John of the Cross and Exercising Charisms for Evangelization

A Response to Elizabeth Salas

Once in a while I run into statements like: “Catholics shouldn’t seek to exercise the charisms of the Spirit because St. John of the Cross cautioned against them.” Such concerns come in different forms and are usually raised by people who sincerely desire to grow in holiness through the influence of Carmelite spirituality. In her article, “‘Power Evangelization’: A Catholic and Carmelite Perspective,” Elizabeth Salas offers her version and argues two main points: 1) Unless “other methods have been exhausted,” Catholics should refrain from using extraordinary gifts in evangelization, because according to John of the Cross it is “extraordinarily difficult for [these gifts] to be used without abuse.” 2) Seeking to exercise such gifts in evangelization is not Catholic.1

While Salas is to be commended for her concern that Catholics who evangelize grow in faith, hope, and charity, her article about evangelization and the gifts of the Spirit contains many serious misunderstandings and errors. Here I will argue that seeking to exercise gifts in evangelization is indeed Catholic and is not precluded by the teachings of John of the Cross. I will close with a pastoral exhortation to humble confidence in Jesus who endows his bride, the Church, with the graces of the Spirit to advance the wonderful good news of salvation.

The Spirit’s Action in Evangelization Is Catholic

Salas lumps Catholics who seek to exercise certain charisms in evangelization into one category called “power evangelists.”2 Even if this is an oversimplification, the concept of power evangelization, properly understood, is relatively straightforward and uncontroversial. One can define power evangelization as the preaching of the gospel while praying for and expecting the Spirit to supernaturally confirm the word preached. Such confirmation can include signs of miracles, healings, deliverance from evil spirits, a prophetic word, supernatural conviction in the heart, or even a gentle perception of God’s presence.3 Evangelization accompanied by such signs of God’s presence is not my idea, nor was it the idea of other Christians who have influenced Catholics. It was Jesus’s idea.4 So pervasive is the Spirit’s action in evangelization in these confirming ways in the New Testament that one does not need to find a Catechism quote to justify such an approach to evangelization for it to be Catholic.5 That some non-Catholic Christians have played a key role in the rediscovery of our Catholic heritage does not make the practice of praying for signs in evangelization any less Catholic. In fact, praying with people and expecting the Spirit to act through the charisms is a common practice among Catholics today.6 Salas’s own bishop, Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit, offers a beautiful exhortation to look for signs and wonders to accompany the gospel:

Jesus proclaimed the Gospel not only in words but in healings, miracles, signs and wonders that visibly demonstrated the message: in him the kingdom of God had truly become present (Lk 9:11; Acts 2:22). When he commissioned his disciples to continue his mission, he commanded them to preach the Gospel both in words and in deeds of power (Lk 9:1–2; 10:8–9; Jn 14:12). “They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mk 16:20). Often it was these signs that moved the hearers to believe the Gospel (Acts 8:6; Heb 2:4). So today we look for the proclamation of the good news to be accompanied by signs and wonders that visibly demonstrate God’s love and convince people that Jesus Christ is truly alive. We have been given a prison-shaking Savior, a deliverer who sets captives free! Signs, small and great, are a normal part of the Christian life. Our focus is not on the signs themselves, but on the risen Lord Jesus to whom they point. “By the power at work within us [he] is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).7

Sifting through Straw-Man Arguments

Salas sets up a “case study” that examines the methods and teachings of Encounter Ministries, a ministry of which I am the president.8 Upon closer examination, this “case study,” as well as her subsequent characterization of Catholics seeking to evangelize with the gifts of the Spirit, are straw men crafted out of false assumptions, factual errors, and puzzling reasoning.9 Salas consistently misunderstands and misjudges theological positions and pastoral practices to such a degree that she attributes to the proponents of evangelizing in the power of the Spirit positions and practices that are not even taught or held by them.10

A set of Salas’s errors on discernment of charisms is especially egregious. She objects to what she perceives is “the lack of proper discernment.” In conjecturing about the assumptions of those who practice “power evangelization,” she makes her own set of assumptions, all of which are completely mistaken.11 She also makes an additional set of false assumptions, which if made intentionally would be considered uncharitable.12 While Salas rightly acknowledges that the abuse of a good does not destroy the proper use of that good (abusus non tollit usam), her readers would probably conclude that most people seeking to exercise charisms fail to take discernment of God’s movements very seriously. Her readers might also come away believing that Catholics seeking to obey the promptings of the Spirit in evangelization do not share, and are not even aware of, John of the Cross’s general concerns about vanity, pride, and spiritual attachment to certain supernatural phenomena. Of course, these too are false.

Contrary to what Salas’s article implies, I do not hold that miracles are necessary in the strict sense in every act of evangelization.13 Nor do I hold that philosophical discourse and intellectual approaches such as apologetics are unnecessary for evangelization. Rather I make the case that praying for signs and wonders, especially healing, to accompany the preaching of the gospel is one of the ways to maximize our evangelistic efforts in a postmodern culture, which on account of its intellectual skepticism and relativism hold personal experience and testimony in high regard.14 After all, the witness of Scripture remains: signs, wonders, and miracles make the words of the gospel credible, and the words of the gospel make the signs that accompany it intelligible.15 One of the central conclusions of my book is that the proclamation of the Word of God is sacramental just as the Word itself is. Since the gospel comes in both word and deed in the New Testament — the gospel preached by Jesus and the apostolic Church was accompanied by signs, wonders, and miracles — and since there is no biblical reason why miracles of healing cannot be used in evangelization at all times, healing can be understood as essential to the Church’s evangelization in every age.

