A Question about Charisms

A Question about Charisms November 18, 2015

A reader writes:

Do you have any information on the status of the gifts that were promised to Christians such as snake handling, poison drinking and speaking in tongues. What does the Church say about it? I know we have healing and exorcism but I’m a little confused on the other gifts and the use of them in the last 1700 years. I read the verse in Mark 16:17. Thanks and God bless you.

Sherry Weddell is the person you want to talk to. There is no charism of snake handling per se (though I suppose in a pinch God might protect a missionary from snake bite as he protected Paul on Malta:

After we had escaped, we then learned that the island was called Malta. And the natives showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, when a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They waited, expecting him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead; but when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god. (Ac 28:1–6).

Jesus remark about drinking poison

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (*Mk 16:17–18)

…while it certainly can be read literally as the kind of thing that has, in fact, accompanied Christian missionaries (along with other remarkable phenomena), is not, I reckon, meant as a guarantee that missionaries can go around drinking cyanide to impress potential converts, anymore than the descriptions of miraculous healings are intended as an absolute guarantee that every evangelist who lays hand on the sick will absolutely cure every sick person.  Even Jesus, recall, did not heal everybody who came to him “because of their lack of faith” as Matthew tells us.  The gospel is not intended as vending machine for signs and wonders.  So I think what Jesus means, in part, is that “this is the kind of thing you can expect to see as the Church moves out into the world” (and indeed we have) but that such signs will not happen every single time the gospel is preached, nor are the miraculous signs God give limited to these five things.

Beyond such literal fulfilments (which do in fact happen), I think Jesus is likely speaking parabolically as well, meaning the Church can swallow ideas and cultures full of poison, filter what is bad and take what is good (as for instance St. Thomas did “baptizing” the pagan Greek Aristotle and the work of his Muslim commentators).

As to the rest, the Church still teaches that God gives charisms to every baptized person and that every particular Church has all the charisms it needs, distributed through its members for it to function.


799 Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world.

800 Charisms are to be accepted with gratitude by the person who receives them and by all members of the Church as well. They are a wonderfully rich grace for the apostolic vitality and for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ, provided they really are genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit and are used in full conformity with authentic promptings of this same Spirit, that is, in keeping with charity, the true measure of all charisms.253

801 It is in this sense that discernment of charisms is always necessary. No charism is exempt from being referred and submitted to the Church’s shepherds. “Their office [is] not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good,”254 so that all the diverse and complementary charisms work together “for the common good.”

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