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There are no more powerful tools for evangelization than the charisms, gifts by which the Holy Spirit equips the Church and every Christian for our mission to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. Yet many are trying to live the Christian life without charisms! Trying to fulfill our mission without using charisms is like trying to travel by pushing the car instead of driving it.

To use charisms effectively, it is important to learn what Scripture teaches about them. What are charisms? First, they are distinct from the sanctifying gifts of the Spirit listed in Isaiah 11: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Catholic tradition holds that these gifts are given to every Christian at baptism and Confirmation, for the purpose of making us holy. (CCC1831)

The charismatic gifts or charisms, in contrast, are distributed by the Holy Spirit in different measures to different people. They are not primarily for personal sanctification but for building up the body of Christ. They are by definition gifts to be given away, gifts to be used for others. No one has all the charisms, precisely because we need one another, just as the organs in the human body cannot function without one another. (1 Cor 12:17-21)

Charisms are also distinct from human talents. A charism is not a natural ability but a supernaturalgift of the Holy Spirit. It either enables a person to do what is humanly impossible (for instance, prophecy or healing) or it elevates a natural gift like teaching or hospitality to a supernatural level of efficacy. In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul lists some of the more obviously supernatural gifts such as healings, prophecy and miracles. In other passages, he lists gifts that seem more ordinary but are no less important, such as service, teaching, exhortation, contribution, administration and acts of mercy. (Rom 12:7-8)

Paul’s rich teaching on charisms can be summed up in nine principles.

1. Charisms are manifestations of the Spirit.

Charisms are “manifestations of the Spirit” because they make the presence and power of the Holy Spirit evident. (1 Cor 12:7) Every time you exercise a charism, God the Holy Spirit is operating through you. Charisms are not something we own or control; we cannot give a prophecy or heal someone whenever we feel like it. Rather, we are like a musical instrument on which the Holy Spirit plays according to his will and his timing. The more we are surrendered to him, the more freely he will play.

2. Every Christian receives one or more charisms.

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:7; Eph 4:7) There is no unemployment in the kingdom of God! Every Christian has an indispensable role in the mission of the Church, and everyone is equipped by the Holy Spirit at baptism and Confirmation with charisms in order to fulfill that role. Yet sadly, many people don’t exercise their charisms because many are not even aware they have them and have not been taught to use them.

3. Charisms are given freely.

We are given charisms by the very fact of being baptized into Christ, not because we deserve them. (1 Cor 12:13) Charisms are therefore not a measure of holiness. Jesus warned that on the last day, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not cast out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’” (Mt 7:22). This warning demonstrates that it is possible to exercise a charism and yet be outside of God’s will. So we should never assume that a powerful charism such as healings or miracles is a sign of holiness. Even the high priest Caiaphas, who wished to put Jesus to death, prophesied. (Jn 11:49-50) In Numbers, even a donkey sees a heavenly vision! (Num 22:23-33)

It follows that we should not be reluctant to ask for a charism because we are unworthy. If God can speak through a donkey, he can use each of us. It is also true, however, that the more united we are with the Lord, the more freely the Holy Spirit will be able to operate through us.

4. The purpose of a charism is to build up the body of Christ.

Charisms are “for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7) A charism is a gift that is to be passed on to others; it is not for the personal benefit of the one who receives it. If you have a gift for music that lifts people’s hearts to God, that gift is not for you, it is for others. If someone else has a gift of exhortation, it is not for her, it is for you and others. However, Paul does make an exception for the gift of tongues as a prayer language: “Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up.” (1 Cor 14:4)

5. Charisms are efficacious for evangelization.

Charisms are often signs by which God himself confirms the good news we proclaim. (Heb 2:4) Paul experienced in his own life the power of supernatural charisms to touch people’s hearts and convince them of the truth of what he preached. His miracles wrought many conversions: “For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to lead the Gentiles to obedience by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit [of God].” (Rom 15:18-19) Even today, many people have been converted by experiencing a healing or a deliverance from demonic oppression.

6. Charisms are to be eagerly desired.

Paul says, “Strive eagerly for [or ‘be zealous for’] the greatest spiritual gifts.” (1 Cor 12:31; 1 Cor 14:1) We should not be reluctant to pray for, desire and practice using charisms out of a false sense of humility. Since a charism is a gift to be given away, my charism is not about me. It is about the person the Lord wants to touch through me. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Mt 7:7)

7. All have a responsibility to exercise their charisms.

Using the charisms we have been given is not optional. The world and the Church need them. Paul exhorts, “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them:if prophecy, in proportion to the faith;if ministry, in ministering; if one is a teacher, in teaching;if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others,with diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Rom 12:6-8) The First Letter of Peter gives similar advice: “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” (1 Pt 4:10)

8. The role of leadership in the Church is to call forth charisms.

The role of leaders in the Church is not to do all the ministry but “to equip the holy onefor the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph 4:12) Equipping the members of the Church for ministry includes teaching about charisms, discerning them, calling them forth, guiding them, correcting mistakes and overseeing their harmonious interaction. Paul emphasizes that leaders are not to hinder charisms but foster them. “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.” (1 Thes 5:19-22)

9. Love is “the way.”

At the center of Paul’s teaching on charisms is his great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13. “Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way.If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal ….” (1 Cor 12:31-13:1) This provides the foundational principle on which to discern and pastor the exercise of charisms. It is not a question of choosing between charisms and love — rather, charisms are the tools of love. Love is the standard; love is the aim of every use of a charism.