More on the Gift of Tongues

from Pentecost by El Greco (1596)


OF course, a reflection on the “gift of tongues” is going to stir controversy. And this doesn’t surprise me since it is probably the most misunderstood of all charisms. And so, I hope to answer some of the questions and comments I’ve received over the past few days on this subject, particularly as the popes continue to pray for a “new Pentecost”…[1]cf. Charismatic? – Part VI



Q. You base your defense of the “gift of tongues” on an anecdotal comment from Dr Martin, rather than on any actual Church teaching—indeed, I am not sure I even believe that this incident with Pope St John Paul II actually happened.

I began my writing The Gift of Tongues with an anecdote that I heard a few years ago in which St. John Paul II emerged from his chapel, excited that he had received the gift of tongues. My reader is correct on the one hand—I was mistaken in that I thought I initially heard the story from Dr. Ralph Martin. Rather, the story was told by the Vatican’s papal household preacher, Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa. This was conveyed at a Steubenville, Ohio conference for Priests, Deacons and Seminarians in the early 1990’s and was relayed to me by a priest who was present at the event.

However, this anecdote is only an illustration. The foundation of the understanding of tongues most certainly is based on Church teaching and Scripture. Again, as I cited from the Catechism regarding the charisms of the Holy Spirit:

Whatever their character—sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues—charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church.Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2003

Now, my reader seems to be suggesting, as several academics have, that the gift of tongues was only present in the early Church. However, the assertion that tongues has an expiry date finds no biblical basis. Furthermore, it conflicts with the testimony and historical record, particularly of the Church Fathers, not to mention the significant experience of the Church in the past five decades, in which the gift of tongues has been exercised and tested. This is consistent with Jesus’ simple, unqualified statement:

These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents [with their hands], and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:17-18)


Q. To say that Mark Ch. 16 definitively proves that speaking in tongues is to be “normative” in the life of the Christian is to interpret that passage in a way that no Church Father, no Doctor of the Church, no Pope, no saint, and no classic theologian has ever interpreted it.

On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence in the writings and accounts in the Church Fathers and saints as well as the contemporary Church that reveals that so-called “baptism in the Spirit”, and the often accompanying charisms, were considered “normative” Catholicism. However, normative insofar as the charisms appeared at certain times in certain individuals—not that every Christian would have every gift. As St. Paul wrote:

For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them. (Rom 12:4-6)

Church Father, Hippolytus, who died in the third century (235 A.D.), wrote:

These gifts were first bestowed on us the apostles when we were about to preach the Gospel to every creature, and afterwards were of necessity afforded to those who had by our means believed… It is not therefore necessary that every one of the faithful should cast out demons, or raise the dead, or speak with tongues; but such a one only who is vouchsafed this gift, for some cause which may be advantage to the salvation of the unbelievers, who are often put to shame, not with the demonstration of the world, but by the power of the signs.Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Book VIII, n. 1

The “infilling”, “release” or so-called “baptism in the Holy Spirit” in which the believer would be “filled” with the Spirit was always part of the Sacraments of Christian initiation in the early Church, according to the study Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Spirit—Evidence from the First Eight Centuries, by Fr. Kilian McDonnell & Fr. George Montague. They show how eight hundred years of Christianity—not just the newborn biblical Church—were indeed “charismatic” (not to be confused with mere outward expression or emotion). American bishop, Most Reverend Sam Jacobs writes:

…this grace of Pentecost, known as Baptism in the Holy Spirit, does not belong to any particular movement but to the whole Church. In fact, it is really nothing new but has been part of God’s design for His people from that first Pentecost in Jerusalem and through the history of the Church. Indeed, this grace of Pentecost has been seen in the life and practice of the Church, according to the writings of the Fathers of the Church, as normative for Christian living and as integral to the fullness of Christian Initiation. —Most Reverend Sam G. Jacobs, Bishop of Alexandria, LA; Fanning the Flame, p. 7, by McDonnell and Montague

Obviously, the charisms, including tongues, were evident centuries after Pentecost. St. Irenaeus adds:

In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual,” they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit, and not because their flesh has been stripped off and taken away, and because they have become purely spiritual. Against Heresies, Book V, 6:1

Since St. Paul teaches that the charisms are given for the building up of the Body of Christ, wouldn’t they be needed at all times in the Church, perhaps especially now? [2]cf. 1 Cor 14:3, 12, 26 Again, this “theology of expiration” conflicts with the historical record, if not logic itself. The Church still casts out demons. She still performs miracles. She still prophesies. Does she not still speak in tongues? The answer is yes.


