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Why charismatic gifts are so important

Jenna M. Cooper - published on 06/23/16

Exorcism, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and less spectacular abilities like teaching are critical to the Church's "rejuvenation"

Although the book of Acts does not explicitly mention Our Lady’s presence at the actual descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, depictions of Pentecost almost always show Mary right alongside the Twelve. The traditional belief in Mary’s presence at Pentecost, however, is much more than a simple expression of Marian piety. Rather, acknowledging Mary as being in company with the Twelve Apostles at the very moment of the Church’s foundation communicates something important about the nature of the Church.

And so it is fitting that the recently published letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Iuvenescit Ecclesia (“The Church Rejuvenates”) was officially signed this past Pentecost. Written on the topic of “the relationship between hierarchical and charismatic gifts in the life and the mission of the Church,” Iuvenescit Ecclesia alludes to the deeper meaning of who was present at Pentecost and why. As Iuvenescit Ecclesia was officially addressed to the Church’s bishops, it often makes use of some very technical theological language and concepts. Still, this should not dissuade the rest of the faithful from appreciating the profound spirituality this letter contains.

A central premise of Iuvenescit Ecclesia is that we can speak of the Church as having both a hierarchical and a charismatic aspect. But what does this mean?

The hierarchical element of the Church generally refers to the role and function of those in Holy Orders, who are the direct successors to the original Twelve Apostles—i.e., the bishops of the Church, and the priests and deacons who assist them. These men are called to carry on the work of the Apostles in the three-fold ministry of teaching (that is, authoritatively proclaiming Catholic doctrine), sanctifying (celebrating the sacraments), and governing (administering the Church’s affairs and ensuring good order within the Christian community).

On the other hand, the Church also has a charismatic dimension, which is equally important, or as Iuvenescit Ecclesia frequently phrases it, “coessential.” The word “charism” literally means “gift.” In terms of Catholic theology, charisms are special gifts of grace from God that are bestowed on individuals for the good of the Church as a whole. Just as the Twelve Apostles were the first members of the hierarchy, we can think of Mary as representing the charismatic dimension of the Church in a prototypical way, as her wholehearted response to God’s extraordinary gift of grace is as much a foundation of the Church as the vocation of the Apostles.

Iuvenescit Ecclesia includes several paragraphs detailing how charisms are described in the New Testament, noting that these gifts of grace included not only highly visible gifts such as exorcism, prophecy, and speaking in tongues, but also less spectacular gifts like teaching, service, or works of mercy, which became increasingly central to the Christian community as the Church gained maturity. While the New Testament descriptions of charisms still apply to the life of the Church today, since Vatican II the word “charism” has also been used to refer to the foundational inspiration of a religious community. Or in other words, a charism is an initial gift of grace to a founder which informs the identity, spirituality, and mission of his or her religious family. Likewise, other forms of consecrated life, as well as the new lay movements within the Church, are considered expressions of the Church’s charismatic dimension.

Unlike the call to ordained ministry, charisms can be given to any member of the faithful, whether male or female. Because charisms are a direct gift from God, who grants whatever He wills to whomever He wills, the Church’s charismatic aspect is often much more mysterious than the organized handing-down of the Church’s hierarchical gifts in the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Because of this, the Church’s charismatic and hierarchical dimensions are at times mistakenly seen as being in conflict with each other. For example, in certain instances there might be an impression of the hierarchy as excessively rule-bound and closed-minded to the point of failing to appreciate the real inspirations of the Holy Spirit at work in the faithful today. Or the problem could be reversed, such as when those who feel they have received a special charism disregard the need for prudence, stability, and obedience to those whom the Lord has legitimately placed in positions of authority.

Yet the purpose of Iuvenscit Ecclesia is to underscore the complementarity of the Church’s hierarchical and charismatic elements. Because charisms and the hierarchical gifts both find their origin in the Holy Spirit, they are meant to work together for the building up of the Church. Specifically, the hierarchy is responsible for discerning the authenticity of various charisms and guiding them toward greater fruitfulness within the wider community; and recipients of charismatic gifts are charged with bearing a convincing evangelical witness for the continual rejuvenation of the Church.

In this sense, both the “Apostolic” and the “Marian” dimensions of the Church truly support and harmonize with each other, and can be considered equally essential in our understanding of the Church’s identity and mission.

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