Do you know what white meat is? Of course you do! It’s the edible flesh that comes from poultry. At least, that’s what it means in modern English. If you were to travel back to England the 1400s, however, “white meat” would have a very different meaning. In that stage of the English language, “meat” did not yet refer only to flesh meat, but instead meant any type of food. Therefore, “white meat” at that time meant those foods that were derived from milk. It would have made more sense at that time to have “white meat” with cereal rather than on a bed of asparagus. (White meat first appears to have been defined in the modern sense, as the opposite of “red meat,” in 1752.)

This is a secular example of one of Pope Francis’s four maxims, which he first laid out in Evangelii Gaudium: “time is greater than space.” The words “white meat” remained the same, as did its pronunciation. Nothing physical about the words changed one bit. But the thing that did change was time, and time is so powerful that it can change something’s meaning entirely without seeming to change anything. 

It is through this lens that we can investigate the decision of many bishops in Italy to suspend the practice of having sponsors — godfathers and godmothers — at the baptism of infants. Baptism is the introduction of a human being into the family of God. As a sacrament of initiation, it requires the promise that the person being baptized receive strong Christian formation. For a baby that is baptized, that Christian formation should come from that child’s parents. However, if something prevents the child’s parents from raising him or her in a Christian manner, then the baptismal sponsors — also known as godparents — can step in to ensure that the child receives the instruction necessary to be a faithful member of God’s family. Even if nothing happens to prevent the parents from raising their child in a Christian manner, the baptismal sponsor can be a voice on the sidelines, helping the child understand and love their faith in many different ways. 

Baptismal sponsors have been around nearly as long as Baptism itself. Tertullian testified to this before the Council of Nicea, as did Church Fathers who wrote after the Nicene era. Why, then, would Bishop Giacomo Cirulli — an Italian bishop of the diocese of Teano-Calvi in southern Italy — seek to suppress this long-established custom?

 Baptismal sponsors traditionally served to help the baptized person in living a Christian life. But in his letter, which went into effect on Easter Sunday, Bishop Cirulli cited as a reason for his decision the fact that baptismal sponsors were no longer connected to any real practice of the faith. He states that these sponsors, who should be guiding the baptized person throughout the entire journey of that person’s faith, are instead chosen according to mere social custom. Pastors generally require a sponsor at baptism, so parents — it seems — have fallen into mere legalism whereby they chose godparents who appear at the Baptism, and then have nothing else to do with the child’s faith formation.

Bishop Cirulli, in his letter, shows that he had read the signs of the times and concluded that in the contemporary sociological context, godfathers and godmothers had, for the most part, lost the value that they once had. There had been no change in the official rubrics or the law or even in the role of the baptismal sponsor. In a physical sense, everything has remained exactly the same. But when we factor in time, we see — just as running water can erode a rock — that time has weathered down the purpose of baptismal sponsors in the context of his diocese. The inner meaning of this time-honored practice of the Church was completely worn away, leaving only the empty husk of the law.

If we were to analyze the Italian bishops’ decision without factoring in the importance of time, then we might come to some erroneous conclusions. We might argue that the practice of baptismal sponsors is an immemorial practice of the Church, which has been attested to before the fourth century, and pointing out that St. Augustine attested to it in the fifth century. We could argue that the sudden suspension of this venerable practice was an implicit admission that the Holy Spirit allowed the Church to introduce a gravely harmful practice into the life of the Church, and then allowed it to exist for over a millennium. We might even argue that this implies that the Church was leading countless souls into error for centuries. 

But time is greater than space. Such an analysis fails to consider the ability of time to shape the meaning of any particular action. Due to time’s influence, things that were good can become corrupted. Reading the signs of the times, however, doesn’t always lead us in the same direction. Corrupted things can, over time, become pure as the driven snow. Lest we think that time can only corrupt and degrade, let us instead hope that, in due time, the role of the baptismal sponsor can once again retain its true purpose in Italy. Let us hope that time is able to heal this wound.

The key to returning godparents to their important role requires a return to intentionality. The Church and her pastors cannot merely look to procedures and hope that the implementation of procedures will be enough to ensure that the faith be passed on. Nothing so mechanical can cure this wound, which was caused by reliance on mere legal mechanisms in the first place. To bring back the practice of baptismal sponsors the Italian Church requires a focus on the purpose of the law and on the persons who carry out the law. Parents must begin asking themselves, “Why do I want this person to be my child’s godparent? Does this person have the necessary characteristics that would make him or her a good godparent?” Intentionality is the opposite of merely drifting. It is thoughtless drifting that changes “white meat” from milk to poultry. But by being intentional and focusing on the person, time can once again conquer space and return the role of godparent to its former glory, as well as to southern Italy.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baptism.JPG

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Joseph Sherer was baptized in his teens and was led by the Holy Spirit to the Catholic Church not long after. He is an attorney based in Texas, and enjoys volunteering to teach at his local parish.

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