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Ask a Franciscan: What is Required of Godparents?

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Q. What are the requirements for being a godparent? Do both godparents have to be Catholic? Must there be a man and a woman? Can godparents be changed later if the first ones turn out not to be very good role models?

A. Canon 874, #1, of the present Code of Canon Law says that the person selected must:
• be appointed by the person to be baptized, his/her parents or the parish priest and be suitable for the role and have the intention of fulfilling it,
• be at least 16 years old unless the local bishop sets a different age or the parish priest considers that there is a just reason for an exception,
• be a Catholic, be confirmed and have made his/her First Communion and “lives a life of faith which befits the role to be undertaken,”
• not be under any canonical penalty, and
• not be the father or mother of the person who is to be baptized.

Canon 874, #2, indicates that at least one of the godparents must be a Catholic. In fact, only one godparent is required (Canon 873).

When there are two godparents, they need to be a man and a woman so that the newly baptized will have a role model for each gender. Should the original sponsors later turn out not to be good role models in Catholic faith, the best solution is to find better role models and involve them more closely in the baptized person’s life. Under some circumstances, paperwork at the parish where a Baptism is registered can be changed. Doing that, however, will change little unless better role models have already been identified.

How Are Bishops Selected?

Q. How are bishops appointed in the United States? Does this vary from other parts of the world? Are Roman Catholic bishops appointed the same way as Eastern Catholic bishops?

A. The 178 Latin-rite dioceses and archdioceses in the United States are grouped into 31 ecclesiastical provinces. In most cases these include a single state; a few include several states. Only California has two archdioceses (Los Angeles and San Francisco).

Periodically, the bishops in an ecclesiastical province meet to suggest names of priests who could be appointed bishop. They discuss the men proposed and pass their assessment on to the nuncio, the pope’s representative in Washington, D.C. The nuncio sends a questionnaire to people who know these priests well, asking for assessments in several categories.

When the head of a diocese requests an auxiliary bishop, he draws up a list of three names (not limited to priests already suggested), rates them and sends them to the nuncio.

When a bishop is needed to head a diocese, the nuncio consults with the bishops of the ecclesiastical province to which that diocese belongs, with the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (who has a three-year term) and with others as the nuncio wishes.

In time, he will send three names (and his evaluation of each) to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome. That congregation has bishop-members, appointed by the pope, who meet almost weekly—except during the summer. The members study the recommendations already made and submit their preferred candidate and two alternate candidates to the pope, who is free to ask the congregation to consider other candidates and propose other names. In the end, the pope makes the choice.

In countries under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, that congregation enters into the process. The same is true for areas under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. In a few cases, the Holy See’s Secretariat of State is involved.

The procedure followed in the United States is basically the same one followed in other parts of the world now. In a few European dioceses, the cathedral chapter (a group of priests from the diocese) has the right to propose three names as head of the diocese, but the final choice is still made by the pope.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, certain governments had concordats (treaties) with the Holy See, giving those governments a role in appointing bishops. In most cases, more recent concordats have cancelled that role. In some countries, the pope’s representative is called an apostolic delegate because the Holy See and that country do not have formal diplomatic relations. In that case, the apostolic delegate does the nuncio’s work described above.

In some Eastern Catholic Churches, a bishop is elected by its synod of bishops; the pope then expresses his approval by expressing “ecclesial communion” with the new bishop.

Origins of the Celibacy Rule

Q. When did the Roman Catholic Church begin to require celibacy before a man could be ordained a priest? Why? Doesn’t this suggest that marriage is inferior to celibacy? Why doesn’t the Roman Catholic Church allow a married clergy as do the Eastern Churches (Orthodox and Catholic)?

A. By itself, a decision to remain single could mean very different things (great selfishness, great generosity or inability to choose a spouse).

In Matthew 19:12, Jesus praises a celibacy practiced “for the sake of the Kingdom.” Optional, lifelong celibacy for men became more common with Egypt’s desert hermits in the third century. By the year 303, the Council of Elvira (southern Spain) had prohibited sexual intercourse between a married priest and his wife. By the mid-fourth century, marriage after ordination started to be prohibited.

There are various reasons—influence of cultic purity laws for Old Testament priests, possible conflict over inheriting Church property, the teaching of Jesus cited above and St. Paul’s teaching on celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

The Orthodox Churches and Eastern Catholic Churches ordain married men as priests but select bishops from monks who have already made a lifelong promise of celibacy. A married priest who becomes a widower may not remarry.

The Second Lateran Council (1139) made celibacy mandatory for future priests in the Western Church.
In the last 40 years the Catholic Church has allowed some married, Protestant ministers to be ordained priests after they became Catholics. Most of these priests are not in full-time parish ministry.

In 1967, through his encyclical On Priestly Celibacy, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s rule about this. Section 1579 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”

A Gospel-based celibacy does not devalue marriage; it is another way of serving the Lord. What matters most for both vowed celibates and married people is generous faithfulness.

The Sorrowful Mother

Q. I recently came across the title “Our Lady of Sorrows” for Mary. I’ve never heard of this before and wonder about its origin and meaning.

A. According to the Dictionary of Catholic Devotions, by Michael Walsh, this title started to be used in the 12th century, but devotion to Mary as the Sorrowful Mother became more widespread in the 14th century, the era of the Black Death, the bubonic plague which killed off a third of Europe’s population. Her feast is celebrated on September 15.

As someone who experienced great sorrow during her life, Mary can help people currently experiencing great suffering. Devotion to Mary as the Sorrowful Mother says that God never abandons those who suffer, though at times that may be how they feel.

In portraying Mary while holding Christ’s body after it was taken down from the cross, Michelangelo and other artists have shown a faith-filled moment amid intense pain. To women and others who have experienced similar suffering (for example, many mothers in Latin America), the Sorrowful Mother devotion still speaks very powerfully.