How to pick godparents: advice from the godfather of 26

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You have to get your daughter baptized, Father Kevin B. Walsh, pastor of Precious Blood Church in Culpeper, told his friends. The couple hoped to, but they didn’t know any practicing Catholics who could serve as godparents. Finally they asked him, “Well, would you be the godfather, Padre?” It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. And it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked.

Father Walsh is the godfather of 26 children and the confirmation sponsor of six more. His first godchild, his nephew Daniel Walsh, was baptized in 1987, shortly before he entered the seminary. A few of his godchildren are his nieces and nephews, he said, glancing at a list that helps him remember names, parents’ names and birthdays. Others are children of his friends or parishioners.

Maddie Lupo and her husband, Michael, met Father Walsh in 1989 through a Hispanic young adult group at St. Philip Church in Falls Church. He officiated at their wedding, and they named their first son Kevin after him. Later, they asked him to be the godfather of their now 10-year-old daughter, Tirzah. Lupo feels Father Walsh supports not just Tirzah but their whole family. “We’re so blessed to have him when we’re going through something,” said Lupo, the director of social ministry at Holy Family Church in Dale City. “He's there for us and for all of my kids.”

Likewise, Father Walsh has been part of Heather Perry’s family since before she and her husband, Doug, were married. “Father Kevin married (us) at St. James in Falls Church and we became friends with him through our pre-Cana,” she said. He baptized their children and is godfather to their 12-year-old daughter, Natalie. Some of her favorite memories of him include the nights he came to dinner at their house.

“(Afterward), we usually go into our family room and we play charades, Bible version. He’s always really good at Bible charades,” she said.

“(Father Walsh) just has such a strong, living faith,” said Perry.  We choose him as a godparent because “we thought he would be a good role model and that it was a nice way to have him be a part of (our) family.”

The practice of choosing godparents originated in the early church when incoming catechumens would choose an established Christian sponsor to vouch for the convert’s sincerity and intent to enter the church. Over the centuries, who and how many godparents a person could have varied.

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Fr. Walsh sits with his first godson, his nephew Daniel Walsh. Courtesy

During the mid-1500s, the Council of Trent decided that, at most, a person could have two godparents of different genders. Only when the Code of Canon Law changed in 1983 were priests allowed to be godparents, he said,  and a different priest or deacon must perform the baptism.

Father Walsh’s relationship with each godchild and their family differs. He has been blessed to be the priest to give some of them their first Communion or to officiate at their wedding. Some of them and their families have moved to Florida, Texas, Michigan and North Carolina. A few families or adult godchildren have drifted away from the faith. “God loves them all and I try to reach out to all of them in very different circumstances,” he said.

Especially while they’re still children, Father Walsh tries to visit regularly and to pray with them. He calls and gives them gifts for Christmas, birthdays and special occasions. He likes religious gifts such as a book of the saints, a rosary or a statue of Our Lady. Natalie recalls many years of receiving the Christian cartoon videos “Veggie Tales.” But he also sends money, or will take the child and their family out for ice cream “so they can see the joy of celebrating our family in Christ,” said Father Walsh.

While parents are and should be the primary educators of their children, Father Walsh said godparents have the important role of supporting the parents and the child. The Hispanic community has special reverence for a child’s godparents or compadres, which roughly translated means co-parent. “In the Hispanic community, you became part of the family,” said Father Walsh. Even if the godparent is a close relative, they will be called godmother or godfather, rather than uncle or aunt, he said. The spiritual relationship trumps all others.

A few weeks ago, he drove from Culpeper to visit his youngest godson in Falls Church. “He loves his padrino,” said Father Walsh. “When they tell him I’m visiting he gets all excited.”

When they reach elementary school, he’ll ask his godchild to read the Bible and listen as they tentatively sound out the newly learned words.

“I'm sure (being a godparent) has some of the same joys and sorrows parents have, though more indirectly,” he said. In good times and bad, “you keep on praying.” 

How to choose godparents

The church’s rules

— To be baptized in the Catholic Church, a child or adult needs at least one practicing Catholic to be their sponsor, also known as a godparent. He or she must have received all the sacraments of initiation and be in good standing with the church. If there are two godparents, it must be a man and a woman. A baptized Christian, usually the spouse of a practicing Catholic godparent, can be a witness to the baptism, but technically will not be a godparent.

Fr. Walsh’s advice

—  Try to pick someone who is both a friend and a faithful Catholic, said Father Walsh. “The first criterion is that they love their faith —  that’s the primary role of godparents,” he said. “That they’re a friend is not a sufficient reason (to choose them).” Still, having a friend be your child’s godparent naturally will make it easier for them to see and guide the child in the faith regularly. That they live nearby or are willing to visit is important as well. The godparents should encourage the parents in their own faith life, too. “Your friendship can be strengthened by sharing that sacrament,” he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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