4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 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. (I Cor 12:4-10)
In this text, St. Paul lists various gifts that we call charismatic. These are special abilities, or charisms, given to Christians not for their own help, but “for the common good,” as stated in v.7. They are “manifestations of the Spirit,” that is, demonstrations of the power of the Holy Spirit, that aim at building up the members of the Church as well as bearing witness to non-Christians. It is our understanding that these special gifts were given to Christians in the days of the early Church to help their missionary endeavors: non-believers witnessed the power of miracles and believed. Throughout the history of the Church, some missionaries received help in their duties by these special gifts (e.g., St. Vincent Ferrer). In our own day, a charismatic movement exists, the disciples of which express these gifts for the benefit of the Church. (NB: I am not a disciple of this movement; anything I have to say about them is as an observer standing on the outside and watching.) This movement is extensive and most parishes contain at least a few disciples. It would seem the time is ripe for a renewed missionary zeal, the resurgence of these miraculous gifts being a sign. The widespread loss of Faith in the 19th/20th centuries triggered the bishops to promote a New Evangelization, calling on all the faithful to participate in missionary activities, “for the common good.”
That said, what of our Pauline text above? I have none of these gifts, so what does this list mean to me? Let’s first look at a word in v.4: gifts. The Greek word is charismata; it is translated as ‘gifts,’ but we should recognize that most important of Christian vocabulary, charis, as the root: in English, grace. The charismata are a type of grace, which is the Life of the Holy Trinity shared with us, the very core of Christian belief. Throughout his epistles, St. Paul often speaks of charis, grace, the outpouring of God’s love. Typically, this grace is given to us for our own help in our relationship with God; they are normally given to us in the sacraments. We are called, however, to share this Life of God with others – we are all called to be missionaries, in some way. To help us carry out our missionary duties, God gives special graces: the charismata, the charismatic gifts. This context of receiving special grace “for the common good” is the backdrop of charismatic gifts. They are not to be kept; they are to be shared, so that non-believers may believe.
No one should assume we lack such extraordinary gifts; right now, I see no gift of healing or of miracles in my life, but perhaps later. These are the works of God, not human works; they will come upon whoever God chooses at the appropriate time. Many Christians today are doing actual miracles and transforming lives as a result. We don’t know what plans God has in store for us. On the other hand, we should not be curious of such plans, but only be docile when God reveals His plans. It is not for us to go looking for our own charismatic gifts just because we want them, to help us feel special. They are for others, not for ourselves.
These charisms, whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are perfectly suited to and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be sought after, nor are the fruits of apostolic labor to be presumptuously expected from their use; but judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good. (Vatican II: Lumen Gentium, 12)
As we look at the list of the charismatic gifts, we may wonder: What is my gift? I don’t speak in tongues, I don’t heal or do miracles, I’m neither wise nor particularly knowledgeable. What is my gift? Note v.9: ‘faith.’ Every Christian has the powerful gift (grace) of Faith. We can all share our Faith with others, which is miraculous. To us, it may seem ordinary; we’re just telling someone else what we believe. But Faith is an amazing miracle and behind the mere words is the power of God acting on the hearer in ways we cannot imagine. In my own life, I have been surprised when people told me how a single comment I made months or years earlier changed their whole outlook on God, comments that I found to be singularly lack-luster and ordinary when I said them. That is the power of faith.
We are often asked by our pastors to share our gifts for the good of the Church. As an example, I may be gifted with good organizational skills, so I volunteer to help coordinate a parish festival, at which – unknown to me – a fallen away Catholic strikes up a conversation with an eloquent parishioner and is inspired to come back to Church. My organizational skill was a special gift to help bring a soul back to the sacraments! Our charismata of Faith is extremely powerful and works wonders every day in the most seemingly mundane and ordinary ways.
Whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet 4:11)