Co-Responsibility, Personal Vocation, and Charism Discernment

In a 2009 address to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the mission of the laity in our times by introducing a new term into the Church’s parlance: co-responsibility. The term has both ecclesiological and pastoral significance, reflecting Benedict’s understanding of the Church’s identity and mission as expressed by the Second Vatican Council. While the concept of co-responsibility has been implicit in magisterial teaching as far back as Pope Pius XII, Benedict did a great service to the Church by giving this concept a name. In his address, he said:

[I]t is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as “collaborators” of the clergy but truly recognized as “co-responsible” for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.1

This short statement has been a rich source of theological reflection over the last few years, especially in the United States. When co-responsibility is a reality, the laity are not merely passive recipients of the ministry of the ordained. Neither are they only collaborators in ecclesial affairs. Instead, lay people have an identity and role that is unique in the Church’s very being and acting in the world. The ordained, empowered as they are through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, represent Christ by teaching, sanctifying, and governing. The laity are empowered through the Sacrament of Baptism to represent Christ in the world and spread the Gospel to every corner of society.

These missions are not at odds with one another; rather, they complement and complete each other. The Church tells us, “The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians.”2 While the primary responsibility for doing so belongs to each person, the vocation of the priest is to assist in the “unfolding” of these graces. When a lay person bears fruit in the world,3 it is proof that the ministerial priesthood is accomplishing its goal.

The Lay Vocation

This expression of the co-responsibility of the ordained and the laity laid out by Benedict is uncontroversial. The devil, as they say, is in the details of how this concretely expressed in the day-to-day life of the Church. For some, the role of the laity has been to take increasing responsibility for ecclesial matters, whether they be liturgical or ministerial. The late Dominican ecclesiologist Paul Philibert, for example, considered the emergence of lay ecclesial ministry in recent decades to be the result of the theology of the laity reaching full maturity.4 While there is some merit to this argument, it is clear there is something lacking.

There is no doubt that the increase in lay involvement in parish life, and indeed the inclusion of lay ecclesial ministers in nearly every parish and diocese in the country, is an invaluable fruit of Vatican II. However, these developments have had the unintended effect of limiting rather than expanding our imagination of the vocation of the laity in the Church’s being and acting. Proponents of this view believe, whether explicitly or implicitly, that the fullness of the lay vocation can be found in doing “churchy” things. Here we see a profound lack of apostolic creativity rooted in a misunderstanding of the lay vocation.

How are we to understand the lay vocation? All of the faithful are united to Christ through baptism, sharing in His priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions.5 Yet it is only in the diversity of the Church’s members, lay, ordained, and consecrated religious that these functions of Christ are fully expressed. Whereas the ordained and consecrated religious vocations have an ecclesial character, the lay vocation has a secular quality. As disciples of Jesus, laity share in the life of the Church through participation in the sacraments, prayer, the cultivation of the moral life, etc. This may include participation in the visible ministries of one’s parish or diocese, but it may not. If we are to take Vatican II at its word, the apostolate of the laity is far more expansive; it is expressed both in the Church and in the world.6

Practically speaking, the secular character of the lay vocation finds its expression whenever the Gospel is spread in politics, society, economics, the arts and sciences, and media.7 It is found in Christians who are married as well as in those who are single. In other words, Jesus calls the laity to fruitfulness in the varied contexts and circumstances of their lives. Whenever a lay person, inspired by the Gospel, places his or her faith at the service of their family, career, or other duties, there is great potential for fruit to be borne.

Jan is the mother of one of my close friends. As a geriatric nurse, she spends many long hours caring for men and women in the final days and hours of their lives. When asked how she accompanies people in these difficult moments, Jan smiles and says, “I just hold their hands and tell them how much Jesus loves them.” This woman has discerned a charism of encouragement. Jan provides healing, strength, and the love of Christ to people simply by her presence and words. God only knows how many people this humble nurse has helped shepherd into eternal life. She has borne fruit that impacts the dying, as well as their families, bringing the light of Christ into some of their darkest moments.

Likewise, a parishioner of mine, Phil, is a retired school principal. He became a teacher as a young man because he loved helping children learn and reach their potential, especially those in poorer school districts. After a few years, Phil entered administration, becoming disconnected from day-to-day classroom work. He never found administration to be quite as fulfilling as being in the classroom. Upon retirement, Phil experienced a conversion back to his Catholic faith and became a disciple, but he seemed to be somewhat adrift. Phil later shared with me that a few years after retirement, he was able to focus on discerning his charisms. He realized that he had charisms of teaching and mercy and saw how these charisms helped him to fulfill the mission God had in mind for him mentoring at-risk children in school. When asked what he finds fulfilling about this work, Phil replies, “I enjoy teaching the kids and helping them integrate God into every aspect of their lives.” He plans to continue mentoring kids for the rest of his life, bearing fruit for the Kingdom in a secular setting.

