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Dear Catholic Exchange:
Could you shed some light on the phenomenon of speaking in tongues?
Peace of Christ!
The phenomena of speaking or praying in tongues are among the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts are referred to in 1 Corinthians 12:27-30. While not common in many Catholic churches, the charismatic gifts are recognized by the Church.
The Church teaches that “the moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” which “are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism, no. 1830). The seven gifts are “wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.” The Church teaches that these belong in their fullness to Jesus Christ, the God-man. For the rest of us, the gifts “complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations” (no. 1831). With regard to these traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit, they will always have relevance in the Church’s life, because each Christian receives them (nos. 1266, 1303).
Regarding the gifts noted in 1 Corinthians 12:27-30, some are ongoing offices, such as bishop, teachers, helpers and administrators. What have been referred to as charismatic gifts are, in descending order or importance, prophecy, miracle-working, healing, and speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues (Catechism, nos. 798-801, 1508). Through the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Church has seen a modern-day, revived interest in these charismatic gifts.
Specifically, the gifts of speaking in and interpreting tongues refers to people speaking in and understanding languages that they have never studied. This occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5-12).
In contrast, charismatic leaders describe praying in tongues as a gift received by most people open to it and which involves praying in unintelligible utterances strung together. Its scriptural foundation is less solid, since 1 Corinthians 14:14 describes praying in an actual tongue or foreign language (though unknown to the person receiving the gift), and because Romans 8:26, another common passage cited for support, is ambiguous. Unlike the other gifts, praying in tongues in this manner is difficult to authenticate in Scripture.
It’s certainly possible that God can continue to use people as miracle workers, healers, prophets and speakers in and interpreters of tongues. Both Pope John Paul II and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have expressed their support of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. In 1979, the pope characterized the Catholic Charismatic Renewal as “a sign of the Spirit’s action[,]…a very important component in the total renewal of the Church.”
In 1969, two years after the Renewal began, the US bishops “affirmed the good fruits of the Renewal.” In 1975, 1984 and 1997, the US bishops encouraged the efforts of the Charismatic Renewal while urging close collaboration with Church authorities (cf. Catechism, no. 801). For example, in 1997, the bishops “encourage[d] those in the Renewal…to continue in faithful cooperation with the mission and the vision of the local church in which they serve” (see Grace for the New Springtime, published by the Ad Hoc Committee for Catholic Renewal; call 1-800-235-8722 for the document’s availability).
Regarding the gifts of Pentecost or the Spirit, the Church makes proper distinctions. In the Catechism, the Church states “grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us” (Catechism, no. 2003). The Catechism goes on to say that graces are sacramental graces gifts proper to the Sacraments or special graces also called charisms, which in Greek refers to “gratuitous gifts.” These are the graces that the Church calls the extraordinary gifts of prophecy, tongues or others, but which are always at the service of sacramental grace and the common good of the Church. These gifts are at the service of charity, which St. Paul says builds up the Church (Catechism, nos. 79-801).
Should everyone speak in tongues or prophesy? St. Paul says that not all can be prophets or teachers or speak in tongues, but all persons must serve in charity for the common good, with the particular gift they have been given (1 Cor 12:31-13:1-13). This diversity among gifts given to the community also tells us that these gifts do not have to be uniform among all the faithful in order to be recognized as gifts. The gifts are given to us for the Body of Christ, the Church. Therefore, the Spirit gives the gifts according to the needs of the Body and according to the specific function of a Body part, that is, according to our responsibilities in the Christian life.
If we look at the charismatic gifts in this light, we see that the movement of the Spirit works within the Church according to His will and according to the cooperation of the faithful. The Charismatic Renewal itself does not originate from a necessity to inform the Universal Church of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and her cooperation with them, but from a need among her members to better understand what these gifts are. At the same time, the movement recalls the subordination of the charismatic gifts to those gifts given through the sacraments specifically, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, as expressed in Isaiah 11:2-3 and given to each Christian at Baptism and enlivened at Confirmation (Catechism, nos. 1266, 1303).
Speaking in tongues and also praying with hands raised have biblical foundations: for example, speaking in tongues is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:1-5, 1 Corinthians 12:10, and Acts 2; and raising hands in praise and worship in Psalms 28:2, 63:4, 134:2, 141:2.
No one should feel compelled to seek or display a particular gift or prayer style, but one should be open to the Holy Spirit.
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