Q. It is as though you are unaware of the reading provided by the Church for Office of Readings on the Vigil of Pentecost:  “And as individual men who received the Holy Spirit in those days [of the Apostles] could speak in all kinds of tongues, so today the Church, united by the Holy Spirit, speaks in the language of every people. Therefore, if somebody should say to one of us, ‘You have received the Holy Spirit, why do you not speak in tongues?’ his reply should be, ‘I do indeed speak in the tongues of all men, because I belong to the body of Christ, that is, the Church, and she speaks all languages.”

This reading from the Church’s Liturgy indicates that the miraculous speaking in tongues of the early Church is no longer generally present in each individual Christian, but rather that every Christian speaks his own language, therefore the Church herself speaks in every language and tongue.

Certainly, one cannot dispute the powerful allegory and message that occurred in the first recorded instance of tongues after Pentecost. If the Tower of Babel brought about the division of tongues, Pentecost brought about their unity in a spiritual manner…

…thus signifying that the unity of the Catholic Church would embrace all nations, and would in like manner speak in all tongues. —St. Augustine, City of God, Book XVIII, Ch. 49

However, my reader fails to acknowledge both the accounts of the Church Fathers and quite glaringly the millions of cardinals, bishops, priests and lay people throughout the world who have this charism or have experienced its operation in some capacity. Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have been present at “charismatic” gatherings where the faithful prayed in tongues. Far from condemning this movement, they have encouraged it precisely in the spirit of St. Paul, which is to integrate and welcome it into the heart of the Church, putting the charisms at the service of the Body of Christ. Thus, Pope Paul VI wondered,

How could this ‘spiritual renewal’ not be a chance for the Church and the world? And how, in this case, could one not take all the means to ensure that it remains so… —International Conference on the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, May 19, 1975, Rome, Italy,

Recognizing both the hierarchical and mystical aspects of the Church, John Paul II said,

The institutional and charismatic aspects are co-essential as it were to the Church’s constitution. They contribute, although differently, to the life, renewal and sanctification of God’s People. —Speech to the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements and New Communities,

Fr. Raneiro described it this way:

…the Church… is both hierarchical and charismatic, institutional and mystery: the Church that lives not by sacrament alone but also by charism. The two lungs of the Church body are once again working together in full accord. Come, Creator Spirit: meditations on the Veni Creator, by Raniero Cantalamessa, p. 184

This dual nature of the Church—clearly evident in her beginnings as she both taught and worked signs and wonders—was also beautifully symbolized when the spark of what would become known as the “charismatic renewal” was lit at Duquesne University in 1967. There, several students had gathered at The Ark and Dover Retreat House. And before the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Spirit was unexpectedly poured out as at Pentecost upon a number of souls.

Within the next hour, God sovereignly drew many of the students into the chapel. Some were laughing, others crying. Some prayed in tongues, others (like me) felt a burning sensation coursing through their hands… It was the birth of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal! —Patti Gallagher-Mansfield, student eyewitness and participant,

Thus, Pope Benedict XVI—perhaps one of the greatest theologians in modern times—said:

The last century, sprinkled by sad pages of history, is at the same time full of wonderful testimonies of spiritual and charismatic awakening in every realm of human life… I hope the Holy Spirit will meet with an ever more fruitful reception in the hearts of believers and that the ‘culture of Pentecost’ will spread, so necessary in our time. —address to an International Congress, Zenit, September 29th, 2005


Q. I think it is important to emphasize that we should never ASK for these gifts. They are freely given by God to benefit others. There is a danger inherent in not understanding what you, yourself are saying. And there have been many usurpations by Satan to speak praises unto himself.

There is a difference between seeking spiritual gifts for their sake as opposed to asking for gifts, according to God’s will, for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus taught:

Ask and you will receive… how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. (Luke 11:9, 13)

What would please the Father more? To ask for money, clothing, and food or to ask for spiritual gifts that would build up the Body of Christ? Seek first the Kingdom, and all these things will be given besides. [3]cf. Matt 6:31 Here’s what St. Paul has to say:

Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. (1 Cor 12:30-31)

Of course, St. Paul encourages the charisms among a broader teaching on the gifts of the Spirit. Far from being fearful or timid about them, he rather sets them in the framework of wisdom and good order.