Regardless of where or how it is expressed, the apostolate of the laity maintains a secular character. Each person is called to discern how Jesus calls him/her to be an instrument of His love, mercy, and provision for others. Vatican II makes a bold claim: the apostolate of the laity is “so necessary within the Church communities that without it the apostolate of the pastors is often unable to achieve its full effectiveness.”8

Discerning Personal Vocation

We must take this statement seriously: The Church simply cannot reach its full apostolic effectiveness unless each of the baptized effectively discerns his or her personal vocation. The language of vocation is not meant to be limited to discernment of one’s state of life (married, single, ordained, or consecrated religious). God gives each baptized person a unique, unrepeatable mission in life, and likewise bestows the natural talents, gifts, and charisms necessary for the fulfillment of that mission:

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” (John 3:8).9

In our Church it is normal to talk about the discernment for the ordained. In recent decades it has also become more commonplace for lay ecclesial ministers to describe their life and work using the language of personal vocation. In each of these cases there is a clear, practical application in ecclesial ministry. But discernment of one’s personal vocation is not only for a select few Christians. It is the duty of all the baptized: lay, ordained, or consecrated religious. The vast majority of lay people will be called to bear fruit in the world rather than in the Church. The discernment of personal vocation for ordinary lay Catholics will only become a reality when the entire Church recognizes and embraces the call to co-responsibility.

A truly co-responsible Church is one where it is normal for the laity to listen to the voice of Jesus calling them into mission. One of the primary duties of the ordained in a co-responsible Church is to provide the laity with the formation needed to do so. Pope John Paul II expresses this well:

The Church fulfills her mission when she guides every member of the faithful to discover and live his or her own vocation in freedom and to bring it to fulfillment in charity [. . .] Each one, therefore, must be helped to embrace the gift entrusted to him as a completely unique person, and to hear the words which the Spirit of God personally addresses to him.10

Here, John Paul echoes the reality that each person’s vocation is unique and unrepeatable. Since each person is unique and the Spirit bestows gifts as He wishes,11 it follows that each person must respond to the mission Jesus is asking of him or her. Otherwise, that mission will go unfulfilled.

Charisms Are Important Clues

How can ordinary Catholics hope to achieve such an important task? One important indication for understanding personal vocation is to discern and then examine the charisms each person has received in baptism. In addition to freeing us from original sin and incorporating us into God’s family, in baptism each Christian is also given an abundance of supernatural graces. Among these are the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, all of which sanctify us. We also receive graces that St. Thomas Aquinas calls “gratuitous graces,” or charisms.12 Whereas other graces are for our own sanctification, charisms are directed toward others. They aid us in leading others to know and follow Jesus, to be God’s “hands and feet” in the world. The charisms provide major clues which, if followed, can guide us to our personal vocation.

When using charisms for the sake of others, we experience a sense of joy and personal fulfillment. We also notice that we are particularly effective when we undertake work involving the use of the charisms, and this can be attributed to the Holy Spirit at work in us. When charisms manifest in people’s lives, others tend to notice. They may tell us directly about our effectiveness in using a charism, or we may receive indirect feedback where people approach us habitually to undertake projects that involve the use of our charisms.

Jacob and Teresa attended the Called & Gifted workshop at my parish about a year ago, though they themselves attend another parish in a different state. They have been married a few years, and were recently asked by their pastor to lead their parish’s young adult ministry. Jacob was immediately attracted to the work of developing questions that would engage the members and build relationships in small groups. Teresa, on the other hand, preferred spending time in the background coordinating the logistical aspects of their ministry. By all accounts, both were exceptionally effective at their work.

Together the couple put together a dynamic and engaging ministry, but each struggled to see the importance of the other’s contributions. Through Called & Gifted, Jacob discerned the charism of pastoring, where he realized that he was most fulfilled when focusing on the long-term spiritual growth and relationships of the group. Teresa discerned the charism of service, enabling her to see the logistical gaps in their ministry plans and personally move to fill those gaps.

After attending the workshop and entering the discernment process, both of them began to appreciate the complementary nature of their charisms. They also began to realize the need for people with other charisms (e.g., hospitality and evangelism) to join their young adult ministry. They focused their efforts on identifying and inviting others with these charisms into their ministry. Charism discernment freed Jacob and Teresa to use their energies where the Holy Spirit had gifted them. It also helped them to see the unique contribution they could make in growing a vibrant young adult community in their parish and diocese.

The Role of the Ordained

The Church is also clear that the charisms are not chosen; they are bestowed freely by the Holy Spirit as He chooses.13 Thus, each Christian must take the time to discern his or her charisms with the pastor’s help.14 The ordained play an especially important role in aiding their people in discernment.

First, since the charisms are a form of grace, they are particularly effective in people who are intentional disciples: those who have a personal relationship with God in the midst of His Church. The evangelizing mission of the Church is directed toward this relationship, that all may experience the abundant life Jesus promises us.15 When Christians are intentional disciples, they are able to be better stewards of the sanctifying and gratuitous graces God gives them in baptism. Grace is not magic; God so respects human freedom that he desires each person to freely cooperate with His work. But one cannot be sent by Jesus until he or she is in a relationship with and actively following Jesus.

