Every baptised Christian has a vocation. There is therefore no shortage of vocations in this sense, but there is a need for discernment of one’s particular vocation. God has a plan for our life, and in calling us to a particular vocation God provides the gifts to help us fulfil that call.
There are a number of ways in which we can discern how we are called and gifted by God for a particular mission in the world. Prayer is central to this, and the closer we are to God, the clearer will be our sense of mission and our ability to identify the clues through which we can discover the plan for our lives.
One of the key things we can do is discern our spiritual gifts or ‘charisms’. By discerning our charisms we can seek out situations where God calls us to stand – in his presence – and serve him by being a channel of God’s love to others.
The word ‘charism’ means ‘gift’ and comes from the Greek ‘charis’, which gives us the related words ‘eucharist’, ‘grace’ and ‘charity’.
Charisms refer to the gifts of the Holy Spirit which have been with the Church since apostolic times. St Paul teaches that all Christians receive charisms at Baptism. St Thomas Aquinas also teaches that each baptised Christian is given at least one gift. Some Christians receive more spectacular gifts such as healing or prophecy, but most of us receive less spectacular gifts such as teaching, mercy, administration or service, amongst many others. Most Christians exercise their charisms in quiet, inconspicuous, but marvellous ways. Discipleship and the exercise of charisms are normative for Christians.
A charism is a supernatural gift and it has supernatural effects. Charisms are supernaturally empowered ways in which God’s mercy, love, healing, truth, beauty and provision will reach others through us. Charisms, unlike skills or talents, can never be kept to ourselves or used deliberately for evil.
The best way of illustrating this is to look at the lives of the saints. We do not have to look too far back in history if we use the example of St Teresa of Calcutta. Most Christians are moved to compassion by the sight of a starving child or an emaciated old person, and they might make a donation to one or other worthy cause. But Mother Teresa’s gift of mercy was extraordinary in every way. She was able to reach out to the whole world with her example and to millions both personally and through the work of the Missionaries of Charity. She was able to identify that gift and allow the Holy Spirit to work through offering her life in its service.
Closer to home, Caroline Chisholm rescued thousands of young women from the streets of Sydney and found them meaningful work across the early colonies. She assisted in the settlement of thousands of poor families from England to a better life in Australia. She was married and the mother of nine – six of whom attained adulthood. Her charism of wisdom enabled her to find solutions to contemporary social problems. In explaining her vocation she wrote:
“I was impressed with the idea that God had, in a peculiar manner, fitted me for this work . . . On Easter Sunday I was able to make an offering of my gifts to the God who gave them . . . I felt my offering was accepted and God’s blessing was on my work.”
Caroline had, through prayer and fasting during Lent, arrived at the idea that God had ‘called’ and ‘gifted’ her for the task at hand.
Charisms grow as our relationship with Jesus grows. Further evidence of the supernatural nature of charisms is that they always manifest after the point in our life where our faith becomes more personal, or they manifest for the first time when we meet a person or situation where a particular gift is needed. Or, to quote Sherry Weddell, the author of the Called and Gifted Workshop: “Charisms tend to show up at the mysterious intersection where the Church and the world cry out to God in need, and a disciple takes up his or her call to follow Jesus.”
The Called and Gifted Workshop is one tool for spiritual gift discernment. The Workshop helps people identify patterns in their lives that may indicate a charism, and the process for discernment.
There is a saying attributed to Catherine of Siena: “If you become who God intends you to be, you will set the world on fire.”
In many ways this is a good standard for measuring the effectiveness of our discernment. In the Called and Gifted Workshop there are three criteria. The first is subjective: how does it feel? There is a sense in exercising our charisms that “we were made for this”. Our actions flow easily and we are often surprised by the results. The other criteria are objective. Does the charism achieve what it is meant to achieve? And, is it recognised by others?
As baptised Christians, we are called to actively participate in the Church’s mission to the world. It is the laity who are entrusted with applying the faith in the world by healing and transforming its people, culture and structures with the Gospel so that it fosters all that is truly human, and thereby fulfil God’s plan. A difficult undertaking. But through fidelity to Christ and his Church, the power of the Holy Spirit and exercising our charisms, it is achievable. It is a fulfilment of Pope Francis’ call to be missionary disciples.
Clara Geoghegan is the Executive Secretary of the Bishops Commission for Evangelisation, Laity and Ministry. Clara is also the Co-Director of the Catherine of Siena Institute, Australia. For further information about Siena Institute programs contact [email protected],org or visit www.sienainstitute.org.au
This article first appeared in the June 2020 edition of The Bridge, the newsletter of the National Centre for Evangelisation. It is reproduced with permission.