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Tongue Tied

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Throughout my 4 years in public highschool, there were about six of us who met daily for Bible study at lunch time. I was the lone Catholic. The leader, “Sam” (the names have been changed to protect the innocent), was very charismatic and urged us all to be “baptized by the Holy Ghost.”

One day he went around and laid hands on our heads. Almost everyone instantly started mumbling in a language that was foreign to me. Their enthusiasm and volume increased steadily until all hands were raised, eyes closed, and necks craned towards heaven. My schoolmate’s swayed back and forth as their screams and groans crescendoed in a cacophony of discordant noises. All eyes in the cafeteria were on us and I with nary a rock to hide under.

When the uproar subsided and eyes opened, I asked Sam what had happened. He said everyone was just baptized by the Holy Ghost and that “speaking in tongues meant you got it”. Evidently, I did not.

This was my introduction to what is popularly called “speaking in tongues.”

When I asked Sam to elaborate, he read me this passage:

“Brothers and sisters: The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because he intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.”-Romans 8:26-27

So what is this gift/charism/miracle/manifestation/phenomenon popularly called “speaking in tongues” and what does Scripture and Tradition have to say about it?

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What is “speaking in tongues”?

It seems there is no consensus. “Speaking in tongues” can mean different things to different people. Some say it is:

  • Speaking an unintelligible angelic/divine/heavenly language that is understood by a person who has been given the gift to interpret what was said. To those who have not received the gift of interpreting the message, it may sound like nonsensical gibberish. This is what I experienced at my high school Bible study.
  • Speaking an authentic known language that is foreign to the speaker, but understood by speakers of that language—technically called xenoglossia. For example, if someone who only knew English were to spontaneously start speaking Mandarin without ever having studied it.
  • Speaking in your own known native tongue, but having a foreigner hear what was said in their own language. For example, if you spoke English, but the person heard your message in Mandarin (obviously if they understood Mandarin. If they spoke French, but heard your English message in Mandarin yet understood it, I don’t know what that would be called!)

Distinctions are also made between “speaking in tongues” (the recipient being the assembly) and “praying in tongues” (the recipient being God)—the former needing an interpreter, the later does not.

Others embrace all these as merely different manifestations of the same gift.

 So what do the Scriptures say?

Our Lord refers to speaking “new languages” in the Great commission:

“He said to them, ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.’”-Mark 16:15-17

The gift is mentioned in relation to Pentecost:

“And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.”-Acts 2:4–6

This instance, as well as those in Acts 10:46 and 19:6, describe speaking in tongues as a community-wide experience whose end is to expand the assembly of believers.

St. Paul also mentions the gift extensively:

“For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit. On the other hand, one who prophesies does speak to human beings, for their building up, encouragement, and solace. Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church. Now I should like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be built up.”-1 Corinthians 14:2–5

St. Paul relates speaking in tongues not as a communal event, but as a gift an individual Christian receives. He believes speaking in tongues to be less important than other gifts and stresses that it must build up the community rather than be a source of division.

And the Church Fathers?

The early Church did not mention the gift of tongues frequently, but when it did, it was almost always in reference to intelligible human language:

“But when God gave literary ability to ignorant men so that they could write the gospels, giving the ability to write he also gave the Roman tongue to Galileans, and the panguages of the world to his apostles, for the teaching and admonition and exhortation of the nations of the world.” – Eusebius of Emesa (359)

“For since on their coming over from idols, without any clear knowledge or training in the ancient Scriptures, they at once on their baptism received the Spirit, yet the Spirit they saw not, for It is invisible; therefore God’s grace bestowed some sensible proof of that energy. And one straightway spoke in the Persian, another in the Roman, another in the Indian, another in some other such tongue: and this made manifest to them that were without that it is the Spirit in the very person speaking.”-John Chrysostom (407)

“For being filled with the Holy Spirit they were speaking with the tongues of the various nations.”-Gaudentius (410)

In the 1200s, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the gift of tongues. He understood it to be the supernatural gift to speak human languages for the purpose of missionary activity and suggests that the gift is no longer imparted as “the Church herself already speaks the languages of all nations.”

Does “speaking in tongues” exist today?

There are those who believe the gift of tongues (along with prophesying and healing) ended with the death of the original twelve apostles. These cessationists maintain that the purpose of the gifts were to authenticate the Apostles’ message as being divine.

