In 2015, Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples became the Catholic book to read. Its simple but powerful message focused ecclesial leaders on a fundamental but overlooked point: Jesus called us to make disciples and yet most Catholics in the pews had not yet made that decision, let alone led others to it.
Weddell now asks us a fundamental question for parishes today: “Where’s the fruit?” It’s a question she asks through her ministry, the St. Catherine of Siena Institute, which points to an effective way to allow God to bear fruit in our lives—to discern and live our charisms. In her new book Fruitful Discipleship: Living the Mission of Jesus in the Church and the World (OSV, 2017), she looks at the gifts God gives to all the baptized to build up the Church. Most Catholics, however, she notes, do not even know what a charism is let alone how to begin living theirs out.
The Christian life is not just about our talents and efforts, but flows more fundamentally from the supernatural work of God. Every baptized Christian has supernatural gifts from God—sanctifying grace, gifts of the Spirit, infused virtues—including charisms. Weddell defines charisms as “gifts of the Holy Spirit” or “graces that pass through you and me – with our cooperation – to convey God’s truth, beauty, provision, healing, and mercy to someone else” (75). God does in fact give charisms to all Christians, though they are largely unrecognized. Helping Catholics to recognize them presents an essential task as “every baptized person has a ‘totally unique contribution’ to make to the Church’s mission” (77, quoting St. John Paul II).
If we do not live out our charisms, we will not see the fruit God intends in our lives and parishes. Weddell challenges us to rethink parish life and change its culture. “We have observed over the years that the cultural norm in place in most parishes unintentionally suppresses and impedes the spiritual growth and conversion of many” (214). Rather, “we need to build a parish-literate band of evangelizers whose primary work is to help individuals and families become mature disciples and fruit-bearing apostles” (217). She notes that we have to move from a maintenance mentality that simply seeks to preserve the status quo to a more dynamic model of helping each Catholic accept their mission from God to evangelize and serve.
Charisms are divided into three major groups of charisms: individual, founding, and hierarchical (86). Founding charisms enable the beginning of new spiritual movements and hierarchical charisms are given to the clergy through ordination. She focuses, therefore, on the individual charisms, and through her Called & Gifted Workshops has identified a “working list of charisms,” which includes: “encouragement, helps, hospitality, mercy, pastoring, evangelism, prophecy, teaching, administration, leadership, giving, service, celibacy, extraordinary faith, missionary, voluntary poverty, healing, intercessory prayer, knowledge, wisdom, craftsmanship, music, writing” (78-79). These charisms may be given in a temporary or abiding way.
The way to discover your charisms is to be active in the life of the parish and to work in the apostolate. Unlike other spiritual gifts and graces, charisms are directly ordered toward the good of others. Charisms help us to serve effectively and must be discerned, as they are gifts and not simply our own talents or desires. When exercising them, there will be a sense of God’s presence, a joy, and also greater effectiveness in service. Weddell describes “the three signs of a charism – your personal experience, your objective effectiveness for the Kingdom of God, and the positive feedback of others, both direct and indirect,” which “should be consistently present over time” (198). She notes that even though she guides people through inventories to get a sense of their gifts, charisms are only discerned by acting and discerning over time.
Just as Sherry Weddell challenged us a few years ago to put making disciples at the forefront of our ministry in the Church, now she helps us to understand that this work will only bear fruit through the gifts given to us by God. If we truly open ourselves to these gifts, discern them, and practice them for the good of others, we will see much more fruit in our lives and parishes. In conclusion, Weddell asks: “What could the Holy Spirit do through us if hundreds of parishes were filled with fruit-bearing missionary disciples who are deliberately entering the veins of our neighborhoods and cities to bring Jesus Christ to the world?” (232). It’s a question we all should be asking too.