In arguing against what she calls the “democratization of the extraordinary gifts,” Salas falsely states that people who practice power evangelization believe that everyone should be exercising extraordinary gifts often in evangelization.16 Rather, we simply seek to hold to the very tension found in the New Testament between the real authority of every believer to pray effectively for healing and the truth that a special charism of healing is given to some people that enables them to pray for healing more effectively.17 Encouraging people to step out in faith is not at all the same as claiming this is going to happen all the time through every person. Moreover, Salas’s attempts to use magisterial texts to indicate the “extraordinary” and “exceptional” nature of some charisms as an argument to why they should be more uncommon and rare today is unpersuasive.18 Nothing in these texts gives us reason to believe that these charisms should be rarer than they are today.19

John of the Cross in Context

Understanding John of the Cross in his historical context is necessary for any application of his spiritual teachings to believers today. In sixteenth-century Spain, John was writing against a heretical sect called the Alumbrados, who believed that the more visions, prophecies, and ecstasies a person had, the holier they were.20 He was responding to an extreme position which overvalued personal revelation and giftedness to the exclusion of growth in charity. Indeed, excessive focus on personal revelation and extraordinary gifts wreaks havoc on one’s interior life, especially as one is going through the painful purification of the dark nights of the senses and of the spirit. The dangers, as Salas notes, are real. Thus, it’s no surprise that John chose to lead the Carmelites through an apophatic approach to growing in union with God, which would lead them to reject or deemphasize more kataphatic elements of prayer. Nevertheless, John does not reject the charisms. Rather, he is concerned with their proper exercise so that “they might truly achieve the ends, both in those who exercise them, and in the lives of those who benefit from them, that God intends for them to have.”21

John was writing to Carmelite religious devoted to the contemplative life in secluded monasteries. As such, they were not directly engaged in missionary work of witnessing to Christ in the midst of an unconverted culture. Since the charisms of the Spirit are given for the building up of the Church, it should not surprise us that the Spirit would work differently through cloistered monks than he would through Christians living in an apostolic age seeking to preach Christ to an unbelieving culture. If it is unwise to assume the action of the Spirit is identical in both contexts, then it is also unwise to take John’s writings about the Spirit’s actions in the charisms and seek to apply them univocally across centuries to a drastically different pastoral context in a different era of the Church. The situation today in postmodern America and much of the West, for example, is in fact more like that faced by the young apostolic Church of the Acts of the Apostles than the Carmelite monasteries of sixteenth-century Spain.

Theologians and popes distinguish between the charismatic movements of the Spirit throughout the history of the Church and the stable activities of the Spirit in the sacraments and the hierarchical dimension of the Church.22 The Spirit’s charismatic movements in Church history vary in intensity and form according to both the needs of the Church and the mysterious action of the Spirit.23 As the Church traverses through history and engages various cultures, and as she struggles with her own internal problems, the Spirit responds accordingly, giving her everything she needs to grow in holiness and witness to Christ. In fact, this interplay between the Church’s tradition and the Spirit’s ever-new action in history is what gives rise to the development of doctrine.24 Moreover, while the saints and doctors of the Church give us perennial insights into the riches of life in Christ, it would be incorrect to read the entire tradition through the lens of only one vantage point in history. Nor would it be correct to read the work of God in the Church through writings of one saint, when God has enriched her with so many spiritual teachers.

Univocally applying John’s warnings about charisms to other times and contexts in the Church also leads to strange conclusions. If, according to Salas, only the “advanced” can exercise extraordinary gifts without abuse, what was Jesus thinking when he commanded his still-immature disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, drive out demons and cleanse lepers? What was the young apostolic Church thinking when having been filled with the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, they went off healing the sick and following the prophetic words of the Spirit? Were they foolish when they gathered together and asked the Risen Jesus to give them more boldness and to work more signs, wonders and healings through them? Was it dangerous for Paul to exhort the believers in Corinth to seek the higher gifts, especially prophecy? Or was it not rather that the early Christians weren’t concerned so much about themselves, but understood the Spirit’s charisms in terms of loving others and making the love of the Risen Jesus present?

The Boldness of Love to Unleash the Gospel

One might get the impression from Salas’s article that charismatic workings of the Spirit should be seen as dangerous temptations away from love rather than occasions of love. In fact, with the exception of the charism of tongues (cf. 1 Cor 14:4), God does not give charisms for the sake of the recipient. They are given as tools of love to build up the Body of Christ. Properly understood, the charisms of the Spirit therefore are God-given means of loving others. This means that freely yielding to the charismatic promptings of the Spirit is itself an act of virtue, which can lead to growth in charity. Of course, one must be aware of the various challenges that accompany exercising charisms. But focusing too much on the dangers inherent in certain charisms can ironically lead one into the very self-preoccupation and pride that one is seeking to avoid. Pride comes in many forms, and choosing not to love out of fear is one of them. There is nothing holy about disobedience to the Spirit of love. In fact, the excessive fear associated with a self-protective attitude toward the movements of the Spirit ironically produces the very condition that prevents God’s love from being expressed through a charism. In other words, a misplaced suspicion toward the charismatic action of the Spirit hinders the exercise of charisms in people who hold this suspicion.

Maybe instead of asking what could happen to a Christian who seeks the charisms, we should be asking another pressing question: what will happen to the Church and unconverted world if we do not seek these graces?25 After all, it was through these graces that Jesus built up the Church in the first place. What’s needed today is a renewed confidence in the power of grace. God does not grant charisms to believers without also granting the graces necessary to exercise them in charity and holiness. If Catholics have a “right and duty” to use the charisms of the Spirit for the sake of apostolate, we can be confident God will give them the grace to use them in holiness.

