In traditional Catholicism godparents primarily serve as witnesses for a child’s baptism. This is the “core” reason for their existence. Just as when you get married in a traditional Catholic church you must have two witnesses to stand for you and also to say you are making a “good” choice, to try and minimize annulments later on, godparents are saying this child has a high chance of being raised in the Catholic faith. A godparent is saying there is a good chance this child will be raised in the Catholic faith and that the godparent will help out in any way they can. The godparent is making a lifelong commitment to the child.
Legally a godparent is called a “sponsor,” Latin for “sponsor,” a person of either sex who speaks for the one be baptized during the ceremony and after Baptism assumes spiritual guardianship over the subject. “A sponsor must be baptized, sixteen years of age, and, at the font, must physically hold, touch, or receive the candidate. Parents, heretics, schismatics, and excommunicated are excluded. The sponsor contracts a spiritual relationship with the godchild.” (The New Catholic Dictionary; page 919; Copyright 1929.)
You get to choose Catholic godparents once in your child’s life. The Church gets to approve your choice. Yes, a Priest can reject your choice of godparent, and you must choose a new one. Once you have chosen, and the Church approved, and the baptism has happened, godparents can never be changed. Their name will go on the permanent baptism records for that child. These records often have legal standing in civil government. If the baptism records are lost for some reason, you have two people who can attest that this child was in fact baptized at this place and time. The godparent has legal standing in the Catholic Church. For example, it is immoral for a godparent to marry a godchild. Also by legend or “old wives tale” a pregnant woman does not accept being a godparent to another child or she increases her chances of miscarriage and stillbirth.
“A decree of Justinian, dated to 530, outlawed marriage between a godfather and his goddaughter, and these barriers continued to multiply until the 11th century, forbidding marriage between natural and spiritual parents or those directly related to them. As a confirmation emerged as a separate rite from baptism from the 8th century, a second set of sponsors, with similar prohibitions, also emerged. The exact extent of these spiritual relationships as a bar to marriage in Catholicism was unclear until the Council of Trent, which limited it to relationships between the godparents, the child, and the parents.”
If the baptism is to happen at another parish, it is traditional to get a letter from your Catholic pastor stating that you are active and in good standing at your home parish. This letter can then be given to the Pastor, who will baptize the child and may not know you directly. The sponsor must have completed his sixteenth year unless the local Bishop has established another age for sponsorship, or the pastor or minister judges that a just cause warrants an exception to the rule. He must be a Catholic, who has received the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Confirmation, and “leads a life in harmony with the faith and the role to be undertaken.” Moreover, the sponsor cannot be impeded by some canonical penalty. Ideally, this sponsor at the baptism should also be the sponsor for confirmation. Note that the mother and father of the child cannot serve as sponsors. Also, note, that religious such as a priest, brothers and nuns cannot act as sponsors. Religious are excluded because they have a low chance of being able to commit to a single child as they have duties to the greater Christian community. Also, note that these are the same requirements for confirmation sponsors. (Cf. Code of Canon Law, No. 874.1).
Only practicing Catholics in good standing can be godparents or sponsors. However, if you have one godparent who is Catholic the other “sponsor” can be involved, as long as they are validly baptize Christians but are called a “Christian Witness.” The non-Catholic Christian may be a “Christian witness” to the baptism along with the Catholic godparent as long as they were baptized under the Catholic understanding of a triune God. This means people who are Mormons or Latter Day Saints (LDS), Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, or any other non-orthodox Christian faith cannot be involved in a Catholic baptism as a Christian Witness. The reason for this distinction and restriction is that the godparent not only is taking responsibility for the religious education and spiritual formation of the baptized person, but also is representing the Church, the community of faith, into which the person is being baptized. Thus, one of the sponsors must be a practicing Catholic, and the other must be at minimal a baptized Christian. This is important now-a-days as the Catholicism gets smaller and smaller, as it may be hard to find people who have the time to be involved in your child’s life and are practicing Catholics. A note of interest are that followers of Orthodox Churches of the East can be Catholic godparents.
What are the basic responsibilities of a sponsor or godparent? The first responsibility of the godparent is to get the child to baptism that should happen “as soon as possible” after birth and to witness that baptism. I think of this as to help the parents (mostly the mother) through their pregnancy. The “core” thing the sponsor or godparent does is witness at the child’s baptism; thus they need to be physically at the child’s baptism. They must physically handle the child at baptism. The Council of Trent solidified Catholic dogma to say that even children must be baptized to atone for original sin, even though children obviously have no individual sin. Thus getting the child to baptism is critical. The afterlife status of babies who die before baptism (stillbirths, miscarriages, abortions, accidents) is unknown. That is Catholic teaching, even if it is painful. We say, “we put these poor lost souls at the foot of the cross.” We also pray for them constantly. If there is any risk to the child, they are to be baptized immediately with no delay. Even the requirement for a godparent is waived if the child’s life could be in danger. Second “big” commitment is to try and be the sponsor at the child’s first Communion and Confirmation when they enter the Catholic faith. Often godparents will also be involved in life events such as marriage. The Spanish (Portuguese) words for the godparent roles are used for members of the wedding party—padrino (padrinho) meaning “godfather” or “best man” and madrina (madrinha) meaning “godmother” or “matron of honor”—reflecting the custom of baptismal sponsors acting in this role in a couple’s wedding. Thus, the godparent has a place of honor through the child’s life, baptism, first Communion, Confirmation, and Marriage.
Godparents are not “gift-givers.” It is wrong to expect godparents to give gifts for Christmas, birthdays, feast days and such. However for me, the reverse is highly encouraged. I encourage our children to call their godparent on their birthday, send their grandparents stuff they make and remember their godparents in their prayers. The point of the godparent is to witness at the child’s baptism and then to help the child out over their life. I still see nothing wrong with looking at practicing Catholics who also have the flexibility and financially stability to assist the child. Catholics who can travel to a first Communion, or Confirmation as we will be moving. A person who can financially be part of these major milestones. I personally look for Catholics (or Christians) who may not have large families of their own, and can take the time and resources to fly out to visit and be in the child’s life through multiple life events.