What is the gift of tongues?

Author: Alice Hall

What is the gift of tongues?

Alice Hall explains the charismatic gift of tongues and what the Catholic Church has to say about it.

“Whenever the Spirit intervenes, He leaves people astonished.” So said St. Pope John Paul II to those gathered in St. Peter's Square on Pentecost 1998.

There seems to be nothing more astonishing, or fascinating, to people than the idea of speaking in 'tongues' – speaking a language that we have never had to actually learn, be it a language of this world or the language of “angels”, as St. Paul calls it (1 Cor 13:1).

I once shared with a Muslim friend that I could speak in an 'unknown' language that God's Spirit speaks through me, and he was totally thrown.

It is of course first and foremost a gift...not something we learn and pretty difficult to 'make up'! St. Paul says we are to earnestly desire the gifts of the Holy Spirit; alone in your room, or in a prayer meeting, the gift of tongues is a gift you can easily ask God for and be ready to receive.

Practically, to speak in tongues you need to be opening you mouth (He can't speak through you with your mouth closed!) so pray for the gift and in faith pray aloud, or praise God in some way and ask for the Lord to pray through you.

Alternatively, ask a friend who has the gift to pray for you. When I first prayed for this gift as a teenager, I remember saying 'Hallelujah' a lot over and over again in my bedroom, but it actually came naturally when I was praying over a friend of mine a few days later.

Perhaps this is a reminder that, as it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC paragraph 768), the gifts of the Spirit are to help us fulfill our mission from Jesus to build God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Praying in tongues

For most Christians, the gift of tongues is primarily a gift for prayer. When we pray in tongues, the Holy Spirit speaks directly to God through us, even if we ourselves don't understand what we are saying.

It can be used for private prayer or together with others who are also praying in this way. During times of praise, for example, a group may sing together in tongues, which is a beautiful way to glorify God and often results in a communal sense of joy and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I asked a friend how she would describe the gift of tongues and she said 'it's your soul speaking directly to God' – in other words effortless prayer! Isn't that appealing?

The Spirit speaks through us – sharing our heart with God's heart. The gift of tongues is not experienced as something that 'takes you over' – we are always in control of its use - but the “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” (1 Cor 14:2).

For someone who is seeking more of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and more of the gifts of the Spirit, the gift of tongues is sometimes called the first of the gifts (even though, according to St. Paul in 1 Cor 14, it is less important than other gifts such as prophecy) and can be considered as a 'gateway' to the other gifts and life in the Spirit.

In my experience the personal and intellectual 'surrender' of our minds needed to allow God to speak through us in this way is something that teaches us to become docile to the Spirit and receptive to His gifts in general.

Speaking in tongues

As with all the gifts of the Spirit, these graces (or charisms), as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, are for evangelisation – the sharing of the faith.

This is obvious in the case of speaking in tongues (as opposed to praying in tongues); for example, one friend at university was enabled by the Holy Spirit to speak to a group of French students, even though he knew no French. He was not only able to help them but also to share his faith with these young people.

I've also heard of a man who went to a synagogue and started praying along in tongues and heard later from his neighbour in the service that he had been praying fluently in Hebrew.

The most obvious example of speaking in tongues was at the very first Pentecost in Acts 2:4-11, where the disciples shared the gospel and all the people present heard “telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God!”

Whether to demonstrate God's existence through 'astonishing' the hearer, or simply by enabling a person to be able to hear God's word in their own language, it is an obvious gift for evangelisation.

At times in public worship a person might 'prophesy' in tongues. On these occasions, the group should pray for an interpretation of what has been said in order that the group is able to hear God's word. The interpretation of tongues is another gift that the Spirit gives.

What the Church says about it

The gift of tongues is one of the 'supernatural' gifts of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul writes about to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 12, 13 and 14), speaking of “the tongues of men and of angels” (1 Cor 13:1).

St. Paul says he wants us “all to speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14:5), although he earlier recognises that not all believers do so (1 Cor 12:30).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the gift of tongues is one of the special graces or “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.” (CCC paragraph 2003)

Showing his support for Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Pope Francis in May 2014 knelt down in front of nearly 52,000 charismatic Catholics in Rome’s Olympic Stadium as they prayed for him in tongues.

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