For the exercise of this apostolate, the Holy Spirit Who sanctifies the people of God through ministry and the sacraments gives the faithful special gifts also (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), ‘allotting them to everyone according as He wills’ (1 Cor 12:11) in order that individuals, administering grace to others just as they have received it, may also be ‘good stewards of the manifold grace of God’ (1 Pt 4:10), to build up the whole body in charity (cf. Eph 4:16). From the acceptance of these charisms, including those which are more elementary, there arise for each believer the right and duty to use them in the Church and in the world for the good of men and the building up of the Church, in the freedom of the Holy Spirit who ‘breathes where He wills’ (Jn 3:8).26

God faithfully reminds his Church that in the face of temptation to sin, his grace is always stronger. One of the most beautiful and rarely discussed aspects of exercising charisms is the humble simplicity of both the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the response required of the believer. This simple but bold confidence of a believer in the power of God’s love often involved in obeying the Spirit’s promptings is not unlike the call to humble confidence in the grace of Christ by another Carmelite Doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux.

The more childlike we become in our trust in Jesus, the more he can do through us. As one who often teaches people to yield to the Spirit in exercising charisms, it astonishes me how much we often complicate the simple love of the Spirit of Jesus. In fact, some of the most profound healings and prophetic words I’ve personally witnessed resulted when simple and ordinary believers chose in humble boldness to obey the prompting of the Spirit. What if more believers approached the work of the Spirit with the littleness of St. Therese? What if along with dutifully discerning these promptings, Christians were also willing to be bold in trusting in God’s love given through charisms, just as they trust his love for them? Is not the God who grants charisms looking for humble and willing instruments through whom to show his love? What if humility, love and the charismatic workings of the Spirit were always meant to come together in a simple faith like that of St. Therese?

I believe the parable of the talents can serve as a simple exhortation for the Church (Mt 25:14-30). After the rich master entrusts his riches to three servants according to their ability, the two who take risks and invest their master’s riches multiply them. Upon his return the master is pleased with their venture and rewards them accordingly. But one servant, knowing his master to be demanding, buries his talent out of fear that he might lose it. What was entrusted to him is then taken away and given to others. The application is simple: the Risen Lord has entrusted the riches of his life to the Church. Everything he has is ours, including the riches of the charisms of the Spirit. Jesus our Master expects us to take risks and invest what he has given us so that when he returns he will see the fruit multiplied due to our venture of faith. Multiplication of his riches in this world follows upon risks of faith. The Church cannot afford to bury the charisms of the Spirit out of fear, knowing that Jesus is demanding. Rather, she must be willing to boldly follow the Spirit who lavishes his charisms upon the faithful to make Jesus, our Risen Lord, known and loved. Would that the Church would respond to Pope St. John Paul II — who himself wrote a doctoral dissertation on John of the Cross — when he said, “Accept gratefully and obediently the charisms which the Spirit never ceases to bestow on us!”27

