Questions and Responses
Doctrinal Commission – International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services
The Doctrinal Commission has received several inquiries in response to a column published by the Zenit news service on August 24, concerning whether it is permissible to speak in tongues at Mass. The author of the column, Fr. Edward McNamara, LC, cited a 1994 document of the Brazilian bishops’ conference and concluded that “it is not in conformity with the authentic charism of the Catholic Charismatic renewal to speak in tongues during Mass.” However, the Brazilian bishops’ document does not support this conclusion. We would like to clarify this matter to dispel any confusion it may have caused among members of the CCR.
The Brazilian bishops’ document was intended to address specific pastoral situations in Brazil and does not apply to the universal Church, although it does contain some helpful guidelines. As Fr. McNamara notes, the document draws a distinction between “praying in tongues” (prayer addressed to God) and “speaking in tongues” (a message addressed to the assembly). However, he overlooks the relevance of this distinction for the question at hand. His conclusion refers to “speaking in tongues” during Mass without noting that what normally takes place at charismatic liturgies is “praying in tongues.” The bishops do not say that praying in tongues should not take place at Mass, only that leaders should not specifically call for it. Nor do they prohibit “speaking in tongues”; they only say that it should not take place unless there is also an interpreter.
In considering the proper use of the gift of tongues, it is important to reflect on the teaching of St. Paul. Paul speaks about tongues in 1Corinthians in the context of instructions on the church’s liturgical assemblies (1Cor 11-14). He describes tongues as a form of prayer under the influence of the Holy Spirit; it is praying or singing “with the spirit” (1 Cor 14:15). In saying that the tongue-speaker “utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor 14:2), Paul indicates that tongues is pre-conceptual, pre-verbal prayer — a prayer of the heart that expresses God’s praise aloud but without words. Paul corrects certain abuses in Corinth in which tongues was being overemphasized to the detriment of prophecy and other gifts that have a greater capacity to build up the body of Christ (1 Cor 14:1-17). Nevertheless, he says, “I want you all to speak in tongues” and “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all” (14:5, 18). Elsewhere Paul warns Christians, “Do not quench the Spirit… but test everything, hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes 5:19-21). And he specifically admonishes, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39).
The writings of the Church Fathers also help illuminate this question. Many Fathers refer to jubilation (jubilatio), a form of praying and singing aloud without words. Their descriptions of jubilatio are remarkably similar to our experience of praying or singing in tongues today. St. Augustine explains: “One who jubilates does not utter words, but a certain sound of joy without words: for it is the voice of the soul poured forth in joy, expressing, as far as possible, what it feels without reflecting on the meaning. Rejoicing in exultation, a man uses words that cannot be spoken and understood, but he simply lets his joy burst forth without words; his voice then appears to express a happiness so intense
that he cannot explain it” (En. in Ps., 99.4). Augustine does not merely allow but urges his congregation to jubilate: “Rejoice and speak. If you cannot express your joy, jubilate: jubilation expresses your joy if you cannot speak. Let not your joy be silent” (ibid., 97.4). St. Gregory the Great adds, “But we call it jubilus, when we conceive such joy in the heart as we cannot give vent to by the force of words, and yet the triumph of the heart vents with the voice what it cannot give forth by speech. Now the mouth is rightly said to be filled with laughter, the lips with jubilation, since in that eternal land, when the mind of the righteous is borne away in transport, the tongue is lifted up in the song of praise” (Moralia, 8.89; cf. 28.35). Numerous other Fathers write in similar way. What more fitting occasion could there be for such joy overflowing into wordless praise than at those moments of the liturgy where there is room for a response of song or praise, such as at the alleluia or after communion? In fact, jubilation with improvised melodies was an ordinary part of the liturgy for centuries, and had a significant influence on the development of medieval church music.
This background helps us recognize that tongues is not something “external” introduced into the liturgy; rather, it is a way of singing or praying under the leading of the Spirit. Certainly there can be and sometimes are abuses of the gift of tongues at Mass. But tongues itself is a work of the Spirit, a gift that leads us into more fervent worship, deeper surrender and more intimate communion with the Lord. Countless people in the CCR can testify that this is the case.
It is also important to keep in mind that the popes from the earliest years of the CCR, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI, have strongly supported and encouraged the Renewal as a movement in the Church. On several occasions the popes have celebrated Masses with CCR groups in which there was singing and praying in tongues. Many bishops’ conferences have also issued statements affirming the CCR and the spiritual renewal it has brought to millions of the faithful. Readers interested in finding out more about papal statements on the CCR may consult the ICCRS book “Then Peter stood up…” Collections of the Popes’ Addresses to the CCR from its Origin to the Year 2000. Bishops’ statements with specific guidelines should be read in light of these addresses.
Members of the CCR in every country are encouraged to maintain good relationships with their local church and to follow faithfully any guidelines given by their bishops.