretation is not exclusive to Catholicism: it is shared by the Church of England too. Yet the definition of a godparent today in reality has become so elastic it can border on the meaningless.
Kate and William chose a whopping seven godparents for Prince George, which is actually not unusual for royals. More than two godparents is also an increasingly common choice among the hoi polloi, especially for thoroughly nice English people who feel rude if they leave anyone out.
But what really struck me about Prince George’s christening was the media coverage. The Daily Telegraph reported: “From Olympian cousin Zara Philips to the new Duke of Westminster, the young prince is certainly not short of a few friends in high places.” It was as if journalists weren’t even bothering to pretend that godparenting is about God any more.
Don’t get me wrong: Kate and Wills may have chosen the godparents because they are all devoutly Christian. But the fact that the media barely considered the issue of faith shows that the role is no longer deemed to bear any relevance to Christianity.
This, I think, makes it even harder to try to be a good godparent in the traditional sense. If your god-daughter is exchanging notes with her peers and discovers that normal godparents stand out for giving great birthday presents and never mention God, she may start to think you are downright weird, especially if her own parents rarely mention religion either.
If that’s the case, then as a Catholic you might feel all the more obliged to talk God. But I’m not a natural evangeliser. It’s very difficult to casually strike up a conversation about religion during an episode of Peppa Pig without really cheesing a child off, and I always feel a bit mean sending a book about St Thérèse of Lisieux for birthdays when I know what they really want is Lego.
This is where godparents need the Church’s practical guidance. First, in order to convince us about the gravity of what we are taking on, there should be some sort of preparation day for first-time godparents led by their parish priest, as with any other sacramental occasion.
Second, parish priests should encourage godparents to mark their godchild’s baptismal anniversary with a card, a gift or even a day out. This would be an effective way of gently introducing godchildren to the fact that they share a unique bond with their godparent and encourage a natural conversation about life’s big questions when they’re a bit older.
It wouldn’t have to be an ultra-pious gesture – just a reminder that, as far as the Church is concerned, the date of your baptism is the date of your rebirth, and that’s something that’s worth celebrating.
At the beginning of married life there are many changes. They sometimes include changing parishes. Now that I am married, the city’s cathedral is closest to me and going to Mass there has been a real eye-opener because of the number of colourful characters that the cathedral attracts. During Mass the other week, a dishevelled man stood up and yelled right before the Consecration “Mass is disgusting! Disgusting!” before strolling out. No one even flinched.
After he left, I couldn’t help wondering how the Eucharist could provoke such animosity. If belief in Jesus is, as Richard Dawkins would have us think, tantamount to a belief in the tooth fairy, why does it provoke such anger?
Maybe it’s because deep down people recognise, whatever their beef with the Church, that something real is taking place every time a priest offers Mass. After all, how many people get angry about the tooth fairy?