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?
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.
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!