That’s a question that faces all Christian parents of a newborn child, and the answer to that question reflects the importance the Church places on those who enter it through the sacrament of baptism.
Baptism is, after all, the gateway to Christianity. When a person is baptized, he or she dies to a life without Christ and rises to a new life with Christ. That’s why we say that a newly baptized person is “born again.”
By accepting baptism, a person is proclaiming that birth in the natural world, with all of its limitations, pales in comparison to the promise of an abundant and eternal life that is found in the way and truth of Christ. Original sin, which is the inclination to sin that we inherited as a result of our fallen nature, is removed and we are given the hope of freedom from sin that comes from being a child of God.
Baptism is the gateway to Christianity, but it is actually the first of three sacraments that bring a person fully into the Christian life. The remaining two are confirmation and holy Eucharist. It is through the holy Eucharist that a baptized person is nourished by the very life of Christ. Christ is the bread of life that gives a person the strength to live the Christian way in a world that challenges him or her to do so every day. Through confirmation, a baptized person is given the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the tools that are essential to live the Christian life.
Progression through these three sacraments indicates that initiation is part of a journey. Just as it is necessary to have a guide when making a journey through anything, a person needs a guide when making the journey through faith in Christ. That’s where the sponsor comes in. It is the responsibility of a sponsor to be a guide, to accompany and help the baptized person to navigate his or her way through the Christian life.
It becomes the work of parents to consider thoughtfully to whom, among their family or friends, they would entrust the responsibility of being a good and reliable guide for their child. In fact, during the rite of baptism the sponsors are asked, “Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?”
A guide can only be someone who is familiar with the journey ahead, and a guide or sponsor for a baptized person must be someone who is familiar with living the Christian life, someone who knows the hills and valleys, the strengths and joys, and who can provide useful example and welcome encouragement.
Therefore, to help a person fully embrace the Christian life, it is necessary that a sponsor be someone who has fully embraced the Christian life, as well, someone who has received all three sacraments of initiation. That person must, of course, have been baptized himself or herself, have been equipped with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and, finally, have been fed by the very life of Christ at Mass each week.
It also follows that a suitable sponsor must have some years of experience in walking the way of Christ, so the Church requires the sponsor to be at least 16 years old. Since the laws of the Church are meant to chart a person’s course faithfully to Christ, a sponsor should be someone who lives according to those laws and, if married, must be in a marriage recognized as valid by the Church.
It’s an honor to be a sponsor for a child, but it’s an honor because it’s a great responsibility. When parents choose someone to be a sponsor, it is because they find that person worthy of the role.
“Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” A suitable sponsor for baptism should be able to answer that question with a heartfelt “yes,” the affirmation of someone who tries to follow the way of Christ always and who wants to be a good guide to help others do the same.
Father John Gwozdz is pastor of St. Edmund Campion Parish in East Hartford.