Second, as an exercise of their call to teach, sanctify, and govern the People of God, pastors must help their people to discern their charisms by providing encouragement and preaching about the vocation of the laity. For many, hearing that each person has a vocation to discern is something new. This is also an area where lay ecclesial ministers can be helpful. Though their work is ecclesial in scope, lay ministers continue to live a secular vocation, and can speak to the experiences and struggles of their fellow lay persons. Pastoral teams consisting of both clergy and laity must emphasize that it is normal for lay people to discern their charisms and personal vocations.

Third, parishes and dioceses must provide the resources to aid in discernment. One such resource is the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted process, which consists of a workshop, personal interview, and small groups. Regardless of which resource is chosen, it should serve the purpose of helping people understand the charisms, examine past experiences in which the charisms manifested, and give them practical opportunities to test whether or not a particular charism is present in their lives over the long-term. Pastors should also help people discern the larger question of personal vocation: “What is God calling me to do with these charisms?” Engaging this question puts lay people on the path toward co-responsibility.

Joan is a pharmacist from South Carolina who discerned a missionary charism through the Called & Gifted process. After completing the process, she felt God calling her to use her pharmacy background and her charisms to go to Africa. There Joan trained local people how to distribute and administer medications for HIV/AIDS. As a direct result of her work, it is estimated that approximately 30,000 young people will not die from the disease. Joan is an ordinary person like any other who took the time to discern her charisms and how God was calling her to use them to serve others. She is an incredible example of the fruitfulness of a lay disciple of Jesus who discovered her personal vocation.

If we are to take the call to co-responsibility seriously, it is crucial for us to promote the dignity and necessity of the lay vocation in the Church’s being and acting. Charism discernment can play an important role in this endeavor, inviting each person to consider his or her own giftedness and how God calls them to use those gifts to fulfill a unique, unrepeatable mission that only they can do. When lay disciples have this kind of formation, they will naturally seek out ways to use their charisms for God’s glory and for the good of their neighbor.

  1. Benedict XVI, Opening Of The Pastoral Convention Of The Diocese Of Rome On The Theme: “Church Membership And Pastoral Co-Responsibility,” May 26, 2009, Rome,
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church §1547.
  3. Cf. John 15:16.
  4. Paul Philibert, The Priesthood of the Faithful: Key to a Living Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 146–48.
  5. Lumen Gentium §31.
  6. Apostolicam Actuositatem §9.
  7. Christifideles Laici §23.
  8. Apostolicam Actuositatem §10.
  9. Apostolicam Actuositatem §29.
  10. Pastores Dabo Vobis §40.
  11. Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:11.
  12. See Summa Theologiae, I–II, q11, a1.
  13. Cf. 1 Cor 12:7.
  14. See Lumen Gentium §12, Apostolicum Actuositatem §3, Christifideles Laici §20-21, 24, Pastores Dabo Vobis §31,40, Catechism of the Catholic Church §801.
  15. Cf. John 10:10.
Fr. Brent Bowen About Fr. Brent Bowen

Fr. Brent Bowen, O.P. is a Dominican Friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great. He is a student in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Catholic University of America as well as a speaker for the Catherine of Siena Institute. He has a BS in Air Traffic Management, and Master’s degrees in Business Administration, Theology, and Divinity.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:


    Co-responsibility has the potential to bring alive the charisms of all the people of God. I have some questions based on my experience.

    1. Last week we installed a new pastor in our parish. The liturgical prayer and reflections during the installation ceremony did not emphasize co-responsibility. How can we begin to make the prayer of installation reflect the teaching you present?

    2. We have many people called to be priests, but are unable to follow that calling because of the absolute rule of priestly celibacy in the Roman Rite. How can we be open to the call of vocation when there are human rules that prevent responding?

    3. We are being called to synodality: communion, participation, mission. From the Preparatory Document: “A basic question prompts and guides us: How does this “journeying together,” which takes place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?”

    4. If we become a synodal Church, we will certainly engage in co-responsibility. Can we listen to each other?

  2. Avatar Mary Pat Reynolds says:

    Dear Brent,
    Very much enjoyed your article!

  3. Just changing our language from, “collaborator” to “co-responsible” makes a difference.
    Name things differently and one’s way to think and act changes. Thanks Brent for your insights.

  4. Avatar Nick McCann says:

    I don’t know if you have been talking to your confrere from the Western Province, but Michael Sweeney OP writes and presents a lot about these very topics. Very excited about these prospects in the church and changing our imagination for what the Church is and is not, especially in light of the reaching at VII.

    • Nick – I should think so! Fr. Michael Sweeney OP was my pastor in Seattle, where the Catherine of Siena Institute was initially 24 years ago born out of our collaboration. I spent many an hour sitting out on the steps of Blessed Sacrament priory with Fr. Michael (while he smoked!) talking through the theological and real life implications of the Church’s teaching on the apostolic mission of the laity – not just at VII but since – especially in the work and life of John Paul II. Fr. Michael and I taught a graduate course in the Theology of the Laity together at Sacred Heart Seminary some years ago. We historically understood the word “collaborate” to mean “co-responsibility” between the clergy and laity in the common mission of evangelization from the very beginning and sought to model it in our teaching. In fact, the Institute’s first official name had a subtitle “Center for Co-Responsibility in Ministry”.