I sometimes wonder if we ask enough of RCIA sponsors. In quite a few parishes, sponsors are not required to do very much. They are asked to be present for the public rituals. But if they cannot make it, a proxy is provided. They are asked to participate in the catechetical sessions, but if they cannot make it, they are excused. And beyond that, they are not asked to do much at all.
Perhaps the RCIA itself is responsible for this lenient vision of the sponsor’s role. From the brief description given in the RCIA, the role of the sponsor might seem deceptively simple:
Sponsors are persons who have known and assisted the candidates and stand as witnesses to the candidates’ moral character, faith, and intention. (10)
In that short sentence, however, is a demanding job description. The sponsor is charged with three important tasks:
Each of these three tasks has a three-part goal: the conversion of the candidates’[i] moral character, faith, and intention.
Knowing the RCIA candidate
The first task of the sponsor is to get to know the candidate. This isn’t just a casual acquaintance kind of knowing. The sponsor will have to spend many hours with the candidate, sharing faith stories and listening deeply to both what is said and unsaid. The sponsor isn’t listening as a judge listens, collecting evidence and weighing facts. Rather, the sponsor listens as a friend or older sibling listens. The sponsor is listening with love and hope and firm belief in the ability of the Holy Spirit to guide the candidate to a deep conversion to Christ. The job of the sponsor is to get to know the candidate well enough to be able to assist the candidate on the journey.
Assisting the RCIA candidate
The sponsor is not a catechist or an “expert” in the faith. But the sponsor is faithful and knows what it takes to remain faithful. As an “older sibling,” the sponsor is instrumental in assisting the candidate to gain a sure footing and move confidently forward. Before the Rite of Acceptance, the sponsor assists the candidate with beginning his or her spiritual life and nurturing the first seeds of Christian faith. The sponsor will assist the candidate in repenting of motives or dispositions that do not harmonize with the gospel. The sponsor will assist the candidate in calling upon God in prayer. And the sponsor will introduce the candidate to other Christians in the faith community (see RCIA 42).
After the Rite of Acceptance, the sponsor will help the catechumen continue his or her journey of conversion to the point that, in both mind and action, the new lifestyle is evident to all. The sponsor will assist the catechumen in acquiring the necessary acquaintance with Christian teaching. And the sponsor will help the candidate develop a spirit of faith and charity (see RCIA 120).
Witnessing to the conversion of the RCIA candidate
When it comes time to discern if the candidate is ready for celebrating the key transition rites of Acceptance and Election, the sponsor will be one the first to be called upon to witness to the candidate’s conversion. If the sponsor has truly known the candidate and diligently assisted him or her on the journey, who better to witness to the candidate’s moral character, faith, and intention?
Some sacrifice required
Is this an ideal? Of course it is. But the purpose of framing an ideal is not to dismiss it as impractical. We set out the ideal as a goal to strive for. Because it is difficult does not mean it is impossible. If we are going to call the candidates to pick up the cross and follow Christ, can we offer them anything less than the best sponsors we can provide?
What do you require of your RCIA sponsors? How do you convince them to take on such a demanding ministry?
[i] “Candidate,” in this context, refers to an unbaptized candidate for the Rite of Acceptance or the Rite of Election.