From Tertullian to Disney: 2,000 Years of Godparenting | Sojourners

From Tertullian to Disney: 2,000 Years of Godparenting

Jillian Bell and Isla Fisher in Disney's Godmothered (2020).

In Godmothered, the well-intentioned if poorly executed new holiday offering from Disney, the most demonstrable magical assistance fairy-godmother-in-training Eleanor (played by Jillian Bell) initially offers her would-be charge Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) is to return Mackenzie's stress-plucked eyebrows to their originally fulsome state. Sort of.

“Oh hey, now they look just great, like two little fox tails!” Eleanor gushes before Mackenzie looks in the mirror, horrified.

Eleanor is not your grandmother’s fairy godmother. She’s daffy, ill-prepared, and unsure of herself — more George Bailey’s angel, Clarence, than the effortlessly capable fairy godmother characters from previous Disney iterations of Cinderella or its original 1697 literary incarnation by Charles Perrault.

While Godmothered and its fairy are far from cinematic perfection, by the time the credits rolle, Eleanor and Mackenzie have helped each other step more fully into who they were meant to be.

In this way, their relationship — minus the wand, the fairy dust, and any promise of true-love-happily-ever-afterness — more realistically resembles actual godparenting.

A kind of kinship

The role of godparent has existed for nearly 2,000 years, first mentioned by the early Christian author Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (a.k.a. Tertullian) in his second-century treatise De baptismo as “sponsors” of a person making a profession of faith during baptism.

“This sponsor would be involved in the process of one's religious formation, vouching that one was in fact ready for admission into the church,” theologian Timothy O'Malley told Sojourners.

But after the fall of the Roman Empire, children were more regularly initiated into the church and the role of godparents changed, explained O’Malley, an expert in Catholic liturgy and sacraments, and academic director of the Center for Liturgy at Notre Dame University in Indiana. “It became a matter of expanding domains of kinship,” he said. “This understanding of being a godparent remains at the roots of cultural godparenting today, even if, I should say, this godparenting has now become more about ‘honoring’ a person who is important to the parent.”

Whether contemporary parents are religious or not, a longing to provide a proverbial village for children by creating bonds with other non-familial adults persists. Some people now prefer the terms “guideparents,” “oddparents,” or even “squadparents” (which, frankly, I kinda love) to the more specifically religious “godparents.”

In 1970, when I was born into the boisterous tribe of Mass-going Irish and Italian American Catholics that was my biological family, my parents blessed me with two godparents — Uncle Ernie, one of my father’s lifelong friends; and Aunt Mary, my mother’s sister. Both of them (plus my brother’s godparents) played essential roles throughout my life. From my baptism a few months after my birth to my wedding 27 years later, they were joyous sentries, ever-present, even after they departed this side of the veil.

When I was maybe five or six years old, visiting Uncle Ernie and his family in New Hampshire, I asked Auntie Barbara, Ernie’s wife, what it meant to be my godmother. She explained that if anything happened to my mom and dad, she and Uncle Ernie, and my Aunt Mary and her husband, my Uncle Frank, would take care of me. Oh, and also make sure that I went to church regularly, she added. (Auntie Barb wasn’t as religious as my proudly devout mother.)

While the thought of anything happening to my parents was terrifying, it was comforting to know they had planned for back-up. In addition to my “official” godparents, my parents bestowed on me a small but robust phalanx of chosen uncles and aunties, including my mother’s three best friends — Faith, Marilyn, and Lorraine — who I’ve always thought of as my “fairy godmothers.” They were and are my family, even if we shared no biological or official religious bond. And throughout my life, each of them played an important, sometimes even critical part in helping me become the woman I am today.

Spiritual formation

Throughout history, the cultural, religious, and even legal role of godparents has evolved. There was an era in which godparents often functioned as what we’d call today “legal guardians” if a child’s biological parents died, though that is no longer the presumptive case. During other eras, and in some cultures still today, godparents were expected to assume financial responsibility for their godchildren, whether for their education or the cost of their wedding celebration later in life.