Continuationists, on the other hand, believe that the gifts imparted by the Holy Spirit are still active in the Church today.

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What’s the Catholic position?

Vatican II affirmed the legitimacy of gifts (charisms), both ordinary and extraordinary.

These charisms, whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are perfectly suited to and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be sought after, nor are the fruits of apostolic labor to be presumptuously expected from their use; but judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good.”—Lumen Gentium 12

There is a movement in the Church that began in the late 1960s called The Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement. This movement embraces the gifts of the Holy Spirit including speaking in tongues.

St. Pope John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) acknowledged the movement as being beneficial, but also warned their members to maintain communion with the Church.

This Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement is credited with helping stem the tide of Catholics who would have otherwise adopted Pentecostalism, especially in Central and South America.

Some who have received the gift of tongues have found healing, comfort and encouragement. However, the Church does not teach that speaking in tongues is required for salvation and most Catholics have cooperated with the Spirit in less dramatic but no less effective ways.

I take a centrist approach. I am not so pragmatic that I skeptically discount the workings of the Spirit. Neither do I solely believe in total dependence on the Spirit’s charisms to the exclusion of the Church, her teachings and authority.

How about you? Do you believe “tongues” is a genuine gift or just gibberish? Do you speak in tongues? Have you heard someone speak in tongues? Have you participated in the Catholic Charismatic Movement? Share and let’s learn together!


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Dan Gonzalez is both author and designer of the MassExplained blog and MassExplained iPad app. Through fun games and colorful flash cards, Dan's new app, Catholic Word & Games, teaches Catholic vocabulary to children. His design work can be seen at AmpersandMiami.com. Visit AgnusGiftShop.com to browse his Catholic t-shirt line. Dan's reversion story can be read here.

16 Comments

  1. Andy

    July 22, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    May I suggest the study by Fr. Edward D. O’Connor, CSC, “The Pentecostal Movement in the Catholic Church” and “Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Second Revised Edition” by Kilian McDonnell OSB, George Montague SM. You can also reference Cardinal Suenens’ works here – http://sites.jcu.edu/suenens/pages/cardinal-suenens/ (free books).

    This is one of the least of the gifts, glossalia, but there is most certainly a purpose for it. One has to really have faith in trust in God to engage this gift. It is a gift and God does not owe it to anyone.

  2. Tim

    July 22, 2014 at 8:39 am

    ICCRS (International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services) Doctrinal Commission on Baptism in the Holy Spirit contains a section on Jubilation and the Gift of Tongues that details St Augustine’s encouragement ‘Let not your joy be silent’. It also quotes St Gregory the Great’s reference to Jubilus. I thoroughly recommend this book from the Vatican.
    John Vaughan-Neil’s Practical Guide to the Gift of Tongues is a very helpful to those trying to understand the Holy Spirit’s use today.
    Both books are available on the web, I got mine from GoodNewsBooks.net

    I first received the ability to pray in tongues when I was Baptised in the Holy Spirit on 16 April 2004 at Celebrate Conference run by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. It changed my life and saved my family through a renewal of faith and a recognition of what Jesus had done for me personally.

    I do encourage others particularly if you cannot contain your joy in Jesus’ love, if you struggle to express in words what you wish to pray or if you sometimes forget to pray a promised petition.

    Pope Francis expects all the people of the Renewal ‘to share with all in the Church the Grace of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ (Rome June 2014). If anyone wishes to experience more the Holy Spirit and his gifts in their life, there are many opportunities to learn and pray across the world. In the UK, information can be found through http://www.ccr.org.uk

    Thanks for running this blog, anything that allows people opportunity to bear witness to God’s love for them is to be supported. Never before has the Body of Christ been able to reach so many with the message that God loves them passionately and has a wonderful plan for each and every one of them. Tim

  3. Jess

    July 22, 2014 at 3:33 am

    Greetings Dan, you ask another interesting question. I find the Charismatic Catholic Movement some what interesting. However , I have not really been exposed to the movement. Growing up and as an adult, I have always attended more traditional Catholic services. Personally
    I would probably identify “speaking in tongues” as more of a Protestant Movement than Catholic. In my case when ever I speak to Christ or our Blessed Mother if I get a response its usually in my language. I read the biblical references to speaking in tongues. So not being a biblical expert my question is did Jesus Christ himself ever speak in tongues? Just curious . Peace be with you

