The Right Tools for the Job

I once saw a big glass case in the Smithsonian Museum full of strange metal implements, gears and widgets of every shape and description. I couldn’t imagine what these gizmos were, so I read the sign on the case. It said, in so many words, “We can’t imagine what these gizmos are. If you know, could you please tell us?” The glass case sat there, day after day, while millions of people streamed through the Smithsonian every year. No one knew what these tools were for.

Similarly, millions of people have streamed into the charismatic renewal in the past 30 or so years. And in so doing, they have been presented with strange gizmos and widgets labeled “Healing,” “Prophecy,” “Discernment,” “Knowledge,” “Tongues” and so forth. They have experimented with these tools, pushed some buttons, seen some interesting lights go on, frequently seen some really wonderful things happen, occasionally had some disastrous explosions. But what has happened perhaps with greatest frequency is this: God handed out a bunch of tools (called “charisms” in the Tool Manual called the Catechism) and we, though thrilled with the charisms, have yet to know how to really integrate them into the life of the Church. Thus renewal can get stuck in a ghetto while both we charismatics and our brother and sister non-charismatic Catholics are unable to form a clear notion of what the Heavenly Toolmaker intended charisms for.

To be sure, we have had some ideas, many of them false. Not a few mistaken believers, for instance, think that the gifts of the Spirit are a sign of God’s special approval: proof that a gifted person is a holy saint. Yet there is a spectacular example to the contrary in the Gospel of John: Caiaphas, the High Priest who ordered the crucifixion of our Lord. He spoke, says St. John, under a genuine charism of prophecy when he said, “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”(John 11:50-51). As St. John observes, this was a dead-on accurate prophecy filled with perfectly sound theology–yet it was spoken by one who hated Christ and sought above all else to nail him to a Cross. That should disabuse us forever of the idea that the mere bestowal of a spiritual gift–even an amazing one like predictive prophecy, stigmata or miraculous healing–is a fer sher sign of our special wonderfulness. Even charismatics are under permanent obligation to “watch and pray, lest we fall in temptation.”

Very well then, if they are not signs of holiness, what are the gifts for? Quite simply, the same thing all tools are for: work. In this case, the work to be done is building up the Church (1 Corinthians 12).

Well and good, we reply. But what does that mean? This is where the Smithsonian toolbox comes into play again. For the lesson of that tool box is that a really well-made tool–a sleek model with really nifty gears and buttons–is only useful if we can see the larger purpose of the toolmaker and how this particular tool fits into the Grand Scheme of Things. Otherwise, we might (for all we know) be using a wrench to pound nails and an Pentium computer as a boat anchor.

So what is the purpose of God and this Church he hands out so many gifts to? According to the documents of Vatican II, it is to evangelize, to sanctify and to renew the face of the earth. That is, we are to carry forward the work of Jesus as his friends and ambassadors. All the tools he gives us are ordered to this end and no other.

But, someone says, I’m a layman. Isn’t that what the clergy are for? After all, they’re the ones who do the preaching and teaching and sacraments, aren’t they?

Yes, partly. But notice the purpose of their particular work. St. Paul says that God “gave… some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people [that is, you and me] for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4;11-12). In short, the clergy and hierarchy are the bones of the Body, keeping it strong in truth; but we laypeople are the muscles and skin of the Body, facing the world and working in it to bring the grace of Christ to neighbors our priests, bishops and Popes are utterly powerless to touch.

That make you and I as laypeople critically important. Now to be sure, our priests, bishops and Pope quite rightly and truly preside at the altar. It is indeed through the spiritual gifts given them in ordination that we are fed with Eucharist, reconciled, anointed and cared for with the words and sacraments of our Lord. That is their role in the Body and they are worthy of great honor for undertaking that work. But, according to Vatican II, that is not the only role in the Body, nor the only great honor the Lord bestows. For to paraphrase St. Paul, the skeleton cannot say to the muscles, “I don’t need you.” All the work of the clergy is wasted if we laypeople, entrusted (as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says) with the task of “engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” do not take the gifts given us (both sacramental and charismatic) and use them to “illuminate and order all temporal things with which [we] are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.” In short, we laypeople are the only Jesus most people will ever meet. On us, not on Father or Bishop or Pope, rests the overwhelming amount of responsibility (and glory!) for bringing the gospel of our Lord to the world.

Thus, we laypeople preside in the world and do our piece of the work as God has given it to us just as surely as our priests are called to preside at the altar. That is why the Mass concludes with the command to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. That’s our job as laypeople, and we are called to do it in the world, not in the Church.

Which brings us to another fuddled idea of charism. Namely, many people have the idea that the closer a charism comes to imitating priestly or clerical stuff, the more “truly spiritual” it is.