And while the idea of “godparents” originated in a Christian context, today godmothers and godfathers can be found inside and out of a range of spiritual traditions and communities. In 14th-century Spain, it was common to have more than 20 godparents, part of its compadrazgo or “godparent complex,” which offered a system of support for a child built through ritual relationships — a tradition that continues to this day in Central and South America and the Philippines.

According to current Roman Catholic canon law, a godparent must be at least 16 years old, a practicing Catholic who has received three of the sacraments — reconciliation (confession), the Eucharist (communion), and confirmation. If there is more than one godparent, one must be a practicing Catholic; a pair of godparents should be one male person and one female person. While not yet codified by official church teaching, recent Vatican recommendations in individual cases have said that transgender persons are ineligible to be godparents.

(But watch this space in February when the latest cinematic version of Cinderella debuts with Billy Porter playing “The Fab G”— a “ genderless fairy godparent.” “Magic has no gender," Porter, the Emmy-Grammy-and-Tony-Award-winning performer famous for his gender-fluid fashion turns on the red carpet, recently told CBS News.)

In Catholicism, the ecclesiastical godparent tradition remains fairly robust. “After the Second Vatican Council in Catholicism, there was increasing emphasis on the spiritual formation of the godparent,” O’Malley said. “The most recent document in the Church to touch on this, The Directory for Catechesis, gives pride of place to the godparent as involved in the spiritual formation of the child.”

It takes a village

That’s what my husband and I emphasized when we chose godparents for our son, who was baptized in the ocean in our Southern California hometown, two weeks after his 11th birthday — a few months after his adoption was official. Godparents often extend a child’s family beyond the bond of biology, and our son’s godfamily certainly did.

While neither my husband nor I are practicing Catholics, most of our extended family is, and each of our godparents were a such a blessing in our lives, there was no question that we would continue the tradition with our son — but with some modern and personalized twists.

Taking a page from the Anglican tradition, where the baptismal child receives three godparents — typically two of their same gender and one of another gender — we chose three for our boy. But in our case, we gave him two godmothers (one Christian and one Jewish) who are married to two men, chosen uncles to our son since he arrived from Malawi 12 years ago. We also gave him a godfather, my best guy friend, who is a deacon in his (much more conservative than we ever have been) Protestant church in Mississippi, and one of the most genuinely faithful, loving, and true-north people I’ve ever known. With his wonderful wife, that makes a full set of six godparents for our son, each chosen to play complementary roles in his formation as he grows into the man he’s fast becoming.

Aunt Lisa always will tell him the unvarnished truth, even if it stings, from a place of love. Aunt Sissi always will be there to catch him if he falls and listen to the joys and heaviness of his heart. Aunt Sara Beth always will shower him with unconditional love, affection, and boundless enthusiasm. Invincible “Funcle” Veen (who made the sign of the cross on our son’s forehead in oil standing in the kitchen of the afterparty when he realized no one had “sealed” his baptismal declaration earlier on the beach) and tender-hearted Uncle Dave are his ride-or-die guys, the ones he can call in the middle of the night to break up a party or pick him up from someplace he’s not supposed to be, no questions asked; they’re also the ones who will bail him out, give him practical wisdom, and kick his arse if needs be, and the first (and loudest) ones to celebrate his achievements. Uncle Bubba is, in a word, Polaris, the one who prays for him every, single day; the one who always will ask about the condition of his soul and his heart.

The bench on our son’s godfamily is deep and we could not be more grateful for each of his godparents, as well as the godbrothers and godsisters that are the relational lagniappe of this diverse spiritual family.

A few years ago, I became an official godmother for the first time, when our friends Tripp and Trish asked my husband and me to be part of their son Elias’ squad of five godparents. What I remember most about his baptism, which took place during a midnight Easter Triduum service, was how hard it is to hold onto a naked baby who’s just been anointed with water and holy oil.

In all seriousness, being asked to godmother Elias is one of the greatest honors of my life. He’s still little, so it’s mostly presents and whimsy when we visit. But what I hope to become for him and for other kiddos for whom I am an unofficial “auntie,” “Mame,” or “fairy godmother” over the course of their lives is what my godparents (official and chosen) were for me: an endless source of unwavering love, expansive faith, laughter, adventure, and butterscotch Lifesavers.

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