The first official role of the sponsor happens in the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. After the seekers have said what they are looking for from the church and have promised to follow the gospel way of faith, the presider turns to the sponsors and asks:
Sponsors, you now present these candidates to us; are you and all who are gathered here with us, ready to help these candidates find and follow Christ? (53)
It seems like such a simple question with an obvious answer. But as with all ritual questions, it is loaded with import. If a sponsor is going to answer authentically, they have to deeply understand their role as sponsor. The rite tells us:
Sponsors are persons who have known and assisted the candidates and stand as witnesses to the candidates’ moral character, faith, and intention. (10)
There are three important things a sponsor has to do here:
- Get to know the candidate
- Assist the candidate
- Stand up for the candidate as a witness
(Note that in this section of the rite, “candidate” means “candidate for baptism.” However, the principles also apply to baptized candidates for reception into full communion or baptized candidates for confirmation.)
Get to know the candidate
The “getting to know you” process between a seeker and a sponsor is a lot like anyone getting to know a new friend. But there is one important difference. The sponsor’s goal is to become a friend in faith. That means the sponsor has to be willing to open up about their own faith journey, their own struggles with remaining faithful to the gospel, their own joy that faith in Christ has given them. And it means the sponsor has to listen deeply to the seekers hopes and goals. The sponsor has to have an open, nonjudgmental attitude. As much as possible, the sponsor has to be an ambassador of Christ for the seeker.
Assist the candidate
The seeker is likely going to have a lot of questions. Some seekers might be anxious or worried about the initiation process. Many seekers worry that they won’t be able to “learn” enough to become Catholic. A key role of the sponsor is to be a rock of support for the seeker. Sponsors do not need to know the answer to every question the seeker has. They do not need to be experts in Catholic doctrine. They do not need to know what every step of the initiation process entails. Other members of the team can cover all of that. The most important thing a sponsor needs to do is literally and figuratively place a comforting hand on the seeker’s shoulder and assure them that everything is going to be just fine.
Stand up for the candidate as a witness
At the Rite of Acceptance, when the sponsor answers “yes” to the presider’s question about helping the seeker find and follow Christ, they are also testifying to the candidate’s “moral character, faith, and intention.” The rite says:
Before the rite [of acceptance] is celebrated, therefore, sufficient and necessary time, as required in each case, should be set aside to evaluate and, if necessary, to purify the candidates’ motives and dispositions. With the help of the sponsors (see no.10), catechists, and deacons, parish priests (pastors) have the responsibility for judging the outward indications of such dispositions. (43; emphasis added)
Most potential sponsors recoil at this part of the job. They don’t feel qualified to judge the character of another person.
What is God – through the RCIA – asking of a seeker?
It helps if we remember we are not asked to judge the seeker’s worthiness. Only God can do that. What we are judging is the seeker’s intention for taking on the mission of the gospel. Any of us who have been in this ministry for very long know that sometimes seekers ask to become Catholic for motives other than the gospel. If we do not do our very best to evangelize them and help them know what it truly means to encounter Jesus in their lives, we are not fulfilling our own baptismal mission.
It also helps if we avoid using the word “judge” (even though it is in the rite) and instead use the word “discern.”
And it helps if we remind the sponsor that they are not alone in the discernment process. If the sponsor understands that they are one voice within a community of disciples that together is discerning the readiness of the seeker to follow the way of the Cross, more potential sponsors will be willing to take on this important ministry.
The role of the sponsor in the initiation process is crucial. We cannot fully know, assist, and testify to the readiness of each candidate without these important members of the team.
What does a great sponsor look like in your parish? How are they informed of their responsibilities? How do they feel about carrying out their tasks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.