So, my brothers, strive eagerly to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues, but everything must be done properly and in order. (1 Cor 14:39)


Q. In the bible, those who spoke understood what they were saying, and those who heard understood what was said—even if the languages were different. The gift of tongues is understood by both the speaker and the hearer.

Some critics assert that speaking in tongues is always associated with a supernatural ability to speak rational, authentic foreign languages, and that the “babble” of modern-day tongues is merely that.

However, the biblical texts themselves demonstrate from the beginning that the gift of tongues was not always understood, either by the one speaking, or the listener.

Now, brothers, if I should come to you speaking in tongues, what good will I do you if I do not speak to you by way of revelation, or knowledge, or prophecy, or instruction? …Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray to be able to interpret. (1 Cor 14:6, 13)

Obviously, Paul is speaking in this instance of both the speaker and listener unable to understand what is being said. Hence, St. Paul lists interpretation of tongues as one of the gifts of the Spirit.

Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. (1 Cor 12:30-31)

If the gift of tongues is only valid when the one speaking has a “rational” and “authentic” foreign language, and the one listening can clearly understand… why is the gift of interpretation necessary? The obvious answer is that the manifestation of tongues on Pentecost was spoken and understood in that circumstance for that circumstance for some. But other instances of tongues in the early Church were understood by no one. St. Paul underscores the mystical and enigmatic character of these “human and angelic tongues”: [4]1 Cor 13:1

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… In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. (1 Cor 14:2; Rom 8:26)

While St. Paul clearly states that tongues are a sign to unbelievers, [5]cf. 1 Cor 14:22 the fact that the Spirit is praying through a person according to God’s will is also a grace for the believer. As St. Paul writes:

Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church. (1 Cor 14:4)

It is this individual aspect of tongues as a personal “prayer language” that some critics dismiss as being anti-biblical. But deferring again to the Church Fathers, St. John Chrysostom says that, while prophecy is greater, tongues in this instance “signifies it to have some advantage, small though it be, and such as to suffice the possessor only.” [6]Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:4; The Church Fathers consistently echoed Paul, teaching that the gifts were intended for the “edification of the Church”. This is all to say that tongues and the other charisms were a “normative” part of  Christianity well beyond the neonate Church. And they continue to be, according to the official teaching of the Church. Again:

Whatever their character—sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues—charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church.Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2003

I remember many years ago that my wife—back then a fairly typical, reserved cradle Catholic—was praying alone in her room. Suddenly her heart began to pound, and from deep within a new language poured forth. It was not contrived but totally unexpected—like at Pentecost. This had occurred several days after a “Life in the Spirit Seminar”, which is a catechetical preparation for the “laying on of hands” and “baptism in the Spirit,.”

We still do what the apostles did when they laid hands on the Samaritans and called down the Holy Spirit on them in the laying-on of hands. It is expected that converts should speak with new tongues. —St. Augustine of Hippo (source unknown)

However, it needs to be stated emphatically here that not having the gift of tongues should never be interpreted as “not having the Holy Spirit.” We are sealed with the Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation. But note that the Apostles received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, not only at Pentecost, but again and again. This instance occurred several days after Pentecost:

As they prayed, the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 4:31)

This is to say that the Holy Spirit can be released in new and powerful ways during the course of our lives, which is an awareness the charismatic movement brought again to the Church.

Finally, to someone unfamiliar with the gift of tongues, it sounds strange. The person may even sound “drunk”, as they said of the Apostles after Pentecost. [7]cf. Acts 2:12-15 St. Paul acknowledged this, adding some sound advice:

So if the whole church meets in one place and everyone speaks in tongues, and then uninstructed people or unbelievers should come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds? …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 Cor 14:23, 27-28)

Thus, we see both the personal and corporate aspects of speaking in tongues.

To be honest, I am far more concerned that the gifts of the Spirit are quenched today than I am concerned about deception or the “messiness” that always happens in movements of God. For we have Sacred Tradition always to guide and temper us. Indeed, the hyper-rationalism of our day that excludes the miraculous is one among many of the powerful genuine deceptions in our times that is eroding belief in God…



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1 cf. Charismatic? – Part VI
2 cf. 1 Cor 14:3, 12, 26
3 cf. Matt 6:31
4 1 Cor 13:1
5 cf. 1 Cor 14:22
6 Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:4;
7 cf. Acts 2:12-15