Here’s what I mean. Many of us Catholics have the notion that a “really spiritual” layman is one who helps out around the Church as a lector, server, acolyte, religious ed teacher or eucharistic minister. We can tend to think as though these roles are pretty much the summit of lay vocation (because they all cluster around the altar and therefore have a quasi-priestly aroma about them). Conversely we often tend to relegate to second class status the billion and one other things we do as laypeople to the realm of the “secular” (read: “unimportant to God”). Thus, if you caught us unaware, we would not tend think of a plumber doing a first rate job of unclogging a toilet as a man doing holy work. Nor does a secretary who is a fine speller and grammarian leap to mind as “spiritual.” For we do not see our work in the world as sacred and therefore we do not think of it as a vocation.

Now in just the same way, I think we tend to regard the more “clerical” charism as “really spiritual” while relegating other charisms to second class status. Please don’t misunderstand me. I do believe that all the charisms are distributed among laity as much as clergy and I do not deny that prophecy and healing often occur among us laypeople. But I also notice that these gifts (and others such as tongues and teaching) strongly resemble the clerical tasks of public prayer, preaching and anointing and get a lot more press in the Christian world. Yet equally supernatural charisms such as giving, service or mercy (Romans 12:6-8) seem so… pedestrian to many people and are seldom the subject of charismatic seminars. This, I think, is no accident. For I think we laypeople really snooker ourselves into thinking “layish” gifts aren’t all that important. “Ministry,” we fancy, is what happens at Mass (at the hands of a priest) or at prayer group (at the hands of those who have gifts resembling priestly ones). Thus I have talked to people who, finding themselves no good at praying over other people publicly (like Father does at Mass) or teaching (like Father does when he proclaims the gospel) or giving words of counsel (like Father does when he hears confession), conclude “I must not have any important gifts.”

And all the while the irony is: it really is we and not the Church (that is, the mind of Christ) who think this. For Church teaching in Scripture, the documents of Vatican II, Christifideles Laici and even in canon law says quite clearly that every baptized Christian has spiritual gifts which are absolutely essential to the health of the Church and the world. Moreover, the Church’s teaching takes very seriously the unique gifts we all have and emphasizes that if we do not exercise those gifts we leave a hole that cannot possibly be filled by an army of Popes and bishops. As St. Paul teaches, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

This is critically important to understand as we approach the world as laypeople called to evangelize, sanctify and renew the face of the earth. For us, our unique charisms are critically important just as God as has given them to us and just where he has placed us. For the priest, the principal gift given is the grace of ordination which is not unique to him at all. That is because an ordained priest serves, not so much by “being himself” as by standing in the place of our Lord. In that sense, we may truly say that “any priest will do” since his service to the Church depends not on a particular personal charism but upon a sort of “impersonal” grace of ordination. But in our case, as laymen and women carrying out our specific tasks in the world, only you, Joe Doaks, and you, Mary Smith, can fulfill the specific task given you with the specific gifts God has poured out on you. You, and no other in all Creation, can accomplish the work set you by our Lord. You, and no other in all Creation–not even the Pope–are the agent through which God will reach that neighbor, that child, that co-worker with the gospel of his Son. This is a singular honor and one which is, oddly, a gift withheld from your priest and bishop. In a nutshell, not even the Pope can be a Dad to your children and raise them to know Jesus as you can, Mr Doaks. Mother Teresa is a great woman, but not nearly such a spiritual giant to your children as you are, Mrs. Smith.

If we laypeople begin to take this vision seriously and to see ourselves in this light as disciples and disciplers in Christ Jesus, I firmly believe that the Church can do nothing but benefit. It will relieve us of the false burden of vaguely imagining that we are second-class citizens in the Kingdom (which the Church teaching strongly forbids us to imagine), or that we must somehow be quasi-priestly to matter, or that our “quiet” charisms of service or hospitality (should those be our gifts) are mundane. It will also free us to turn our minds away from the fancy that lay vocations mean primarily “helping out at the altar every other Sunday” and see instead the reality that all of life–the whole world we inhabit, govern, love and struggle in–is our glorious responsibility to bring to the altar every single day, just as it is our equally glorious responsibility to bring that altar to the world (and often die with Christ on it in self-sacrifice).

So let us begin to catch such a vision of discipleship and come to see, in Christ Jesus, our priests and bishops as honorable co-laborers with us as they preside at the altar and we with them as we preside in the world. Let us, in a new way as fully orthodox Catholics, come to take our gifts–whatever they are–seriously and our place in the world as the one picked out for us by God himself from the foundation of the world. For in so doing we will discover the tools we have been given make much more sense to us and we will be directing them toward their intended purpose: “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12-13).


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email