  4. Bill Dalgetty

    July 21, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    After being a fully practicing Catholic all of my adult life, I was invited to a Catholic Charismatic mass 37 years ago, and experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in a way I had never experienced him before which resulted in a complete renewal and rebirth of my faith. I asked him to take the sin and disorder from life and he did — things that I had previously gone to the sacrament of penance for, but continued, no matter how many times I went to the sacrament. They have never bothered me since that evening. I acquired a new love of the Lord and the Church and had a desire to spend time in prayer each day. Scripture came alive to me. I started to hear how beautiful the prayers at mass were which I had heard for years, but apparently hadn’t really listened to. I wanted to be reconciled with anyone I might have offended. I was subsequently prayed with for what is described as the baptism in the Holy Spirit and sometime later, I began to pray in tongues in my prayer time. I also participated in prayer meetings where I would join others in singing in tongues. It is a beautiful thing and often leads to the manifestation of other gifts of the Spirit.
    Kevin and Dorothy Ranaghan explain in their book, Catholic Pentecostals, that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is neither a new or substitute sacrament, but “is a prayer for everything that Christian initiation is meant to be.”
    If you ask my wife, she will tell you that from that day forward, my perspective, focus and priorities began to change. I sought to bring Christ into all aspects of my life, even my professional life.
    Praying in tongues is not the most important piece of this story. The most important part is the renewal of my faith, my new relationship with Jesus Christ, and my desire to serve him and the Church. For me, praying tongues simply accompanied these changes in my life as an ancillary benefit, part of God manifesting his presence. I never try to pray in tongues in a way that would disrupt the larger body of Christ.

  5. Jamal

    July 21, 2014 at 1:17 am

    I am not Catholic. I do believe in speaking in tongues and that this and other spiritual gifts are still active in the church today. But I also believe many are misguided in regards to the gifts. I was just as misguided as the next person. I was taught that you must speak in tongues and that is the evidence of you being fill with the holy ghost. However, something about that didn’t appear correct. But I didn’t know how to explain it. Many years later I now understand better. I do speak in tongues. Maybe more than many. I have also heard others and God gave me the interpretation. I know of a person whose 1st experience in speaking in tongues was while she was riding on a bus. People thought she had gone crazy. Then someone spoke up and said she is not crazy or something to the nature of that. Then let them know she was speaking German. One day we were in service. For some reason our pastor was not there that week. One of his daughters came from Atlanta to visit. We are in the Midwest. A group of Korean saw that we were open for service and came in to worship and share with us. Their Bishop (pastor) didn’t not speak English. One of his member interpreted the words spoken to him. Our pastor’s daughter was asked to bring the word that day. Afterwards she began to pray for the people. A few of the Koreans got in the prayer line. She prayed for people and began to speak in tongue. God was using her greatly. She began to give a Word of Knowledge (most people call prophesy). Then when she laid hands on one of the Koreans the language changed. Then every Korean there stood up. One spoke and said she is speaking our language. Then the one that was interpreting for their Bishop began to interpret to us what she was saying. They all got in the prayer line. Then began to move to the front of the line ignoring that other were ahead in line. Someone eventually stopped them and led them to line without them getting in front of other in line ahead of them. Her language change again when she began to pray for those of us that speak English. Every time she pray for a Korean the language changed again and they understood. We understood because there was an interpreter. It exhausted her once it was over. I’ve seen other things that have no explanation other then it being God’s miracles.

  6. Janelle

    July 20, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    I agree whole-heartedly that those who truly live in the spirit and have the gift of tongues will not speak just to draw attention to themselves. The sacramental life takes precedence over the charismatic gifts and are a form of praising God. I have often been moved to pray in the spirit during Mass but I do not pray out loud in my praise and joy because there is not present one with the gift of interpretation and it is not the right time or praise. Sometimes the best times are in private between closed doors especially when praying for the needs of others. That discernment process is something all can see. If one who has charismatic gifts but they are arrogant and seem to have their own agenda they most likely do not have a “real” charismatic gift. You can know them by the fruits of the spirit that should be growing and developing stronger in their lives. That means humility, peace, joy, etc. God bless you all!

