BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (186): What are charisms?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

The CCC (No. 2003) teaches us that aside from sanctifying grace, actual grace and sacramental grace, “there are furthermore special graces, also called ‘charisms’ after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning ‘favor,’ ‘gratuitous gift,’ ‘benefit’ (cf. Lumen Gentium 12).  Whatever their character – sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues – charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church (cf. 1 Corinthians 12).”

Charisms (χαρίσματα, charismata) are graces given to a person for the benefit of others.

We know about charisms because Saint Paul talks about it. In the First Letter to the Corinthians (12:4-7), he writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

He gives some examples. “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:8-11).

Saint Paul uses the analogy of the body to explain what charisms are and why there are different kinds:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:12-21).

Yet Saint Paul adds that not everyone needs to have these charisms.

“And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:28-29; cf. Romans 12:6-8).

Charisms are graces given for the benefit of others. This is why Saint Paul notes that these are not the most important of graces, because they do not directly sanctify the person who is given the gift: the gift is for others not for oneself. Being a pope or bishop, or speaking in tongues, or having the gift of healing does not, of itself, make one a saint. Thus, a Christian should not aim only to obtain charisms. This is why Saint Paul concludes this chapter saying: “But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).

In the next chapter, he speaks about this excellent way: ἀγάπη (Greek, agape, translated as “caritas” in Latin, “charity” or “love” in English), the most necessary gift of all. He says that even if he had so many gifts “but have not love, I am nothing … I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2-3). One cannot become holy without charity. Where does this charity come from? It is given with sanctifying grace which we receive through the sacraments.

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