Certifiably Catholic

Make Sure Your Papers Are in Order!

Want to prove you’re a good Catholic? I’m afraid you’ll have to do more than feed the hungry and teach your children the Lord’s Prayer in at least four modern languages and one or two dead ones. The absolute steel test for proving you’re a good Catholic has little to do with the directives of Matthew 25 or your ability to educate and evangelize. No, it has everything to do with whether or not you can pry a 3x6 inch piece of paper from the hand of your parish priest.

That paper is called a “sponsorship certificate,” and it attests to the fact that you meet all the requirements and qualifications to be a sponsor for the sacraments of Baptism or Confirmation. There are three hoops to jump through. First, you must be a fully initiated member of the Catholic Church, meaning you have received the three sacraments of initiation. Second, to the best of your abilities, you are living a life that is in accord with the codes, canons, and teachings of the church. For most, this means keeping the church’s marriage laws. And if you’re still with me, there is one more requirement, and perhaps it is the trickiest of all. The third requirement is that you are a practicing Catholic and have a relationship with a parish community. Does that mean you have filled out a registration card? (Quick! Do it now and pre-date it!) Does it mean you signed up to receive envelopes? (Never hurts.) Does it mean you’re the head usher who gives Father a nice bottle of Scotch at Christmas? (Highly recommended!)

To be fair, obtaining a sponsorship certificate can be an opportunity for a pastoral encounter from which abundant good comes. All too often, though, it’s an experience that would make Torquemada blush. A woman recently came to my office in tears. She was asked to be a Confirmation sponsor for her niece. When she went to her parish to get the required certificate, the only question the secretary asked was if the woman used envelopes. Then a quick computer check showed she hadn’t made any contributions for about a year and a half. As you might assume, the reason for that dereliction was complicated. The woman had just taken a job as a principal of a large and troubled elementary school. What little free time she had on weekends was spent on family matters. Once things settled down at her new job, she intended to become more active in the parish. The secretary shrugged. The woman would have to see Father after Mass. If he knew her, he’d write a certificate. “Father,” however, had only been at the parish for two months, so he couldn’t possibly know who she was. 

Frustrated and angry, the woman ended up in my office because I officiated at her wedding nearly twenty years ago. As she explained, in addition to the challenging new job, she was dealing with a bulimic teenage daughter. Many Sunday mornings were spent in family therapy—something she didn’t want to share with the parish secretary. We talked for an hour, I wrote her a certificate, and I’ve seen her and her husband and daughter at Mass almost every Sunday since.

A listening ear and a little common sense are both vehicles of the Spirit. Thumbscrews and computer accounting programs usually only drive people away. As Pope Francis continues to paint the global church in more compassionate colors, the local parish must follow suit. The manner in which we treat people seeking sponsorship certificates is another way to evangelize. If someone is not an “activated Catholic,” take a little time to find out why. Offer some creative solutions to whatever might be needed pastorally, whether it concerns an annulment or how a person might go about having their seven-year-old baptized. When someone who has been away from the church shows up at the door for whatever reason, you need to seize the opportunity.

Will they come back? I admit that, no, a lot of them do not. Many of the people with whom I’ve made “deals,” pocket their certificate and never return. But every once in a while someone does reconnect. Every once in a while, that little piece of paper turns a “good” Catholic into an active Catholic.

Published in the April 10, 2015 issue: 

Fr. Nonomen (a pseudonym) is the pastor of a suburban parish. He has been a priest for more than twenty years.

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