Charisms for Service

The Catholic Church has always taught that the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit is “standard equipment” for the normal Christian life. Yet many Catholics are totally unaware of this and other important aspects of the Church’s rich tradition.

The recovery of the Church’s Tradition in all its fullness is exactly the program embraced by the Second Vatican Council. No wonder the council spoke so often of the Holy Spirit, His role, and His gifts.

Because the Holy Spirit is God, and therefore infinite, we can never be completely in possession of Him — there is always more of Him to receive. A good example of this is the group of gifts that Scripture and Tradition call the “charisms.” The word “charism” means simply a “gift of grace” (Charis is the Greek word for grace). Thomas Aquinas confirms what is evident from the way Paul speaks of these gifts in I Cor 12 and Eph 4:7-18 — the charisms are supernatural gifts given to an individual by the Holy Spirit for the service of others and the upbuilding of the entire Church.

There is a danger that we can limit the charisms to the more spectacular gifts mentioned in First Corinthians 12, which include tongues, prophecy, healing, and miracles. But Paul often uses the word “charism,” and in Ephesians 4:9-13 he talks about the roles of pastors, apostles, prophets and teachers all flowing from charisms. In Romans 12:6-8 he talks about some rather humble things which he considers as charisms too, such as works of mercy, which should be done cheerfully, and giving alms, which should be done generously.

As I was studying charism as a theology student, it became very clear to me that St. Paul never intended to give an exhaustive list of charisms. Any time God “supernaturalises” some natural gift of a person for the building up of the Church, we have a charism. Take the gift of music for example. When I was a teen, one of the most outrageous rock musicians in my home state was converted to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. This young man, Jon Polce, developed a powerful ministry drawing people into the presence of the Lord through music. The Lord took his natural gift and transformed it and elevated it. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, grace builds on, transforms, and elevates nature. The natural and supernatural are not separate things, but work together in harmony.

There are other gifts that work in this way, such as hospitality. Some people have an extraordinary gift of making people feel welcome, at home, and loved. When I was a seminarian, a Catholic family welcomed me and several others from the seminary into their home for fellowship and relaxation each Friday evening. The experience of their home had a significant effect on my life. They welcomed us as if we were Christ and we were all built up in the spirit as a result. Hospitality flowed from their charism of marriage (see 1 Cor 7:7) which they regularly nourished and exercised. It was the first time I saw married life with Christ as the center, lived out as a prophetic sign. Their life together was so radical and open to others that on feast days they could sometimes have up to 22 people around the table basking in the warmth of their home.

Celibacy too is a gift. Some choose the single life out of selfishness, but when the Spirit empowers someone to live a celibate life for the sake of the gospel, this is a prophetic act flowing from a charismatic gift. The gift of celibacy is a silent proclamation that there is only one thing necessary (Lk 10:42). It also can free us to serve others and find our happiness, joy and freedom in the wider body of Christ.

An official role that often we don’t connect with “charism” is that of the apostle. In the Catholic Church we believe that the apostolic anointing has been passed on down through the centuries from the apostles to our current bishops through the laying on of hands in the sacrament of episcopal ordination.

A document discovered earlier in this century, The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus, provides us a fascinating outline of the life and liturgy of the Roman Church in the early third century. In it is a description of the consecration of a bishop in which there is a prayer for the new bishop to receive the “charism of headship.” In Corinthians we learn that this is the charism that co-ordinates and orchestrates all the charisms of the faithful. It also helps to discern, encourage, correct and nurture these gifts. This power and responsibility the bishop shares with those he ordains priests. Part of their pastoral role is to do the same on the parish level, to co-ordinate, test, and encourage what is good and correct when things are not quite right, but doing so in a way that doesn’t quench the spirit.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that parents have a similar pastoral role of headship in their families, the domestic Church. The role of parents is to discern and pastor the gifts they see in their children, both natural and spiritual. With this office comes the promise of grace. And we should expect that God will give us prophetic words of wisdom and knowledge for our children so that we can give them supernatural guidance in discerning their own vocations.

It takes a decision, however, to activate a charism. There are many Catholics who have the sacrament of matrimony, but don’t draw water from this abundant font of grace. And there are many celibates who, forgetting to lean on the grace accompanying their call, suffer from a predictable lack of joy and power.

To fail to unpack and fully utilize God’s gifts is a serious matter. St. Matthew’s parable of the talents and scene of the last judgement (Mat 25:14ff) make this perfectly clear.

It is interesting in both these stories people are not condemned for committing positive infractions of God’s law, but rather for sins of omission, for failing to reach out and take action. Often we think that faith is a matter of being receptive and receiving what God has for us, but this yielding to God also means taking the initiative. God is not pleased with those who refuse to take risks. This is why the parable of the talents is so important.

Why are we often afraid to step out and exercise the charisms we have been given? Usually it is due to fear of making a mistake. What if we pray for someone and they don’t get healed? What if we give a word of knowledge and it is not from the Holy Spirit? What if I give direction for my child and it proves to be the wrong direction?

As children, we often fell as we tried to learn to walk. Our grammar was terribly bad when we first started to talk. But we kept on talking and walking, coaxed by the smiles and encouragement of our parents. And we eventually got rather good at both.

This brings up the role of the pastors in helping us exercise the charisms. The Second Vatican Council makes plain that the charisms are not delegated to us by the clergy, but they are given directly by God through baptism and confirmation. We need no authorization to begin using them, but we do need to use them in submission to our pastors. And we will often need guidance, because we are not going to do things perfectly from the beginning, just like learning to talk or to walk. Mess-ups are inevitable; there is no way to start exercising any of the charisms and not make mistakes.

The charisms can never be effectively exercised by those who are too afraid of failure to act and speak. This was part of Peter’s greatness, why Christ called him the Rock. Peter wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. At Caesarea Phillipi Jesus asked an important question. Peter was willing to speak out with a bold answer (Mat 16: 15-16). Because of that he could be given the charism of truth that is the foundation of papal infallibility. But Jesus had to pastor Peter’s charism, and correct Peter more than once. Peter fell again and again, but he kept getting up and walking in his gift. He even had to be corrected after the Ascension by Paul (Galatians 2:11) when his behaviour didn’t match his words.

The fear of failure is paralyzing. The Church has often been denied the benefits of the charisms because of this fear. But we shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes and those in authority shouldn’t be afraid to let people make mistakes. The only way to get good at anything is practice. The Holy Spirit wants it to become second nature to us to work intimately with Him through the charisms. St Thomas calls this “con-natural,” second nature, to live in the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.

We don’t have to fear making mistakes because we are in our Father’s house and have the Tradition and the authority of the Church’s pastors to help pick us up when we fall. We are in a Church that has structure and boundaries and safeguards so that we can be free to step out and try to exercise our gifts. And those with the responsibility to exercise authority should do so confidently, to call forth the charisms, encourage them and pastor them so that as a Church we can confidently move forward together.

The stakes are high. The charisms were “standard” equipment for 1st century Catholics as they met the challenge of proclaiming the gospel to a pagan world. We need to be equipped just as well as we undertake the reevangelization of a world that has become no less pagan.

Dr. D'Ambrosio studied under Avery Cardinal Dulles for his Ph.D. in historical theology and taught for many years at the University of Dallas. He appears weekly on radio and TV reaching six continents, and his books, tapes, and CDs are internationally distributed. He will be leading a Catholic Heritage Cruise/Pilgrimage to Rome in July 2004. Information on his resources, talks, and cruise is available on his website,

(This article originally appeared in Good News, magazine of the British Catholic Charismatic Renewal) and is used by permission of the author.)

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Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For info on his resources and pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 800.803.0118.

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