Marriage as Mission: The Implications of the Charism of Marriage

The role of the Holy Spirit in the nuptial union of a couple can be understood in light of the charism given to the couple by the Spirit. It is this gift that the couple is called to give back to the Church through participation in her mission. Grounded in the baptismal identity of all Christians, the charism of marriage implies that the baptismal vocation will be taken up in the nuptial and familial life of the couple.

Practicing this form of participation in the mission of the Church includes the call to evangelize in real ways, concretely through the social doctrines of the Church. Thus, the charism of marriage should be considered in marriage formation as couples learn to foster their charism and discern its implications in their own lives. We can then consider:

  • If marriage formation was approached as a fostering of charism, how might the identity and role of married persons and their families in the Church evolve?

  • As the charism of marriage implies a mission in marriage, how might this new approach lead to the evangelization, development, and renewal of society as a whole?

Introducing the Problem

During marriage formation the predominant, if not only, theological approach centers on Christ and the spouses’ relationship to him through the Church. However, this Christocentric approach is inattentive to the role of the Holy Spirit in marriage. This is not to say that a pneumatological perspective of the marriage bond does not participate in a Christocentric approach to the sacrament, but rather emphasizes the charism gifted to the couple by the Holy Spirit.

Since the earliest centuries after Christ, the communal nature of Christians has been a striking feature of the faith. However, in our modern society, with its emphasis on individuality and self-reliance, it can be difficult to imagine such a radical form of community; yet, the Church still challenges its members to practice this radical communal life, to participate in the mission of the Church. In response to the New Evangelization, we must consider a renewed approach to what constitutes the proper formation of engaged and married persons in the Church through a model of participation and mission. Married couples, infused with the life of the Spirit, participate in a specific community made possible by marriage, one that has a missional orientation. In this sense, marriage formation in our own day necessitates great attention to the charism of marriage—the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes possible a missionary zeal.

A Theology of Charism

A proper understanding of what is meant by the word “charism” is necessary in order to explicate its meaning within the context of marriage. Charism in the Christian tradition originates in the Bible, found mainly in the Pauline writings.[1] The New Catholic Encyclopedia distinguishes between three uses of the word charisma:
The Greek term charisma denotes any good gift that flows from God’s benevolent love (charis) unto man; any Divine grace or favor, ranging from redemption and life eternal to comfort in communing with brethren in the Faith (Rom 5:15, 16; 6:23; 11:29). The term has, however, a narrower meaning: the spiritual graces and qualifications granted to every Christian to perform his task in the Church: “Every one hath his proper gift [charisma] from God; one after this manner, and another after that” (1 Cor 7:7 etc.). Lastly, in its narrowest sense, charisma is the theological term for denoting extraordinary graces given to individual Christians for the good of others . . . They are: “The word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, the grace of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discerning of spirits, diverse kinds of tongues, interpretation of speeches” (1 Cor 12:8–10).[2]

The second definition relating to the gift of grace given to persons who in turn use that grace to contribute to the Church and her work is particularly relevant for the sacrament of marriage. As St. Paul notes, these gifts are “proper” to each person and pertain to his or her state in life. This is critical because persons can understand their gifts in light of their state through which these gifts, and thus the person, will find “full expression.”[3]

Charismatic gifts can thus precede sacraments such as marriage and therefore must be discerned by the couple and community prior to the marriage.[4] Margaret Pfeil argues:

The Church’s role is not to control these gifts but rather to discern them rightly and to encourage the recipients—that is, all of the faithful—to use them well . . . Dulles writes, “It would be a mistake to imagine that charisms are always given in an unconventional and unpredictable way, without regard for a person’s status and official responsibilities.” Presumably, it would also be erroneous to assume that current ecclesial structures of participation account adequately for the breadth and depth of charisms given to the faithful.[5]

Hence, the discernment of charism is linked to participation in the Church. Given this general account of the role of charism in the lives of the faithful and in the Church, one can begin to see how charism functions in the sacramental form of marriage and family life.