  1. To her credit, Salas does readers a favor by amassing many references to John of the Cross on the dangers of pride, vanity, and deception when interacting with regard to various supernatural phenomena and even charisms of the Spirit. Salas also rightly rejects the doctrine sometimes found in various forms of Protestantism called cessationism — the teaching that the charisms of the Holy Spirit ceased after the death of the last apostle. She affirms the theological rediscovery of the charismatic dimension of the Church at Vatican II and even cedes that miraculous healings still happen today and can be of great benefit for people.
  2. To assume that Catholics who use the gifts of the Spirit in evangelization are united around a certain label like “power evangelists” is odd. For example, it is not likely that African Catholics who preach the gospel and pray for the sick would either call themselves “power evangelists” or even have an agreed-upon praxis on how to do so. Nor would an American Catholic who works as a missionary for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students call herself a “power evangelist” if in her Bible study she asks God for a word of encouragement from the Lord for her struggling disciples. Labeling all Catholics who are experiencing the wonderful provision of love and inspiration from God the Father in the ministry of evangelization as “power evangelists” who do “power evangelization” is quite unfortunate, and invariably leads Salas to make inaccurate generalized assumptions.
  3. God is working these signs all over the world today among both Catholics and non-Catholics. The difference these signs of the Spirit make in evangelization is so dramatic that the entire demographic makeup of the Church is changing because of them. It is not pastorally prudent to ignore what God is doing. For more information see my article: hprweb.com/2017/06/the-explosive-growth-of-pentecostal-charismatic-christianity-in-the-global-south-and-its-implications-for-catholic-evangelization/.
  4. Here I could cite dozens of Scripture passages in the New Testament where the signs of God’s presence accompany the preached word. In my book, Biblical Foundations for the Role of Healing in Evangelization (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017) I refer to most of these passages. According to divine revelation, the preaching of the gospel in the ministry of Jesus, the apostolic Church in Acts, and Paul comes along with deeds of power (or signs and wonders). What’s relatively “new” for many Catholics is a renewed conviction that God still grants these signs and wonders today. Other helpful books include Damian Stayne, Lord Renew Your Wonders: Spiritual Gifts Today; Mary Healy, Healing: Bringing God’s Gift of Mercy to the World; and Steve Dawson, Ordinary Christians and Extraordinary Signs: Healing in Evangelization, to name just a few.
  5. Salas cites CCC 905 and 929 to argue that since the Catechism says that evangelization occurs in two ways, by word and by witness of life, then praying for signs and wonders is not a Catholic approach to evangelization. There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, it assumes that anything not explicitly mentioned in the Catechism is “not Catholic.” By this reasoning, novenas are not Catholic. Since the Catechism does not even attempt to offer a comprehensive approach to methods of evangelization, it’s strange to conclude that evangelization can only occur by what is explicitly laid out in the Catechism. Similarly, just because the Catechism does not explicitly refer to the practice of discipleship groups in a parish, it does not mean they cannot be used. Second, one should understand the deeds of power that accompany the preached word of God in the New Testament as part of the proclamation itself. In other words, any attempt to seek signs and wonders apart from the preaching of the good news would not be biblical. But to seek them as part of the preached word is not only Catholic, it is undeniably biblical.
  6. Personally, I could recount dozens of examples of God’s powerful action through ordinary Catholics in ordinary situations who step out in prayer and expectant faith. From the miraculous healing that results from a simple prayer offered in a ChristLife course, to the lay woman who prays with another woman to be delivered from the influence of evil spirits, to the priest who offers an inspired word of consolation to a penitent in confession, the Risen Jesus is using the charisms of the Spirit to build up his Body all over the world.
  7. Pastoral Letter Unleash the Gospel (2016), 20.
  8. I will be the first to admit that Encounter Ministries has come a long way in improving our theological clarity and pastoral sensitivity and effectiveness through our Encounter School of Ministry. We are not afraid of constructive criticism and have changed our approach on account of helpful feedback we’ve received. One criticism we’ve received is that we do not teach enough on redemptive suffering in some of our ministry events. As a result we have added more teaching on this topic.
  9. In footnote 1, Salas acknowledges that it is difficult to evaluate in a scholarly way the beliefs of practitioners of “power evangelization” and so she sets out to extract those beliefs from the practices of those she finds on the internet. She was not very effective.
  10. Some of these errors are so serious that when put together, her account of her opponents’ positions and practices approaches slander, even if we must presume in charity that she is not intentionally trying to slander her opponents. Regardless, it’s not surprising that Salas misunderstands the practices and teachings of Encounter Ministries. She evidently is not aware of what we teach in our ministry school, nor has she spoken to a staff member to seek greater understanding or clarification.
  11. Some examples of her false and erroneous assumptions: 1) Salas says “it is assumed that extraordinary phenomena, such as healings, imply the presence of a charism for healing in a human ‘healer’ or group of healers.” Response: Not once have I been aware of someone assuming or teaching this. 2) Salas says, “the practice of PE seems to assume that miracle-workers are in a positive state of grace, that they are anointed or faith-filled — that their moral aptitude is somehow the source of their miracles.” Response: I know of no one who says or teaches this. In fact, Encounter Ministries explicitly teaches the exact opposite: one’s holiness is not a requisite for God to use someone in a powerful way. We teach that Jesus’s warning against overemphasizing signs and wonders only makes sense if people could do them without following God’s will (cf. Mt 7:21–23). 3) According to Salas, the fact that people in other religions also can perform extraordinary signs leads her to conclude that the “very strong emphasis on wonder-working as a sign of faith or (as in the case of ‘tongues’) an aid to personal prayer is misleading.” Response: As far as I know, no one claims that the presence of such wonders is necessarily a sign of personal faith. According to the New Testament, the presence of such signs of the inbreaking of the kingdom authenticates both the message and the messenger. 4) Salas falsely concludes from one brief instance in one video that power evangelization “disregards the possibilities of a) auto-suggestion, b) deception, c) diabolical intervention.” Response: Such a charge is patently false. I know of no one who disregards these as possibilities. In fact, Encounter Ministries teaches the exact opposite; we teach the need for continual discernment.
  12. In her section where she talks about how seeking signs and wonders can harm faith, hope, and charity, she makes several assumptions that are simply not true. 1) In the section on faith, where Salas discusses the darkness of faith, she makes the wild claim, “Moreover, the unchurched will certainly be put-off if a ‘sign or wonder’ is promised or expected and fails to occur, or if a potential recipient is blamed for not having ‘enough’ faith.” Again, no one I know promises signs or miracles or blames people for not having enough faith when something does not occur. Again, Encounter Ministries and most Catholics I know teach the exact opposite; signs cannot be promised and their presence is not necessarily a sign of one’s faith or lack thereof. 2) In the section on hope, Salas falsely claims power evangelists, “of course, attempt to focus on spiritual goods attained, but again, spiritual healing, especially through suffering in imitation of Christ, is deemphasized in practice.” This makes it seem that spiritual healing is not the focus, whereas for most people I know who pray for the sick, spiritual healing is much more important than physical healing. Yes, spiritual healing is deemphasized when praying for physical healing in the same way that basic algebra is deemphasized when working out a calculus problem. One is needed to make sense of the other. It’s unrealistic to emphasize everything at the same time.
  13. In a footnote on page 84 of my book I write, “This is not to say that evangelization cannot be successful without signs of healing, especially since healing is only one of the indispensable signs of the inbreaking kingdom that expresses the gospel.”
  14. Thelen, Biblical Foundations, 84–90.
  15. Salas rightly quotes John Paul II in Fides et Ratio to say that “Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith.” She then mentions many other things that are very helpful in helping people come to faith throughout the centuries. In no place do I find any objection or disagreement with what she says on these points.
  16. This is simply not true. Salas writes, “Power Evangelists argue also, that {power evangelization} is meant for every Christian. In other words, they suggest that every Christian, by virtue of being a child of God, wields power and authority over sicknesses and other types of evil, possesses supernatural gifts (such as healing or prophecy) and should ask for ‘more’ of these gifts. So these gifts are not in fact ‘extraordinary’ but ‘ordinary’ or typical.” This confusion is likely caused by equivocation on the word charism. To say that God can use any Christian who has faith to heal someone, deliver someone from evil spirits, or even hear an inspired message from God is very different from saying everyone has these as stable charisms. Moreover, the biblical witness shows that praying for “more” of these charisms can be an inspired and reasonable act of faith for those who wish to witness to Risen Jesus more effectively (cf. Acts 4:23–31).
  17. The New Testament teaches both as true. See Thelen, Biblical Foundations, 89–90.
  18. She quotes CCC 2003, 799–800, John Paul II Christifideles Laici 24, and Lumen Gentium 12. None of these texts indicate that the charisms are always rare.
  19. In fact, the texts she quotes could be used to argue for the greater frequency of these charisms. These texts, describing the operation of charisms at the time they were written, are observations based on what God was doing at that time, which can change from one age of the Church to the other. Saint John Paul II seems to indicate that how the Spirit moves in the charisms is indeed a manifestation of the Spirit’s freedom in different times in history (Christifedeles Laici, 24). Moreover, there is nothing in these texts preventing Christians from asking the Lord to make charisms as common today as they were in apostolic Church as seen in the New Testament.
  20. Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition (London: Sheed and Ward, 1985), 194.
  21. Ralph Martin, “Charismatic and Contemplative: What Would John of the Cross Say?,” RenewalMinistries.net, renewalministries.net/files/freeliterature/Char_Cont..pdf.
  22. For more on the doctrinal relationship between the hierarchical and charismatic dimensions of the Church in Catholic theology, see the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith, Iuevenecit Eccleisa, 2016.
  23. For example, no less than Joseph Ratzinger notes several providential charismatic renewals throughout the history of the Church. See Joseph Ratzinger, New Outpourings of the Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007). This confirms what John Paul II writes that charismatic workings of the Holy Spirit differ throughout history (Christifideles Laici, 24).
  24. One of the foremost Newman scholars, Ian Ker, makes the case that one of the most important texts of Vatican II for Church renewal and evangelization is Lumen Gentium’s description of the Church in chapters 1 and 2, where the Church is described as both hierarchical and charismatic. Ker laments that the emphasis on the charismatic dimension of the Church has largely gone unnoticed since Vatican II. Ian Ker, Newman on Vatican II (London: Oxford, 2014), 85–86.
  25. Focusing on the wrong thing can lead us to miss what God is doing. A remarkable instance of this occurs when Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath in Mark 3:1–6. The Pharisees watch Jesus to see if he would heal the man with withered hand on the Sabbath. They did not care at all about the man with the withered hand; they were trying to find a way to accuse Jesus of breaking their interpretation of the law. Notice Jesus’s response to them. After asking them if it is “lawful to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill on the Sabbath,” Jesus “looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” It’s possible for us to grieve God’s heart if we miss what he’s wanting to do for others through the charisms.
  26. Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 3.
  27. John Paul II, Speech Delivered at Meeting with Ecclesial Movements, 5.
Fr. Mathias D. Thelen, STL About Fr. Mathias D. Thelen, STL

