What is a Charism? 
Part I of II

The mere title itself begs a definition but that definition is dependent on the context in which the word is used. Most persons, if at a loss for an exact definition, would perhaps at least associate the word with charisma or charismatic. But each of these words has its own fine tuning of definition.

charismCharism is frequently associated with the spirituality of religious institutes and this understanding of it will be addressed at another time. Here we will define it as a gift of the Holy Spirit given in a particular way to an individual or to a group to build up the Kingdom of God for the good of the Church.

In Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that He came that we might have life and have it to the full. In other words John is saying that this new life that Christ brings us is complete; it is abundant. Jesus does not measure His gifts; He gives over and above. He draws us to Himself by Truth, Beauty and/or Goodness. While all three of these are interrelated and a revelation of God and can be summed up as Love, no one of these aspects can be expressed completely by one charism. A charism can only reflect back to us one facet of God’s perfection, yet even that facet itself is never exhausted.

In the post-Resurrection appearances the Apostles caught a glimpse of this new life and everything that had happened while Jesus “was still with them” began to come together and to make sense. They had experienced this abundance, this fullness of life so many times and yet did not recognize the gift LoavesAndFishesBreadStAnthonyCatholicChurchTemperanceMIthat Jesus was holding out to them. A very powerful example of this is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. When Jesus asked the apostles how such a crowd could be fed, they suggested that the crowd be dispersed to the nearby towns to find what food they could. But Jesus could not accept this response from those He was preparing to lead His Church, the future shepherds of His flock. Instead He asked them to give a tally count of what food was available. When His chosen band assured Him that it was not enough to even begin to feed such a large multitude, Jesus nevertheless had them bring it to Him. Did Jesus ask for a head count and multiply just enough to satisfy the assembled people? No, definitely not! There were opportunities for seconds, if they wanted, and still there was enough left over to be collected and saved, far more than what they began with.

Jesus never gives just enough! He always gives lavishly. Jesus sent the Apostles among the people with the food. He asked them to feed those waiting, for this was the work for which He was preparing them. Soon He would bestow on them the Sacrament of Ordination to change the natural gifts of ordinary bread and wine into the divine gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood, so that the people down through the ages until the end of time could be fed “abundantly”.

Pope Benedict XVI on August 22, 2012, from Castel Gandolfo, “The finite order becomes a stepping-stone to the infinite. In bestowing all this splendor on the visible universe God leaves ‘some trace of Who He is.’ This love soon thirsts for a greater vision of and immersion into the divine beauty than finite reality can possibly trigger.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in Article 799 states:

Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world.

This is the abundance that is promised as shown in the Gospel of John 16:7 when Jesus said to His followers, “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

St. John Paul II affirmed this Presence among us in Dominum et Vivificantem to assist us by His special gifts in the difficult times that we face when he reminded us, “The spirit of God, by a special and admirable Providence, is guiding hearts and renewing the face of the earth.”

Charisms are genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ and the perfection of charity (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church #800). As baptized members of the Church the Holy Spirit can work through the fiat of each one of us for the good of all of us so that as one body Christ lives in us and works through us as we journey to the Father.


Editor’s Note:  In Part II, we will look at the Carmelite Charism in particular.

Originally published by the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles.  Used with permission.


Art: Holy Spirit Detail of Chair of Saint Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica, Sergey Smirnov, own work 03.05.2008, CC-SA; Saint Anthony Catholic Church (Temperance, MI) – loaves and fish mural, Nheyob, own work, 12 August 2013, CCA-SA; Wikimedia Commons. Feature image: Dove (Holy Spirit) as Part of the Holy Trinity, Johann Michael Rottmayr, 1714, CCA-SA, Wikimedia Commons.

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