The Sacramental Charism of Marriage

Although people may receive certain charisms prior to assuming a permanent state in life, these are not necessarily the charisms of the state of life or sacrament itself (e.g., in the case of Matrimony or Holy Orders), but rather “fertile ground for the emergence of vocation.”[6] When vocations to particular forms of life emerge among the faithful, the body of believers are already accustomed to “discern[ing] them [gifts] rightly.” In other words, an engaged couple, insofar as they are baptized into Christ and confirmed in the Spirit, already enter into the nuptial union with a charism.

A theology of charism means ... that their gifts from God can be oriented back to him​.

But, in the sacrament of marriage, each person does not merely bring along his or her own gifts to contribute to the couple, but the couple as a new covenantal unit receives new gifts as a result of the conjugal bond. Marc Cardinal Ouellet denotes two specific moments where the gift of charism is present to couples: first, the moment of charismatic impulse to decide to enter into conjugal life[7] and, second, the moment of consent.[8] Though linked, the latter is specifically attached to the mission of the couple within the Church. The charism of marriage is established from the moment of consent when it is given to the couple, and the couple then receives that gift and gives it forth to the world through the Church.[9] Ouellet expands on the charism given at the moment of consent:

Christ receives and blesses their consent with a particular gift of the Holy Spirit; the spouses are thus assumed and consecrated into Christ’s love in order to become, as a couple, an efficacious sign of Christ’s gift for the Church. From the beginning of their consent (marriage in fieri), they receive an objective gift of the Spirit (charism), which, touching the intimacy of their conjugal love, transcends their subjectivity and commits them definitively and indissolubly to being credible witnesses of the fidelity of God who is love.

This is why, as a charism that consecrates the couple to Christ, the marriage bond causes them, and their conjugal love in all its dimensions, to participate in Christ’s love for the Church. The sanctification of the spouses, founded on baptism and marriage, will increase to the extent that they live out the charism that has made them “one flesh,” a task requiring their openness to the particular graces that heal, purify, perfect, and even divinize their love.[10]

[caption id="attachment_6343" align="alignleft" width="440"] Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.[/caption]

The couple, through their bond, is drawn up into participation in Christ’s love for the Church, and thus, aided by the Spirit, the activity of authentic witness is required of them. In this way, the love of the spouses in marriage is moved beyond functioning as a sign only to the Church and the world. Marriage is situated within the pneumatological reality where it becomes the very reality signified, that is, by means of the ecclesial participation of the couple through the gift of grace.[11] In and through this participation in the grace given at the moment of consent, the couple experiences the sanctifying reality of their bond.[12] They become the love of the Father and the Son, made possible through the Spirit.

The function of the charism given in the marriage bond is not unrelated to the function of grace throughout the marriage as both healing and perfecting.[13] This grace is given to the persons in the bond to heal their broken nature and perfect it in order for each to be prepared for Christ the Bridegroom. In this way, grace aids those persons who wait in eschatological hope and are striving to grow in their ecclesial identity as Bride through participation in the life of the Church. Marriage, elevated to the status of a sacrament, is thus capable of operating as a means to a salvific end. Thus, the temporal realities of marriage can prepare the husband and wife for the eternal reality of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. The subjective nature of the sacramental grace, though, can work in and through the objective nature of the charism of marriage:

The Spirit-bond definitively introduces the spouses into the nuptial mystery of Christ and the Church, beyond the fluctuations of their subjectivity. The charism of marriage signifies above all the couple’s insertion into the mystery of the covenant between Christ and the Church through an irreversible bond of belonging that is sealed by the Holy Spirit . . . The sacramental dimension of this bond is rooted . . . in the very Person of the Holy Spirit himself, the irrevocable gift that seals the spouses’ objective belonging to the mystery of the covenant.[14]

Put more simply, spouses are called to live “in subjective harmony with the objective gift of the Holy Spirit.”[15] The charism of the marriage bond invites the couple not only to let their union be sanctifying for themselves, but also to let it affect others through the couple’s ecclesial identity and mission. Conversely, if the couple lives out their mission through the discernment of their charism, this can be a sanctifying process itself. Thus, the “burden of charism”[16] is twofold: it requires the active discernment of the couple and it requires practice over the course of a lifetime. In spite of its “burden,” charism must be treated as a gift received by the couple in order to flourish.

