Parish Registration and Confirmation Sponsors

Q: My nephew asked me to be his confirmation sponsor.  I’m required to provide a letter from my parish, stating that I am a registered parishioner “in good standing,” whatever that means. I attend Mass at my parish weekly and contribute to the collection. All the same, the secretary refused to give me a letter, saying that since I don’t use collection envelopes, there’s no evidence that I ever even come to church there. Does she have the right to do this? What can I do?  –Matthew

A: We saw in “Parish Registration” that the Code of Canon Law says absolutely nothing about registering at one’s parish, and that a person’s parish is determined solely by his address. Every Catholic who resides within the territorial boundaries of a given parish is ipso facto a member of that parish, whether he is formally registered there or not. In fact, in most parts of the world, the concept of parish registration does not even exist!

So what does this imply when a Catholic is asked to serve as a sponsor for a confirmation candidate, and must get a letter from the parish where he is registered to show that he is a suitable sponsor? Let’s first look at what the law requires of a confirmation sponsor. Canon 892 notes that the function of a sponsor is to take care that the person to be confirmed behaves as a true witness of Christ and faithfully fulfills the duties inherent in this sacrament; and canon 893.1 points out that the criteria for a confirmation sponsor are the same as those required of a godparent at a baptism. The sponsor must therefore be a Catholic, at least 16 years old, who has himself already received the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion, lives a life of faith which is fitting for the role of sponsor, and is not under any sort of canonical penalty (cf. c. 874). In short, the sponsor must be someone who takes his Catholic faith seriously enough that he may serve as a mentor for the person who is going to receive confirmation.

Consequently, it is perfectly logical to insist that the sponsor must be a practicing Catholic who regularly attends Mass and receives the sacraments. It does not suffice that the potential sponsor is a family member or close friend of the person to be confirmed! As we saw in “Can Non-Catholics Serve as Baptismal Sponsors?” which was about baptism and godparents, the role of the sponsor is spiritual, not social.

Since the code nowhere mentions parish registration, it certainly does not state that a confirmation sponsor must be registered at a particular parish. Much less does it state that a potential sponsor is required to use collection envelopes, a concept which is undoubtedly alien to the vast majority of the world’s Catholics! On the face of it, therefore, it looks like Matthew’s parish secretary was wrong to deny him the letter he requested, right?

Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple, for very practical reasons. While the law clearly indicates that a confirmation sponsor must be a committed Catholic, it does not explain exactly how this is supposed to be determined. A pastor with thousands of parishioners may find that he must come up with a consistent system to decide who is a suitable sponsor and who isn’t. Since he may understandably not know every parishioner by name—let alone be aware of each one’s level of commitment and spiritual development!—he may reasonably conclude that it is best to rely on tangible and objective evidence that a person is actually attending Mass on a regular basis. Perhaps that may lead him to decide that, if someone is registered in the parish and regularly makes financial contributions, this at a minimum constitutes some objective proof that the person is a practicing Catholic. The pastor may not recognize the person by sight, but at the same time he can see from these records that the person is not a completely unknown entity, who has suddenly appeared out of nowhere requesting a letter from the parish.

The problem in Matthew’s case, however, is that we have no way of knowing whether the parish secretary was dutifully applying rules that were set down by the pastor, or if she was officiously interpreting the phrase “in good standing” according to her own terms. Sadly, the latter has been known to happen.

Probably each of us knows some well-meaning Catholics who work long hours in parish offices for low (or no) pay, and their dedication is commendable. Many of them have mastered the art of tact and discretion, so vital in a job where they frequently meet people who contact the parish for immensely personal reasons—seeking counseling for marital problems, for example, or looking for a priest to help in dealing with suicidal thoughts. Parish administrative staff play a critical role in the life of a typical parish, as they deftly and confidentially handle such serious requests.

At the same time, however, it is important to keep in mind that the typical parish secretary does not hold an ecclesiastical office (cf. c.145) and thus does not possess by law any particular spiritual authority over other members of the parish. Practical experience shows that unfortunately, not every hard-working staffer can appreciate the delicate distinction between occupying a pivotal administrative post in the life of the parish, and possessing actual ecclesiastical power. As an example, some years ago a fellow-canonist told me of a man who wished to speak with his pastor about the possibility of obtaining a marriage annulment. He phoned the parish and asked the secretary for an appointment. The secretary insisted that he tell her the reason he wanted to meet with the pastor; and when he reluctantly did so, she proceeded to inform him that his marriage was perfectly valid, and wouldn’t have ended in divorce if he had prayed more often! Luckily the man was able to make contact with his pastor by other means, and eventually he did in fact obtain an annulment of his failed marriage. Had he accepted the secretary’s answer as final, the outcome would have been very different.  This may be an extreme case, but it does illustrate the potential problems that may arise when attempting to make a request of one’s parish. In general, there is certainly nothing wrong with wishing to talk personally with one’s pastor in order to be sure of receiving accurate information on such matters.

In Matthew’s case, he may wish to speak to the pastor directly, and politely ascertain whether or not it is in fact his policy that nobody receives a letter enabling him to become a confirmation sponsor unless he uses collection envelopes. Even if this is true, Matthew may well find that, if the pastor knows him or at least recognizes him as a regular Mass-goer, he may be quite willing to give him a letter, regardless of the envelopes issue.

And if this is not his policy, the pastor needs to know that people who are phoning the parish office are receiving this sort of response to their legitimate requests. As was discussed in “When Can a Priest Refuse to Absolve a Penitent in the Confessional?” the pastor is ultimately responsible for the spiritual well-being of his parishioners (c. 519). If he is unaware of a real problem, it is important that he be informed about it, so that he is able to deal with it appropriately. Charitably calling his attention to an abuse is not complaining or criticizing. By respectfully calling the pastor’s attention to such an issue, the whole parish ultimately benefits.

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