Questions and Responses
Doctrinal Commission – International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services
To answer this question, let me first emphasise that there is no specific Catholic teaching on how to use the gift of tongues. The brief references to tongues in Church teaching simply affirm that tongues is one of the charisms given by the Spirit and that all charisms are intended for the common good of the Church (see the Catechism, par. 2003). Thus to discern pastoral guidelines for the proper use of tongues, one must turn to the teaching of St Paul in 1 Cor 12-14, along with common sense and the practical wisdom that comes from experience.
Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians implies that there are two different forms of the gift of tongues. The distinction between the two is sometimes described as “praying in tongues” and “speaking in tongues.”
“Praying in tongues” is the gift of tongues as a prayer language, an overflowing prayer and praise of the heart that is expressed aloud but not with rational sounds. “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor 14:2). This gift is something very close to contemplative prayer. Paul notes that it is valuable for a person’s own spiritual growth (1 Cor 14:4), and he indicates that this form of tongues is available to all (1 Cor 14:5). This form of tongues is very common in the Charismatic Renewal today, and several of the saints also seem to have had it, including Augustine, Bernard, Teresa of Avila and John Vianney. St Teresa wrote, “Our Lord sometimes gives the soul feelings of jubilation and a strange prayer it doesn’t understand… It seems like gibberish and certainly the experience is like that, for it is a joy so excessive that the soul wouldn’t want to enjoy it alone but wants to tell everyone about it so that they might help this soul praise our Lord” (Interior Castle, VI.6.10). It should also be noted that there are many recorded cases of miraculous tongues, where the speaker spoke a language unknown to himself but known to a listener.
“Speaking in tongues” is tongues in the form of a public message spoken to the assembly, a less common gift. In this case, Paul instructs that the message in tongues must be followed by an interpretation. Otherwise it is meaningless to people and has no capacity to edify them. When a message in tongues is followed by an interpretation, it is actually a form of the gift of prophecy. Paul emphasises the superiority of prophecy because of its capacity to strengthen, encourage, and console the members of the body of Christ. “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified” (1 Cor 14:4-5; see 14:28).
The disorder that Paul corrects is evidently a disordered use of this second form of the gift of tongues. What seemstohaveoccurredinCorinthisthatpeoplewerespeakingmessagesintonguesoutloudwithoutrespect for proper order or for another person who was already speaking. This is why Paul instructs them, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (1 Cor 14:29-31).
This brings us to the question, can people pray in tongues all at the same time? While we cannot know with certainty what occurred in the Corinthian gatherings 2000 years ago, contemporary charismatic experience does seem to correspond in many ways with what Paul describes. We know from contemporary experience that when many people pray or sing in tongues together (the first use of tongues described above), there is a deep harmony brought by the Spirit. Sometimes there is a remarkable harmony in the musical tones; but more importantly, there is a spiritual unity brought about by worshiping the Lord in one accord. Each person is praising God in a different tongue, but the tongues all blend together in unity. This is the opposite of the discord Paul describes when the gift of speaking in tongues is used improperly—that is, when several people are trying to get attention for a message in tongues at the same time.
Paul reminds us that the ultimate standard for the use of tongues and of all charismatic gifts is love. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Love is the motivation and goal that gives the gifts their value. If we are faithful to Paul’s counsel, both praying and speaking in tongues will glorify God and contribute to the upbuilding of the Church in love.