Implications of the Nuptial Charism for Christian Life

The development of a theology of charism proves to be helpful in the way couples realize their role in the Church as members of the Body who manifest the Church as Bride through the concrete, nuptial form of conjugal life. Each member of the Church who desires eschatological espousal to the divine should be able to see in the real, lived experience of family life (whether their own or others in the Church) the love of Christ made manifest:
It is through Christ’s institution of the sacrament that they are integrated into the structures of the Kingdom so as to become effective within the economy of salvation. The proper effect of marriage is realized when the spouses, who have received their own gift of charism (LG §11), receive something else as well: together with this divine call, they are given the grace proper to them, a grace that enables them to accomplish their divine vocation.[17]

Returning to a discussion of structures, the language of “the structures of the Kingdom” can be quite helpful. If persons truly desire to live out the words of the “Our Father” which are spoken so frequently—“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done”—then they must actually strive to conform themselves to the will of God through participation in a form of life to which Christ invites them. The statement “Thy will be done” begs the question “by whom?” By generously responding to this question, the Christian faithful participate in the work of the Spirit in manifesting the Kingdom. Employing the notion of charism as a form of participation proves to be helpful. A theology of charism does not mean that persons should strive to share their particular gifts on their own terms, but rather that their gifts from God can be oriented back to him through the “structures of the Kingdom” established by Christ where the flourishing of persons is made possible.[18]

​The family is 'the natural community in which human social nature is experienced​.'

Through their “fully conscious and active participation” in the liturgy of conjugal life (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §14), couples are drawn into a mystical reality greater than themselves: the mystery of Christ and the Church. Allowing themselves to be conformed to this mystery, the couple in turn manifests this mystery to the whole Church. The mission of marriage then is to be the “domestic church” (Lumen Gentium, §11) and to live as a structure of the Kingdom here on earth where virtue and vocation are cultivated within the members of the family, just as the virtue and vocation of the couple are cultivated in the Church and through their charism. In the “domestic church” the members participate in a unique community of persons, a microcosm of the whole Church. This community should encourage flourishing in and through the diversity of its members who find unity in Christ.

John Paul II’s encyclical Familiaris Consortio elaborates on the communion found in the family:

All members of the family, each according to his or her own gift, have the grace and responsibility of building, day by day, the communion of persons, making the family “a school of deeper humanity”: this happens where there is care and love for the little ones, the sick, the aged; where there is mutual service every day; when there is a sharing of goods, of joys and of sorrows. (FC §21)

The profound personalism which comes out of such practice forms the members of the family in a way which doesn’t allow them to become enclosed unto themselves but fosters the virtues that are cultivated within the home to reach outward from the family to the greater community.[19] There is a natural progression here that takes place, beginning from the moment of consent of the couple when the “domestic church” is formed. Ouellet writes, “From the moment of the consecration of marriage, this participation [in the very fruitfulness of God in Christ] is no longer received by two individuals, but by a new community: by an ‘I-thou’ that has become a ‘subjective and objective we’.”[20] The unfolding of the couple’s identity within the community of marriage gives way, by virtue of their charism and grace, to fruitfulness. This fruitfulness expands the community either through the birth of children or other forms of sacrificial love.

The Social Consequences of the Charism of Marriage

The charism of the couple also means that the particular familial community is situated in the ecclesial community as a form of gift, of participating in the mission of the Church. The concept of the mission associated with the charism of marriage is not an abstract one. It is lived in the everyday practice of the social doctrines of the Church, evangelization, a familial spirituality, and virtue. Here we can see how “this mission is above all a participation in the mission of the Holy Spirit, as mutual, intra-divine Love, who gives himself through Christ and in Christ and draws the couple into his self-gift.”[21] Thus, the gift of the initial charism is fully expressed through the gift of the couple themselves in the many forms of sacrificial love made possible through their state of life now infused with the charism of the Spirit as found in the Church.

