Why Do Catholics Believe in 'Speaking in Tongues'?*


"Speaking in tongues" is a special grace (or charism) given by the Holy Spirit that allows a believer to speak in a language not learned by natural means. Jesus speaks of this gift as one of the "signs" that "will accompany those who believe" (Mk 16:17). On the day of Pentecost, the apostles speak in tongues, as do other new believers on several occasions (see Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6). St. Paul lists "varieties of tongues" among the "manifestations of the Spirit," along with the "interpretation of tongues" (see 1 Cor 12:4-11, 28).


Other scriptural passages may also refer to tongues, though the connection is uncertain. For example, Romans tells how, when "we do not know how to pray as we ought,... the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings" (8:26).


St Paul is the biblical writer with the most to say about tongues. He notes that not everyone speaks in tongues (see 1 Cor 12:30), and that tongues will one day cease (see 1 Cor 13:8). They are a gift less valuable than the gift of prophecy, and they have no value at all unless grounded in the virtue of love (see 1 Cor 14:5; 13:1). Yet the apostle thanks God that he speaks in tongues more than others, and he values the gift enough to wish that everyone had it (see 1 Cor 14:5, 18).


Several kinds of related phenomena seem to fall into the category of speaking in tongues. The tongues spoken by the apostles on Pentecost, for example, appear to have been common human languages they had not learned, which were understood by listeners who were familiar with these languages through natural experience (see Acts 2:5-12). On the other hand, in the church at Corinth believers spoke in utterances unintelligible to both speaker and listeners. the words spoken did not "build up" the listeners spiritually unless someone prayed for a gift of interpretation so that their meaning could be understood and announced (see 1 Cor 14:6-19).


Yet even uninterpreted tongues, St. Paul notes, have value for the one speaking. They are a form of prayer, an uttering of "mysteries in spirit," that build up the one praying (see 1 Cor 14:2).


The Catholic Church affirms that the Spirit still bestows the grace of tongues as he wills. Some of her most illustrious saints, such as St. Anthony of Padua, are reported to have practiced the gift when preaching.


Other related scriptures: Lk 11:13; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:7-16; Heb 2:4. 

Catechism of the Catholic Church: 688, 731; 797-801; 809, 951, 1287, 2003, 2024.


*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com


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