Holy Spirit's charismatic gifts

Holy Spirit Graphic

May 3, 2010

In the Acts of the Apostles, Baptism was always accompanied by outward signs. The newly baptized would begin to speak in tongues, prophesy and even work healings and miracles.

So much was this expected that when Paul visited Ephesus he was surprised to find about 12 disciples who were baptized but had not heard about the Holy Spirit and exhibited none of the charisms. When Paul found they had been baptized in John's baptism, he baptized them in the Lord Jesus. Immediately, these disciples began to speak in tongues and prophesy (Acts 19.1-7).

To most 21st century North American Catholics, this seems strange. We never see such things happen in our churches, not even with adult Baptisms. What are these charisms? Why were they necessary in the early Church, yet seemingly not necessary today?

First, the gift of tongues. At Pentecost, the disciples receive the gift of tongues to speak the word of God to Jews visiting Jerusalem each in their own language. Yet, very soon, Christians were praying in tongues and no one could understand them (1 Corinthians 14.16).


This would seem to be a useless "gift," yet the Holy Spirit continued to bestow it upon people. Paul also refers to speaking "in the tongues of mortals and of angels" (1 Corinthians 13.1).

Many have concluded, rightly in my opinion, that the gift of tongues is a heavenly language for praising God. It enables the person to pray, even if he or she does not know what they are praying. It is a sign to us of the fullness of the heavenly kingdom where all will continually praise God.

Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann says something similar. He describes the gift of tongues as an inward possession of the Spirit so strong that a person cannot express what is occurring in a humanly comprehensible language.

Some who have not experienced this gift might think an eternity filled with praising God would be a boring kingdom. Yet the universal or near-universal experience of those who have received the gift of tongues is one of delight, an enormous growth in intimacy with God and a heightened awareness of what God is saying through Scripture. It is not a gift to be scorned.


St. Paul did chastise the Christian community at Corinth for placing too much emphasis on praying in tongues and for making one's spiritual gifts a source of personal pride. He emphasized that the charisms were given to unite the community and to foster both fervour and missionary outreach. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12.7).

Paul urged the Corinthians to "strive for the spiritual gifts and especially that you may prophesy. . . . Those who prophesy build up the Church" (14.1, 4). Paul seems to be speaking of a form of prophecy that is akin to words of encouragement to the community or its members. This is quite different from the Old Testament prophets who often chastised a sinful people and described their visions of a future messianic age.


Jesus healed the sick and he empowered the apostles to do the same. "Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons," he said while commissioning the apostles (Matthew 10.8).

Today, the notion that baptized Christians are to perform miraculous healings as a matter of course seems far-fetched. Yet Jesus seemed to make it an integral part of our call.

Healings point to the new creation where everything will be made whole. They point to the reality that the Christian faith is not so much about saving souls as about restoring creation, including humanity, to the fullness of life that existed in Eden.

Tongues, prophesies and healings are eschatological signs - they embody and point toward the fullness of God's kingdom that will come at the end of time. Without those signs evident in our churches our witness is less than it might be.

The outpouring of these signs, says Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, "is not an event in and of itself but rather the beginning of a journey whose aim is the profound renewal of life in the Church" (Sober Intoxification of the Church, p. 38).

Moreover, such an outpouring is outside the sacramental structure which is the normal source of grace in the Church. Where once the charisms were closely linked with Baptism, today they often appear as spontaneous events in lay-led renewal organizations.


While we should strive to share in this power of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul throws us a curveball. We can see the power of God in healings; we can also see it where there is no healing. In praying for his own healing, Paul received this word from the Lord: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12.9).

What a religion we have! We are told to strive for the higher gifts in order to witness to the kingdom. But if we do not receive those gifts then God's power is even more evident in our failure to receive them.