Becoming the domestic church means taking on a unique identity within the Body of Christ and conforming to Christ, the Head, through the particular vocation of marriage and family life. The domestic church, thus, walks with Christ:

On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified. (LG §7)

The journey of the domestic church is marked by conformity to the Head through participation in the Spirit. Lumen Gentium continues:
He continually distributes in his body, that is, in the Church, gifts of ministries in which, by his own power, we serve each other unto salvation so that, carrying out the truth in love, we might through all things grow unto him who is our Head.

In order that we might be unceasingly renewed in him, he has shared with us his Spirit who, existing as one and the same being in the Head and in the members, gives life to, unifies and moves through the whole body. This he does in such a way that his work could be compared by the holy Fathers with the function which the principle of life, that is, the soul, fulfills in the human body. (LG §7)

Vivified in the Spirit, the domestic church strives to “serve . . . unto salvation” in a particular way. Existing in the world, families are called to the service of society by evangelization. The social doctrine of the Church functions as the guiding principle to the practice of evangelization in society because the family is a particular community of persons capable of living it out.
In this perspective, Church communities, brought together by the message of Jesus Christ and gathered in the Holy Spirit round the Risen Lord (cf. Mt 18:20, 28:19–20; Lk 24:46–49), offer themselves as places of communion, witness and mission, and as catalysts for the redemption and transformation of social relationships.[22]

Though all are called to live out this social doctrine, the family is of special importance because of its centrality to society and the integral nature of caritas in its development and form. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls the family “the natural community in which human social nature is experienced,”[23] but this natural community receives a supernatural vocation from Christ in the Church. In this unique community, persons receive essential formation:
It is in the family that one learns the love and faithfulness of the Lord, and the need to respond to these (cf. Ex 12:25–27, 13:8,14–15; Deut 6:20–25, 13:7-11; 1 Sam 3:13). It is in the family that children learn their first and most important lessons of practical wisdom, to which the virtues are connected (cf. Prov 1:8–9, 4:1–4, 6:20–21; Sir 3:1–16, 7:27–28). Because of all this, the Lord himself is the guarantor of the love and fidelity of married life (cf. Mal 2:14–15).[24]

The expression of caritas in the lived experiences of families finds its source in the charism of marriage that calls forth the married couple to participate in the mission of the Church through the practice of evangelization, concretely, in her social doctrines.

[caption id="attachment_6344" align="alignright" width="429"] Christ the Bridegroom and the Church, His Bride; Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.[/caption]

The community of marriage is transformed into a familial community more precisely in the fuller realization of the members’ shared baptismal identity, and this realization leads to the greater recognition of the family’s baptismal union with the entire Body of Christ. The charism of marriage forms the couple to their baptismal identity through conjugal life, and this identity as sons and daughters of God is a “mode of being and living” that is “essentially filial and fraternal.”[25] The mission of the Holy Spirit is to draw the community into greater communion not in spite of their particularities but through them. So, for the Church this means that encouraging various vocations and helping people live out their charisms actually contributes to a more unified whole. It seems paradoxical, but this suggests that married couples, by entering the nuptial mystery, can become more veritable brothers and sisters in Christ to each other and all the members of the Church. The couple must remember that in addition to their relational roles of spouse and perhaps parent, they have a fraternal relationship with all the baptized. Cultivating relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ can be difficult amid the temporal demands of other types of relationships. However, the mission of the couple is to recognize this reality and practice it concretely even with their own children. In this way, spouses, with their rich understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church as Bride, may journey as members with the Church toward the eschaton.

