In 1979, I was an 11-year-old fifth grader at Saint Joseph School in Downers Grove, IL. On October 5 of that year, my family and I spent the entire day camped curbside in downtown Chicago waiting patiently for Pope John Paul II. We sat with our brown bag lunches amidst the sea of followers. The streets were filled with nuns, priests, children and security guards. This was the first time I had ever heard a foreign language, and many were spoken around me that day, among them, Polish, Spanish and Italian. We were all chanting “Viva la papa!” I remember leaning over and asking an elderly Italian woman with her rosary wrapped around her wrist, “What does that mean?” She looked into my eyes and said, “Long live the Pope.” In typing this post that phrase still brings a tear to my eye.
I remember the Pope’s motorcade coming down the street and the excitement of his presence. As he passed by, I knew I would always remember that moment, as well as attending the mass he celebrated hours later, with what felt like all of Chicago. The following day, the Chicago Tribune reported the events: “Pope John II traveled to Grant Park for the largest mass ever celebrated in Chicago. The skyscrapers of Chicago’s Loop resembled cathedral spires as they soared over the crowd.” The article described the gathering of an estimated 200,000 people as “festive yet solemn, happy but devout.” Worshipers of all ages, races and religions had come to see the pontiff.
In his homily, John Paul II said:
“Looking at you, I see people who have thrown their destinies together and now write a common history. .. . This is the way America was conceived; this is what she was called to be. . . . But there is another reality that I see when I look at you. . . . your unity as members of the People of God.”
Years later, in 1989 before I met my husband, Shane, he traveled with friends through Europe after graduating from college. They found themselves in a similar crowd gathered at Saint Peter’s Square to attend mass with the Holy Father. After the mass, Pope John Paul II walked amongst the crowds and laid his hand upon the head of one of Shane’s fellow travelers. This experience of the mass and the encounter with the Vicar of Christ left an equally immense impression on Shane.
This past Sunday after mass, as Shane and I ate breakfast with our 5 children, we recounted these stories, and shared how the experiences helped shape us, and led to our current ministries. Another recent turning point for me came through a life-changing program from Catherine of Sienna Institute: its Called and Gifted workshop. Ever since I had finished my studies in spiritual direction, I had been searching for my next step. The Called and Gifted workshop provided me with an inventory and personal context for my spiritual gifts.
Spiritual gifts are different than natural talents and strengths. Natural talents are in-born, or inherited from a parent. I can see that in the athletic ability that my daughter received from my husband. Spiritual gifts (known as “charisms,” a Greek word used in the New Testament for “favor” or “gratuitous gift”) are gifts from the Holy Spirit. They are intended to be shared with the world in an outward focus, in charity and service. Spiritual gifts enable Christians to build up the church. (CCC 2003)
Through scripture we hear about spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12:7-10
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the spirit of wisdom, and to another the speaking of knowledge according to the same spirit to another faith by the same spirit to another gifts of healing by the one spirit to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kind of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.”
Our Sunday breakfast conversation evolved as our children were eager to hear, how and when they will receive these spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are given to us through the Holy Spirit at our sacraments, in addition to grace, which helps us overcome our fears or hesitation in using those gifts (similar to what the early disciples may have felt). The Catechism states that when we are baptized, we are made a temple of the Holy Spirit and are given “the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. (CCC 1265-1266) Then at the sacrament of Confirmation, an imprint is made on the soul, “an indelible spiritual mark, the ‘character,’ which is the sign that Jesus Christ has marked a Christian with the seal of his Spirit by clothing him with power from on high so that he may be his witness.” (CCC 1304)
When we use our spiritual gifts, we are not only building God’s church on earth; studies show that we also become more fulfilled. Gallup, an organization widely known for its polls and employee-selection research, found that when individuals use their strengths in their occupations, they are more engaged, productive, profitable and happier. In Living Your Strengths, a recently-published book by Gallup, the authors explain that American churches are experiencing a power shortage. “People aren’t harnessing the power of their innate gifts,” I see this in my own parish: individuals volunteer for a position out of a desire to help, but in some cases, the right person is in the wrong ministry. Or in other cases, an individual works tirelessly doing a ministry that isn’t within his or her spiritual gifts, which leads to burnout and disconnection from the church. How invigorating would it be if all members of a church were using their gifts to enrich their parish, while at the same time, making each parishioner more engaged, productive, and happier?
Life is messy, complicated and challenging on many days, and it can be hard to find the joy in our daily existence. Life also changes us. And yet since the beginning of time, man has always searched for a deeper meaning for our existence. As we gain a better understanding of ourselves, and learn what our spiritual gifts are, we are given a glimpse of our purpose on earth. Living, working and serving from your spiritual gifts provides abundant amounts of energy, others will affirm your efforts, and surely in God’s timing you will provide a positive impact on others.
When Pope John Paul was in Chicago he talked about “unity,” and in our union with God we are more capable of unity with others. This quote from Pope Francis reminds me of my daily desire to be attentive to using my gifts to foster unity:
“We should get into the habit of asking ourselves, before the end of the day: ‘What did the Holy Spirit do in me? What witness did he give me?’ Because he is a divine presence that helps us moving forward in our lives as Christians.”
The Pope explained that the Holy Spirit is always there to protect and support each person, and that, “without this presence, our Christian lives cannot be understood.” Perhaps this Lent can be a season for you to consider: do you know your spiritual gifts? How are you sharing those gifts? Who might be able to help if you are wrestling with this topic?
This blog is based on the personal experiences and opinions of Peggy O’Flaherty. Any reproduction of the material in this blog may be used with written consent of the author by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peggy O’Flaherty, is a certified spiritual director, public speaker, blog writer, wife and mother of five children. Her recent writing projects include “New App For your Phone Connect your Parish, Growing the Faith, One Parish” and “Extending Compassion, Losing a Child & Evangelization” She is the Founder & President of Creating Space, LLC., a ministry helping people enrich their faith. Follow Peggy at www.creatingspaceinyourlife.com.