Fr. Mathias D. Thelen, STL (Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome), is a priest of the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan. He is the Pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Parish in Brighton, Michigan, and President of Encounter Ministries. He is the author of Biblical Foundations for the Role of Healing in the New Evangelization (Wipf and Stock, 2017).

Comments

  1. Avatar Lucille Hadden says:

    Wow! Thank you. So very well said. I’ve questioned why thousands, if not millions, of non-Catholic Christians seek healing and signs, and receive them, while most Catholics seem to have little interest in what God is doing today through signs and wonders and healing. In fact, they seem to have little interest in evangelizing. Perhaps too many have listened to and believed the Elizabeth Sales of the world. My heart goes out for the loss to the Church over such teachings. May God open the hearts and eyes of those in need. The old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, comes to mind. Millions of Catholics have heard about Life in the Spirit, yet refuse to drink. How Jesus longs to bind up the wounds, to set the captives free. …if only they would come to Him for the wonder, the sign, the miracle.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I have never read anything by Elizabeth Salas so I had to read this article from the point of view of one interested in Evangelization. Glad to read the openness to multiple ways of evangelization and the importance of John of the Cross taken in context. The use of the word “POWER” is problematic as so many people associate power with domination. Is it not important to define the meaning whenever the word power is used? I know one cannot cover every aspect of charism in one article. But I was surprised that there was no mention of Pope Francis, who is a great example of one who exercises charisms and calls us to be a poor Church of the poor.

  3. Avatar Mike Kennedy says:

    I agree with this article. If we look at Holy Scripture and how St Peter and St Paul it is extremely clear that Jesus’s words were regarding this. Sign would follow. It seems all to common that people who are uncomfortable with the gifts of the Spirit latch on to the abuse scriptures. But these very scripture assume the gift are so important that they are certainly in use. We are warned about abuse of many things. We are told not to receive the Eucharist unworthily. Shall we take that same approach and say since we can abuse the sacrament it is better to never receive? Of course not!

  4. Avatar Adam Janke says:

    I understand the subtext of what Dr. Salas is grappling with in her questions on power evangelization and the use of the charisms. I applaud her for wrestling with it and sharing her concerns. I’m even happier for the back and forth we’re seeing between theologians working these questions out.

    I would like to see those involved in teaching and practicing power evangelization to spend more time tackling questions of discernment in how we exercise power evangelization in conferences, healing services, schools of ministry, and evangelization. I’ve been to a number of healing services now where many (if not most) purported healings were lost in the hours and days after the service and some of the practices at the services could be pulled off by a half way decent mentalist (I’m happy to give examples if needed). As a priest in the diocese of Lansing noted in a recent meeting with the chancery staff and key leaders in power evangelization, it’s entirely possible that many healings are psychosomatic. If so, we really need to address that at the outset of those meetings. The pressure to experience manifestations in these meetings is also intense – dimmed lights, beating drums, smoke machines, teams of people laying their hands over you speaking in tongues, people falling on the floor everywhere, coupled with being told how you have to desparately chase after the gifts is a powerful motivator to experience something, whether divine or not.

