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Lay Charisms Build up the Church

General Audience — March 9, 1994

In the preceding catecheses we focused on the sacramental basis of the laity's ministries and roles in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation and, for many, the sacrament of Matrimony. It is an essential point in the theology of the lay state, linked to the Church's sacramental structure. However, now we must add that the Holy Spirit, the giver of every gift and the first principle of the Church's vitality, does not only work through the sacraments. According to St. Paul, he distributes to each his own gifts as he wills (cf. 1 Cor 12:11), pouring out into the People of God a great wealth of graces both for prayer and contemplation and for action. They are charisms. Lay people receive them too, especially in relation to their mission in the Church and society. The Second Vatican Council stated this in connection with St. Paul: "The Holy Spirit...distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: 'The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit' (1 Cor 12:7)" (LG 12).

St. Paul highlighted the multiplicity and variety of charisms in the early Church: some are extraordinary, such as healings, the gift of prophecy or that of tongues. Others are simpler, given for the ordinary fulfillment of the tasks assigned in the community (cf. 1 Cor 12:7-10).

As a result of Paul's text, charisms are often thought of as extraordinary gifts, which primarily marked the beginning of the Church's life. The Second Vatican Council called attention to charisms in their quality as gifts belonging to the ordinary life of the Church and not necessarily having an extraordinary or miraculous nature. The Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici also spoke of charisms as gifts that can be "exceptional and great or simple and ordinary" (n. 24). In addition, it should be kept in mind that the primary or principal aim of many charisms is not the personal sanctification of those who receive them, but the service of others and the Church's welfare. Certainly they also aim at and serve the growth of personal holiness, but in an essentially altruistic and communitarian perspective. This belongs to the Church's organic dimension in that it concerns the growth of Christ's Mystical Body.

As St. Paul told us and the Council repeated, these charisms result from the free choice and gift of the Holy Spirit, in whose property as the first and substantial Gift within the trinitarian life they share. In a special way the Triune God shows his sovereign power in the gifts. This power is not subject to any antecedent rule, to any particular discipline or to a plan of interventions established once and for all. According to St. Paul, he distributes his gifts to each "as he wills" (1 Cor 12:11). It is an eternal will of love, whose freedom and gratuitousness is revealed in the action carried out by the Holy Spirit-Gift in the economy of salvation. Through this sovereign freedom and gratuitousness, charisms are also given to the laity, as the Church's history shows (cf. CL 24).

We cannot but admire the great wealth of gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit on lay people as members of the Church in our age as well. Each of them has the necessary ability to carry out the tasks to which he is called for the welfare of the Christian people and the world's salvation, if he is open, docile and faithful to the Holy Spirit's action.

However, we must also turn our attention to another aspect of St. Paul's teaching and that of the Church, an aspect that applies to every type of ministry and to charisms--their diversity and variety cannot harm unity. "There are different gifts but the same Spirit; there are different ministries but the same Lord" (1 Cor 12:4-5). Paul asked that these differences be respected because not everyone can expect to carry out the same role contrary to God's plan and the Spirit's gift, and contrary to the most elementary laws of any social structure. However, the Apostle equally stressed the need for unity, which itself answers a sociological demand, but which in the Christian community should even more be a reflection of the divine unity. One Spirit, one Lord, thus, one Church!

At the beginning of the Christian era extraordinary things were accomplished under the influence of charisms, both the extraordinary ones and those which could be called little, humble, everyday charisms. This has always been the case in the Church and is so in our era as well, generally in a hidden way, but sometimes in a striking way, when God desires it for the good of his Church. In our day, as in the past, a great number of lay people have contributed to the Church's spiritual and pastoral growth. We can say that there are many people who, because of their charisms, work as good, genuine witnesses of faith and love.

It is to be hoped that all will reflect on this transcendent value of eternal life already present in their work, if it is carried out in fidelity to their vocation and with docility to the Holy Spirit who lives and acts in their hearts. This realization can only serve as a stimulus, support and comfort especially for those who, out of fidelity to a holy vocation, are involved in serving the common good, in establishing justice, in improving the living conditions of the poor and needy, in taking care of the disabled, in welcoming refugees and in achieving peace throughout the world.

In the Church's community life and pastoral practice, charisms must be recognized but also discerned, as the Synod Fathers recalled in 1987 (cf. CL 24). Certainly, the Spirit "blows where he wills"; one can never expect to impose rules and conditions on him. The Christian community, however, has the right to be informed by its pastors about the authenticity of charisms and the reliability of those who claim to have received them. The Council recalled the need for prudence in this area, especially when it is a question of extraordinary charisms (cf. LG 12).

The Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici stressed that "no charism dispenses a person from reference and submission to the Pastors of the Church" (CL 24). These norms of prudence are easily understandable and apply to all, both clerics and lay people.

That having been said, we would like to repeat with the Council and the exhortation cited above that "Charisms should be received in gratitude both on the part of the one who receives them, and also on the part of the entire Church" (CL 24). From these charisms there arises "for each believer the right and duty to use them in the Church and in the world for the good of men and the building up of the Church" (AA 3). This right is based on the Spirit's gift and the Church's validation. It is a duty stemming from the very fact of the gift received, which creates a responsibility and demands a commitment.

The history of the Church shows that whenever charisms are real, sooner or later they are recognized and can carry out their constructive, unifying role. It is a role, let us recall once again, that the majority of the Church's members, clerical and lay, effectively fulfill each day for the good of us all.