According to Familiaris Consortio, the “general tasks for the family” include:

  1. forming a community of persons;

  2. serving life;

  3. participating in the development of society;

  4. sharing in the life and mission of the Church. (FC §17)[26]

As we can see, these tasks relate not only to the interior life of the family but also to their ecclesial life. The domestic practices of nuptial love that are internal to the family must inform the outward practice of love to the world. For example, if there is not a preferential option for the vulnerable within a family, how are family members to reach out to the vulnerable in society? The family is a natural place for the cultivation of such virtue because of the nuptial love that dwells there. Out of fidelity to the bond of marriage where the Holy Spirit remains with the couple and from which the fruitfulness of the family flows, the couple is able to give of themselves, even joyfully, in great yet little ways which seem natural to their state. Though the practice of self-gift in marriage and family life may prove to be difficult and mundane, joy can be evoked from this experience when one recalls the gift of Spirit. The gift of charism in marriage thus reminds couples that they are not alone in their journey but are joined by the Spirit, given to them by Christ, who shows the way to the Father.


The mission of the family can be found from the pneumatological and Christo-centric perspectives of the marriage bond through charism and grace. The charism of marriage, endowed to the couple at the moment of consent, serves as an invitation for them to take up the mission of the Church in and through their particular form of life. This is a call to give the gift they themselves have received. The way in which a married couple gives back to the Church by way of their charism is in the concrete living out of the love between Christ and the Church through the various particularities of life in the world. As an icon of receptivity and gift, the couple’s life should be ordered toward the manifestation of Christ’s love in the world. This love takes form in authentic witness to the social doctrine of the Church for the renewal of society. The practice of this love often requires couples to recall their baptismal identity. Through fraternal, familial, and nuptial relationship, couples practice and make manifest their charism as mission.

Marriage is ... an invitation to practice the particulars with profound charity.

Pope Francis states, “Charity takes on different hues depending on the state in life to which we have been called” (Amoris Laetitia, §313). This statement takes on new meaning in light of the charism of marriage. Perhaps it is the particular hue of charity made visible in marriage that sparks hope and illumines the eyes of faith to those whom they encounter. The charism of marriage is not a complex or rigid way of life, but rather an invitation to practice the particulars with profound charity within the community of marriage and family and also within the Church and the world; this is the mission, a mission of example, participation, and love.

Featured Photo: Travis Rock ( via flickr; CC-BY-NC-2.0.

[1] Joseph Wilhelm, “Charismata” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), accessed December 6, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Margaret R. Pfeil, “Called and Gifted: Charism and Catholic Social Teaching” in Horizons 34.2 (2007), 225.

[4] Donald L. Gelspi, S.J. Charism and Sacrament: Theology of Christian Conversion (New York: Paulist Press, 1976), 172–173. Gelpi gives a fuller account of this in his chapter “Marriage and Celibacy.” He grounds his account of charism in the first part of the book on how charism relates to conversion and can be used in an ecumenical effort to find common ground with other sects of Christianity. He tends to be rather critical of certain structures in the Church that he believes inhibit the full charismatic expression of the faithful. Margaret Pfeil argues in “Charism and Catholic Social Teaching” by acknowledging the shortcomings of certain structures but maintaining the necessity of structures to charism to be properly ordered to the good of the ecclesial community.

[5] Pfeil, “Called and Gifted: Charism and Catholic Social Teaching,” 225.

[6] Ibid. 226.

[7] Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Mystery and Sacrament of Love: A Theology of Marriage and the Family for the new Evangelization, trans. Michelle K. Borras and Adrian J. Walker (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 78.

[8] Ibid., 80.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 80–81.

[11] Ibid., 75.

[12] Ibid., 76.

[13] Ibid., 82.

[14] Ibid., 78.

[15] Ibid., 85.

[16] Karl Rahner, The Dynamic Element in the Church, trans. W. J. O’Hara (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), 77; referenced in Pfeil, “Called and Gifted: Charism and Catholic Social Teaching,” 230.

[17] Ouellet, Mystery and Sacrament of Love, 83.

[18] Ibid., 84.

[19] Ibid., 103.

[20] Ibid., 97.

[21] Ibid., 86.

[22] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004), §52.

[23] Ibid., §213.

[24] Ibid., §210.

[25] Ouellet, Mystery and Sacrament of Love, 76.

[26] See also ibid., 104.


Madeline Running

Madeline Running recently graduated with her B.A in theology from Notre Dame. She now lives in South Bend, Indiana with her husband and young daughter.

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