Someone blogging about his start in the RCIA recently wrote of his concern over being judged by the members of the RCIA team. They would, he wrote, discern whether he was discerning and the result could be him being discerned right out of the RCIA. Now on a RCIA team we know what the director does and we know what the catechist(s) does but what is the role of the sponsor (who presumably does some of the discerning in this writers eyes)?
The text for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has this to say about sponsors:
"A sponsor accompanies any candidate seeking admission as a catechumen. Sponsors are persons who have known and assisted the candidates and stand as witnesses to the candidates' moral character, faith, and intention. It may happen that it is not the sponsor for the rite of acceptance and the period of the catechumenate but another person who serves as godparent for the periods of purification and enlightenment and of mystagogy."
So according to this document a sponsor can have the role of "standing as witnesses" with regard to a catechumen's readiness for the sacraments. We evidence for this role as early as in the writings of Origen (c. 185 - 253). Remember though that in the situations that Origen faced the Church was still a persecuted minority. As a result of this reality great care was needed to make sure that those presenting themselves for Baptism actually understood all that was involved and were prepared to live their lives accordingly. So, presumably if a sponsor in RCIA knows that a candidate for Baptism is living a public life that is obviously in conflict with their Baptismal vocation it would be appropriate for them to communicate this as part of a discernment process. It is unfortunate that this might convey an image of the RCIA team being in judgement however because the most basic ministry of the sponsors and the entire faith community in the RCIA is one of demonstrating hospitality and living the reality of their own faith. As the RCIA document puts it: "They (the community) should therefore show themselves ready to give the candidates evidence of the spirit of the Christian community and to welcome them into their homes, into personal conversation, and into community gatherings." This suggests that the most basic role of a sponsor is that of companion. A good way of coming to some understanding of this role is to look at the role of a sponsor in a 12 step program. We can see from this that the most basic requirement of a sponsor is that they be aware of their own spiritual journey and be able to talk informally with their candidate about their experiences. By offering welcome into the community the sponsor begins the process of providing their candidate with connections in the community that will enable their faith journey to continue and to flourish following their Baptism. In this context it is probably good that the RCIA document envisions the possibility of two sponsors. One at the beginning of the journey who can act as a companion and another near the time of the sacraments who can act as witness.
There are some things that might make a prospective sponsor less than ideal. Most basically, someone who has not been practicing their faith or who has serious issues with Church teaching might not make a good sponsor. We need to remember that RCIA focuses on the person seeking admission to the Church and personal issues should not compete with this central objective.