  7. Robert Boeke

    July 20, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    For a long time I have wondered whether speaking in tongues could be in languages that people can actually understand. After all people present at Pentecost heard the Apostles speaking “each in his own tongue.’ In our many years of ministry, much of which dealt with married couples, my wife and I often found ourselves sitting with a hurting couple who were looking to us for help and comfort. We would find ourselves at a total loss for words. Then one of us would say a quick, silent prayer asking the Holy Spirit for guidance – and just start talking. It amazed us that anything we said at those times was just what that couple needed to hear. Many times one of us would speak and the other would look on in amazement. They would ask: “How did you come up with that!? The one who spoke would respond with “What did I say?” I still do this when I am in a situation where I don’t know what to say, and it still works. It may not be speaking in tounges, but I really am awed when the Spirit has my back.

  8. Tommy

    July 20, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    In my experience this is possible through the Holy Spirit and you are essentially ‘channeling’. God plants the seeds within us and you carry it with you. In my experience it is both metaphysical and divine in nature.

    If you are ever filled up with the Holy Spirit and in the divine love of Christ it is something you will never forget. Like the love of a million mothers for their children.

    It’s how God let’s you know “I am with you”. I pray I am worthy of his blessing…

  9. Victoria H

    July 20, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    If anyone has read Jackie Pullinger’s book “Chasing the Dragon” it convinces you that speaking in tongues was a gift given at certain times. I personally believe that you speak In Tongues as the Holy Spirit moves you. These people spoke in English, but they didn’t know English! They were immediately delivered from drugs and spoke in tongues….absolutely brilliant read if you want to find out more about speaking in tongues. I have spoken in tongues, but only a couple of times…and yet in Church some peeps do it all the time. Sometimes, it appears that they are making the same sounds over and over again….I believe that speaking in tongues is a proper language as in Acts 🙂

  10. Nick Hardesty

    July 18, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    I am a part of a Catholic Charismatic Community and though I do not speak in tongues, there are those that do. The speaking in tongues does not seem to be a focus of prayer but more of an outpouring of the Spirit in prayer. The Charismatic approach to prayer is uplifting and I do believe is supported by the Church. However, I have noticed that those I know involved in Charismatic praise, also recognize when Charasmatic praise and prayer is appropriate. I do not see the Charismatic Catholics that I know shouting, dancing or speaking in tongues during the Mass or Consecration of our Lord. There is a time to worship God with our whole beings allowing the Spirit to move us and there is a time to be still and silent in front of our Lord in the Eucharist. The Charismatic Catholics that I have encountered understand this and praise and worship, singing, laying of hands, etc. are all just charisms of prayer that serve to enhance their worship of God. They do not replace the need for the sacraments nor I have seen noticed Charismatic Catholics demonstrate their zeal for the Faith in a way that would take away from the beauty and sanctity of the Mass and sacraments. By the way, I love this site. I just stumbled upon it but it seems like a great resources for Catholics looking to deepen their Faith life. God bless.

  11. Ernest Owusu-Dapaa

    July 17, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I have at various times in my life desired and prayed for the gift of
    tongues but I have not yet received my request. I have come to appreciate now that there is no formula for praying to God but what is important is letting my heart follow whatever words that I utter in my conversation
    with God. So instead of praying of gift of tongues now I pray for the
    grace to be able to pray with my and from my heart. God bless you.

  12. Allen Richard

    July 17, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Allen J. Richard

    Regional Sales Manger, Gulf South at Clean Fuels Associates, Inc.

    I have been a member of a fully Charismatic Catholic Church for many years. In fact I am a member of both the Governing Body and Pastoral Council. Praising in tongues is merely another form of Praise and Worship! We are a very Interactive community with the Mass, more so than the usual Catholic Churches. Charismatic praise and worship is fully endorsed by Pope Francis. In fact Rev. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa who is the Preacher to the Papal Household is himself fully Charismatic. He has spoken to the Charismatic Conference in New Orleans supporting the Charismatic movement! I would say that truly legitimizes speaking and praising in Tongues

    • Dan Gonzalez

      July 17, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      Allen, thank you so much for your comment and for offering a fresh perspective that few will otherwise get to hear!

  13. Annette

    July 17, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    I’m of the opinion that, unless there’s an interpreter available, then speaking in tongues means (literally?) nothing

    • Dan Gonzalez

      July 17, 2014 at 4:39 pm

      Thanks so much, Annette for reading the blogpost and for taking the time to write! St. Paul seems to agree with you:
      “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let it be two or at most three, and each in turn, and one should interpret. But if there is no interpreter, the person should keep silent in the church and speak to himself and to God.”-1 Corinthians 14: 27-28

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