Whenever I celebrate a baptism, I ask the godparents the question the Church proposes to them in the ritual. After they respond in the affirmative, I ask them if they know what they are saying yes to doing. Usually, they will instantaneously say “yes.” I then ask them to explain what they are saying “yes” to doing. Now there is a delay, a shared look between the godparents, some stumbling around for words. We instinctually know what a godparent is supposed to do, but it is hard to articulate it.
The role of the godparent was established in the earliest days of the Church. In these times, it took three years for someone to be initiated into the Church. For two years, a person would study the doctrines and beliefs of the Church. After these two years, they would go and live with a Christian family and learn practically how the faith is lived over the course of a year. This family would be the godparents for the person when they were initiated at Easter.
The role of godparents is the same today as it was in the early Church. They are to be a role model in faith for the newly initiated Christian. By praying for their godchild, encouraging them to practice the faith, and helping to provide counsel at needed times, the godparent fulfills the office that is entrusted to them at the baptism of their godchild.
As is stated in the question above, the parents may prudently discern whom God is calling to serve as the godparents for their child. Even after this process, there may come a time where the godparents through their actions are not providing the spiritual mentoring for the child they pledged on the day of their baptism.
According to Canon 874 of the Code of Canon Law, godparents provide a spiritual office for the baptized person and serve as the official witness for the baptism. There is no way to choose other godparents and then officially change them with the parish, even if they were at the baptism.
One way to fill this necessary spiritual office of mentoring is to ask another to be a spiritual mentor for the child. Many of the saints, in addition to their godparents, had others God put into their lives that encouraged and challenged them to grow spiritually. Intentionally choosing a couple of such people and placing them in that role in the life of your child may be a way to fill this needed office.
Another way is when your child is confirmed. At the time of confirmation, they are asked to choose a sponsor. While the Church encourages the sponsor to be a godparent, the sponsor doesn’t have to be one. Having them choose a sponsor who is active in the faith and whom they look up to and are connected with may be another way to have your child spiritually mentored in the faith as they grow up.
Father Mayo is the pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in south St. Louis.