    I’m a big advocate of the church pressing into power evangelization, healings, miracles, signs, and wonders, but I also think we’re still growing and learning and need to take care not to hurt people in the process.

    • Avatar Fr, Francis Donnelly says:

      Healing ministries have been aware for many years of the reality of experienced healings getting lost the morning after or later. An old friend of mine received a wonderful relief from chronic bursitis at a healing service one night, and next morning the pain and the condition were right back. At first he was dejected, but then he remembered hearing that often healings received by faith have to be preserved by insistent faith. So he began to rebuke the pain and the condition and to proclaim the healing in the Name of Jesus. Nothing changed immediately, but he persisted at it all the day long, and in the evening the pain and symptoms vanished and never came back. So, it seems that whether a condition be psychosomatic or not, people need to be taught about this dynamic that can enable them to keep their healing, with due regard to all other issues!

  5. In this matter of the charisms in the Church today, I conclude that the problem is not (or ought not) to be an “either-or” matter. The Church teaches we ought to welcome and use the charisms. Rather, a deeper question needs to be answered: Are we teaching and using “the gifts” rightly, with due discernment and prudence? St. Paul wrote of the fundamental need of adequate spiritual maturity among the Corinthians:

    “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
    And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.
    The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor 2:12-14)

    Concerning gifts, there are two radically different categories of “gifts” from the same one Holy Spirit: first and foundational are the Isaiah 11 gifts which are “permanent,” infused into the soul at Baptism with sanctifying grace, the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) and other related virtues. Secondly are the charisms – the “graces gratis datae” – which are given not for the sanctification of the recipient, but for the good of others.

    These graces, or charisms, benefit the recipient only to the degree that they are exercised in true charity. If the person having received a charism is exercising that charism not in true charity, but in merely natural concern for others, natural (and thus imperfect, impure) love, or even in mere self-love, then the gift of God has been misused and actual spiritual harm could have been done. St. John of the Cross warns in careful explanation of the dangers of vanity, for those rejoicing wrongly in the charisms. St. Paul emphasized this danger here:

    “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
    And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1-2)

    The danger of charisms for spiritually immature Catholics is an invitation into powerful “signs and wonders” that neither they, nor the ones to whom they may minister, may rightly understand, receive or use. “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

    In the case of Corinth, Paul himself was mature – an apostle formed by Christ to maturity – and he was working to oversee those at Corinth and to try to moderate them in the matter of the gifts. Among the Corinthians were those very immature, unformed, mere “babes” no matter the chronological age!

    “But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.
    I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready,
    for you are still of the flesh….” (1 Cor 3:1-3)

    The Isaiah gifts are given to perfect the virtues, and thus to grow the interior life of the soul to maturity in Christ. The Isaiah gifts enable discernment and understanding and rightful use of any charisms that may be given to a Christian. For example, the active (Isaiah 11) gifts of understanding and knowledge are needed to illuminate motives – to discern true supernatural charity from vanity or natural love. Our pressing need in the Church today, in my humble opinion, is to effect true, complete, substantive catechesis and formation in the Faith and in the interior spiritual life. I find few Catholics among the many who are leaping today into the charisms, who are aware of the importance of the foundation of the Isaiah gifts and the virtues, to rightly use any charisms. Many teachers are often as lacking as the students.

    In our Church today it seems that so much catechesis and formation in the Faith, in prayer, in the interior life, is merely on the surface of things – superficial – lacking the patience, humility and perseverance to listen to and learn from the masters of our tradition.
    “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
    to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
    until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;
    so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.
    Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Eph 4:11-15)

  6. Avatar Laurie Talbot says:

    Beautifully, thoughtfully, and very well written! Thank you, Fr. Mathias, for taking the time to thoughtfully address all of these points in such a loving and clear and concise way.

  7. Fr. Thelen, thank you for your thoughts on charisms (graces gratis datae). I wrote of concerns of mine on the matter in a separate response – but also I am surprised to read that your analysis of “context” has led you to significantly reduce (it seems to me) the importance of the teachings – and warnings – of John of the Cross on the subject. And using Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P. for support from history is also surprising, since he (also) taught very strongly a need for clarity and caution concerning the charisms. I do not find him “correcting” the theology of John of the Cross at all. He wrote these numbered points on graces gratis datae [charisms](in Spiritual Theology, Christian Classics 1980, p. 422-423), which I quote here:

    1. The graces gratis datae do not form part of the supernatural organism of the Christian life as do sanctifying grace and the infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit, nor can they be classified under actual grace.
    2. They are what we may call “epiphenomen” of the life of grace and may even be granted to one who lacks sanctifying grace.
    3. They are not and cannot be the object of merit, but are strictly gratuitous.
    4. Since they do not form part of the supernatural organism, they are not contained in the virtualities of sanctifying grace, and hence the normal development of the life of grace could never produce or demand them.
    5. The graces gratis datae require in each instance the direct intervention of God. From these conclusions concerning the nature of the graces gratis datae we can formulate the following norms to serve as a guide for the spiritual director:
    5.1. It would be temerarious in the normal course of events to desire or to ask God for graces gratis datae or charisms. They are not necessary for salvation nor for sanctification, and they require the direct intervention of God. Far more precious is an act of love than a charismatic gift.
    5.2. In the event that God does grant a grace gratis datae, it is not a proof that a person is in the state of grace; much less can the gratuitous grace be taken as a sign that the individual is holy.
    5.3. The graces gratis datae do not sanctify those who receive them. And if anyone in mortal sin were to receive one of these graces, he or she could possibly remain in a sinful state even after the gratuitous gift of charism had been received.
    5.4. These graces are not given primarily for the benefit of the individual who receives them but for the good of others and for the edification of the Church.
    5.5. Since the graces gratis datae are something independent of sanctity, it is not necessary that all the saints should have received them. St. Augustine gives the reason for this when he says that they were not given to all the saints lest weak souls should be deceived into thinking that such extraordinary gifts were more important than the good works that are meritorious of eternal life.

