St. Mary by-the-Sea Retreat House in Cape May Point, N.J. (Colleen Gibson)

Mission alive: The dilemma of charism

"Charism is simply the grace to live our mission well." Sr. Bette Moslander, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, once wrote.

Standing in front of a group of colleagues on a recent retreat for college faculty and staff, I read those words aloud from a slide, acutely aware that the presentation I was giving was one of the only things standing between them and a beautiful spring day. They had chosen to be here, though, and despite the sound of crashing waves outside, they remained focused on what I was saying.

"The gift of our charism is already alive in you" I told the group, "you wouldn't be here otherwise. It's in the how and why of your teaching, the groundwork of your interactions, and the foundation of everything we as an institution try to embody."

The task that lay ahead was to get the group, as individuals and as colleagues, to recognize the gift of mission and charism in their midst. I'll admit it wasn't the hardest task in the world — these were people who understood the value of working in a place rooted in the legacy of religious sisters. They'd taken time from their busy schedules to step away to reflect on and be stretched by what it means to work at a mission-driven institution.

Sharing with them over the weekend, I found myself returning with new eyes to a dilemma I faced early in my formation. My dilemma was this: If I embrace the charism within me and give my life to this mission, will I spend my whole life simply passing it on to others and never really living it?

I loved the mission and charism of my congregation — the Sisters of St. Joseph — from the first moment I read it. "We live and work to bring all people into union with God and one another," the vocation director, quoting our constitutions, wrote in her response to my initial inquiry about the congregation.

I remember reading that line and feeling my heart beat a little faster. That is what I want to be about, I thought to myself.

As I moved my way through the first stages of formation within the congregation, I deepened my understanding of that first line and, in the process, I fell more and more in love. That feeling was a confirmation of the life I was discerning. If this mission was the reason we existed as a congregation, then I wanted to be a part of this group of women. As I grew in community, I began to realize that the way in which we strived to achieve that mission — our charism — wasn't just something I desired, it was something I already possessed.

Beach in Cape May Point. (Sr. Majorie Lawless, SSJ)

The dilemma I found myself facing, though, as I began ministry was the fear that somehow in lovingly sharing the mission and charism I'd given myself to, I might never get to live it out, but instead be forever bound to passing it on to others.

Looking at the men and women in front of me as I spoke about charism, I wondered again what it means to pass on mission.

To survive, the seeds of mission need to be planted. But what is to be done in a culture, like today's, where people lack the language, or even context, to identify/qualify charism and mission?

It seems that part of our role as people of faith is to prime the soil for such planting. In that role, the means of transmitting mission becomes a bigger question. If we authentically live our lives, embodying the mission and charism of our religious institutes, is that enough? Won't our mission be passed on implicitly?

That is our hope: that the lives we live will speak to something larger, reflecting the principles and aims of our religious lives. Yet, there's no guarantee of that.

Perhaps, here is where a more explicit approach to mission and charism is necessary. Lives well-lived surely give the Spirit room to move both within ourselves and within others. It is by our lives that we bear witness to the Gospel. Yet, it is also our responsibility to give those with whom we work and minister the tools to name and own what they are witnesses to; giving them the ability to identify the mission they are already a part of and claim the charism they already possess.

View from the porch of St. Mary by-the-Sea Retreat House. (Sr. Majorie Lawless, SSJ)

Sitting on a deck during a break in the retreat, I chatted with a colleague. "I'd forgotten how much I love this mission," she said. In the hustle and bustle of life it can be easy to become distant from the mission. "This isn't just what the sisters or this school is about," she said pausing, "it's what I am about. This is my mission. It is a gift."

Sometimes it's in remembering that giftedness that Grace has the opportunity to change minds and hearts. Mission and charism aren't things you just toy around with. They are part of who you are and what you do. For my colleague, it was the recognition that she had gifts that were meant to be shared in the same way those before her had given of their own gifts to foster her personal, professional, and spiritual growth. Just as the mission was alive in them, it was and is in her.

Sitting there by the seashore, I had to think of Jesus. His life, his mission, and his ministry — it was all about passing it on. The love of God incarnate, he lived so that those around him might come to believe and in turn, that they might pass on the Gospel message to everyone they encountered. The Spirit endowed them with a charism to do so and each set out in a unique way to spread the Good News. In the process, they learned more about the God they loved and who they'd been created to be. Sometimes they did it more perfectly than at other times, but they lived and learned.

That's the way we foster, broaden, and strengthen our gifts: by putting them into action. Like athletes or craftsmen, we must practice to hone our skills. Few of us, if any, are prodigies and that reality is, in and of itself, a liberating gift; it keeps us humble and reminds us who and whose we are.

We remember that our gifts aren't ours alone; they are meant to be given away. And that is where mission and charism work hand in hand. The gift of charism — the manner and essence of our being — allows us to pass on our mission to the world with passion and grace. We offer it to the world as a gift and trust that as it has gifted us, so it will give to many others.

It's that sort of selfless giving that lies at the heart of every congregation's mission and charism. In that, we can rest assured that no matter where we go, our mission goes with us. And we can find joy and peace in knowing that if the only thing we ever truly do is pass it on, our lives will have been well spent.

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]

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