Charism and Institution

My starting point is number 116 of the Instrumentum Laboris where we read: “The synod fathers are called upon to discuss the relationship between charism and institution, between charismatic gifts and hierarchical gifts, in the concrete situations of dioceses and their missionary endeavours”, and in particular the subject of the ‘co-essentiality’ “of these gifts of the Spirit, in the life and mission of the Church, in light of the new evangelization”.


As the Instrumentum Laboris explicitly says, the term “co-essentiality” was used by Blessed John Paul II. In 1987 he said: “In the Church, both the institutional aspect and the charismatic aspect [...] are co-essential and contribute to life, renewal and holiness, even though in different ways so that there is exchange and mutual communion”.1 John Paul II used the term “co-essential” on two other occasions. Ten years later, in 1998, he used it at the first World Congress of movements2 and again at the Pentecost Vigil that followed.3


What does this term mean? It implies high esteem for the charismatic dimension of the Church, something that, in practice, was mostly kept in the shadows before Vatican II. Blessed John Paul II maintained that the charismatic dimension is not of secondary importance. When it is closely connected with the institutional dimension, it is a structural component of the Church. It means that the relationship between these two dimensions is not of a dialectic type to be found between two conflicting parts. It is an organic and symbiotic relationship: “An authentic movement exists [...] as a nourishing soul within the Institution. It is not an alternative structure. Rather, it is the source of a presence that continually regenerates its existential and historical authenticity”.4


Pope Benedict has followed the line of his predecessor. When he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he insisted that there was no contradiction between charism and institution. He demonstrated this by means of a brief history, showing that if we see them as being set against each other, then we cannot really understand the phenomenon of charisms in the life of the Church.5 According to the pope, there is no institution (a hierarchical gift) in the Church that does not have some reference to a charism, nor is there any charism that is completely detached from the institution. He said in particular that while movements need to be reminded that “they are a gift for the whole Church, and they must submit themselves to the demands of this totality if they are to remain true to what they essentially are”, it is equally necessary “that it be said clearly to the local Churches and the bishops that they must not give in to any desire to have absolute uniformity in their organisations and pastoral programmes”.6 When speaking of the integration of charisms in the life of the local Church, it is therefore necessary to avoid an approach that might reduce the concept of ecclesial communion to uniformity. The pope insists that “in his gifts, the Spirit is multifaceted... He wants your (that of the movements and new communities) diversity and he wants you for the one body”.7 Christifideles Laici insists that “the charisms are received in gratitude [...] They are in fact a singularly rich source of grace for the vitality of the apostolate and for the holiness of the whole Body of Christ, provided that they be gifts that come truly from the Spirit and are exercised in full conformity with the authentic promptings of the Spirit”.8 For this reason, no charism can be exempted from referring to the pastors (the institution!) who have the duty of discerning their genuineness and correct practice.9

1 John Paul II, To ecclesial movements gathered for the 2nd international colloquium, 2 March 1987.

2 Cf. John Paul II, Message to the participants at the World Congress of ecclesial movements organised by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Pentecost 1998.

3 Cf. John Paul II, To ecclesial movements and new communities at the Pentecost Vigil, 1998.

4 John Paul II, To the priests of Communion and Liberation, 12 September 1985.

5 Cf. J. Ratzinger, I movimenti ecclesiali e la loro collocazione teologica, in “Nuove irruzioni dello Spirito. I movimenti nella Chiesa”, Cinisello Balsamo 2006, pp. 11-50.

6 Ibid, p. 48.

7 Benedict XVI, Pentecost Vigil in St Peter’s Square with ecclesial movements and new communities, 3 June 2006.

8 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, n. 24.

9 Cf. ibid.

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