  8. Avatar Jonathan Tinnely says:

    One of the central errors taught by Encounter Ministries is the notion that Christ died not only for our sins, but also for our *physical* healing, hence God desires all to be physically healed. It should be noted that Christ did not die for the temporal punishments associated with original sin, which is why we still get sick and die. Besides being contrary to common experience, the implication of this teaching is that our lack of healing is due to a lack of faith on the part of the sick. Of course, Fr. Thelen would never suggest that our lack of healing is due to a lack of faith (as some Pentecostals explicitly teach); however, if it is true that God desires all to be saved, then the only logical conclusion is that the only thing hindering our healing is our lack of faith. So, regardless of whether Fr. Thelen explicitly teaches that our lack of healing is due to a lack of faith, it is *necessarily* implied by his belief that Jesus died for our *physical* healing.

    • Avatar Anne Marie Scher says:

      Most if not all Gospel stories recording the life of Jesus start with curiosity or some “need” of the people in the towns and villages where Jesus walked. Most had heard through word of mouth of the wonders and signs Jesus performed. Curiosity seekers came to see who this Jesus was and to see if his “miracles” were true. Many doubters came as well. Many times when Jesus asked the person what they desired, it was some physical healing. Many times, Jesus did indeed do the physical healing, but he always also gave them the grace to perceive and receive the spiritual healing as well. The physical need opened the way to the spiritual need for healing. Physical, emotional or spiritual needs are the fertile ground where the reality of suffering can become redemptive in the power of Jesus through the healing sacraments of Reconciliation, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick. The Sacraments and the Spiritual Gifts are effective on their own, but only become complete when they are nurtured in relationship with Jesus in souls who accompany each other on the journey to eternal life. Hence….the Church.

    • Avatar Michael Sullivan says:

      Sin, sickness, and death are the results of the Devil’s work in the Garden. They are not God’s punishment for original sin, they are the fruit of the work of the Devil. The Father sent Jesus Christ to destroy all the works of the devil:

      “He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:8

      To say that Jesus did not die for physical illness and death is unbiblical and contrary to Catholic belief.

      We believe in the Ressurection of the Body. It is in the creed. That means that we believe that what Jesus did on the cross will eventually give us resurrection and bodily regeneration from death. That’s de fide.

      Further, Jesus instructed His disciples that certain signs would accompany those who believe including “they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16:18

      If Jesus’ redemptive passion and cross only includes spiritual fruits but not healing from illness and death, then why would he tell us that this would be one of the signs? How would it be possible for the believers to heal the sick if not through the New Covenant in Jesus Christ? Further, why would Jesus even need to become incarnate if all his mission intended was spiritual and not physical?

      Of course, we don’t see the disciples objecting to whether or not healing is in the atonement because they knew the OT prophesies of Isa 53:5, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we were healed.”

      Finally, the lack of healing miracles or their increase is a matter of faith. Jesus tells us healing will be a sign of a believer – one who has faith. Jesus doesn’t say that the person being prayed for must have faith, in fact unbelievers can be healed just as believers can.

      So, the emphasis is on the faith of the one praying for healing.

      If someone is not healed, it isn’t because God doesn’t want to heal them, nor is it their “fault” for not having enough faith.

      • Daniel A. Nicholls Daniel A. Nicholls says:

        It sure seems like you’re saying that the only reason people aren’t healed is because people doing the healing don’t believe hard enough. To be clear, that’s what you believe? Do you also believe the correlate in terms of spiritual healing?

      • There is much that needs to be said concerning the works of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is more even than what can be said about the works of the Spirit in an individual believer within the Church. Further, we cannot simplify the specific matter of charisms (such as the gift of healing) by saying it depends on the faith of the individual Christian. Jesus had the “power” to heal every human person in Israel (and the world for that matter), and He did not. Mark’s Gospel testifies that Jesus Himself was not able (within the plan of the Father) to heal everyone in His “native place”, because of “their lack of faith.”

        Mk 6:4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”
        5 So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
        6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.

      • Avatar Anne Marie Scher says:

        R. Thomas Richard, I agree and it has larger implications for the Church in her mission. Much more needs to be said about the evangelization piece of healing charisms. There truly seems to be a lack of faith that prohibits the gifts to be realized. It seems to me that the Church could do a better job of fueling evangelization by having the boldness to use the gifts entrusted her to fulfill her mission to make disciples. Is it a lack of faith that our Adoration chapels many times have only a few adorers at any given hour? Do we fail to utilize the Sacrament of Healing as an extension of the grace we receive from our reception of the Eucharist at Holy Mass by only offering healing Masses once or twice a year in our parishes just to appease the “Charismatics”? It seems that if there is a lack of faith, it is because the Church needs to do a better job of believing in the healing power of Jesus beyond the context of Mass. Mass is the Source and Summit of what we do – we are sent forth, filled with the power of the Eucharist to go make disciples. Prayer, praise, teaching and embracing people and inviting them into our prayer and praise before the Blessed Sacrament in the Adoration Chapel is the very life blood of ministry. Maybe healing effects “wear” off in a sense as mentioned above because the Church needs to be leading us from Mass into prayer and praise in Eucharistic Adoration more frequently. I think people are afraid to believe in the reality of miracles because we are not taught how to focus more on the power of praise, trust and surrender that leads us into deeper relationship with Jesus. How many times have people prayed for healing that didn’t occur or for a child gone astray that eventually committed suicide or died from an overdose. They ask, why wasn’t my prayer heard? Why wasn’t my loved one healed? Believers, all of us, need to be evangelized…even us Catholics, to first know and believe in Jesus for who He is and what He has accomplished for us. Non Catholic Evangelists who are accused of preaching the “Gospel of Prosperity” are so looked down upon, yet, if you really listen to the simple message many of them preach it is quite simple; If you believe in Jesus and trust Him with all your heart, then you can be “healed” of the earthly desires and expectations we put onto the Lord in our prayers. Humble surrender to the will of God, praising Him in song and trusting that we have been healed and saved in the blood of Christ is the true healing of Evangelization and the fruit of discipleship. THAT, is the simple message that draws so many people into the non denominational “mega” Churches. And so very many of those people are fallen alway Catholics! The problem, in my eyes, lies in the brokenness of unity among Christians. It all connects. If Catholics and non Catholics and fallen away Catholics could truly unite in the utilizing the Gifts and Charisms of the Holy Spirit in the power of Praise, Worship and total surrender to the will of God, our Mission of Evangelization, Making Disciples and fulfilling the prayer for Unity in John 17 would be accomplished. We have the power to set the world on fire for Jesus in the power of the gifts He left us in the Holy Spirit. Yep….prophets are not accepted because they speak things that force people to stretch beyond their comfort zones. I thank you Fr. Thelen for your bold obedience and guidance in seeing the potential that we have and for soundly guiding us who are skeptical and even fearful of the true healing power of Jesus in the fire of His Spirit. Holy Spirit COME!

  9. Avatar Geneva Galvin says:

    You are one of the ” Watchmen on the wall” (Isaiah 62…the Lord’s Delight) We need your Theological academic expertise as Blessing and for Clarity. Glad to hear from you buddy. Been awhile. We still Love You and remember with warm hearts our times together!! Love Geneva and Jim

  10. Avatar Anne Marie Scher says:

    I am not a scholar. I cannot hope or even try to compete in the Theological discussion here. It takes me a long time to read through the lengthy and wordy text. I must read slowly with an accompanying dictionary to understand the scholarly use of some of the terminology. I am also not illiterate. I have spent many years attending workshops, conferences and academic offerings to learn and solidify my faith and to affirm my relationship with God. I was born pre Vatican II with a “blind faith” upbringing, that caused me to answer my children’s honest questions about our faith with the answer, “you must do this or that because that’s just the way it is.” When I heard myself say that to my college aged child, I knew I must get a greater understanding of my faith or walk away from it. I am a cradle Catholic, educated through 12 years of Catholic education. I could recite the truths of the faith, but had no substantive application other than knowing right from wrong. I was in my early forties before the teaching of the Real Presence actually sunk in and I had this “revelation”: My God, it is really YOU! My “transformation,” or my awakening to the movements of the Spirit happened in a small rural parish under the guidance of a very gifted and holy pastor whose pastoral guidance is sorely lacking amongst the Theological debates and positions in parishes and dioceses today. The Church concerns herself with intently praying for more vocations to the priesthood, and it seems to be working, at least in the diocese I live in today. However, in the post scandal era we are in now, where the Holy Church is being purged from the darkness and scourge of the sin of her clerics, I for one, have found a “sterilization” of priests to the extent where many priests young and old have become so aware and afraid of getting caught in the scandal they have become desensitized to the pastoral needs of the flock. I can only speak of my own experience here, but for whatever reason, I have landed in a diocese that seems heavily influenced in the Carmelite tradition. That is not a criticism and I recognize the need for these ancient traditions in their proper context to keep the Church from falling into heresy. Apparently, though I never labeled my own spirituality, my former pastor has suggested that I seek the guidance of someone following an Ignatian theology, which, I suppose matches his spirituality and the influence he has had in my life. I have been labeled here in my current diocese as a “Charismatic,” though I do not speak in tongues or profess to have any extraordinary gift, other than what may be a “prophetic” vision the Spirit has grown and nurtured in me for over 15 years.I have been basically “shunned” as I have tried to seed guidance and direction in my current deanery, while quietly trying to be obedient to the fire of the Spirit that burns within me to bring souls to Jesus. I am not constrained by fear to carry out the will of the Spirit, I am constrained because I cannot find a priest in my area who is willing to give me the direction I so desperately need so that in my own weakness, I do not fall in to grave error or sin, trying to evangelize on my own. I have found much encouragement and hope in some pentecostal circles, but again hold back because of the lead in this diocese to evangelize through that purely “Catholic” prism. The Church desperately needs these academic discussions, I know! But scholars PLEASE realize……beyond the discussions, we the souls who are ON FIRE with the mission of the Church in the power of the Spirit NEED your direction if the mission is going to succeed!! Catholics, don’t be afraid of non Catholics! They are, after all, our separated brothers and sisters!! We have the sacraments, but they many times have the fire of discipleship and evangelization and we would do well to find ways that we can be “one” as Jesus prayed in John 17. When I first learned of Encounter Ministries, my heart leaped with hope and affirmation that what burns within me is true and real. What holds me back is the realization of how much I need the pastoral guidance of a true shepherd so that I can stay accountable and true to the will of God. St. Augustine’s “Letter to Pastors” agrees with me. I pray for all you priests out there to BE BOLD, be not afraid to lead us sheep that so desperately need true and holy shepherds to help us lead others to Jesus. God help us all.

  11. Fr. Mathias, God is so pleased with you! He delights in you and what you are doing!!!! I know you seek your identity in Him alone! Know that many many people see the ABUNDANT GOOD FRUIT of Encounter Ministry. Keep staying in the fortress of His love!! My three year old son literally prays prayers of command in Jesus’ name and talks about you all the time, he has watched your videos on YouTube multiple times and prays over people often!!

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