Speaking in tongues

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By Father Thom Hennen
Question Box

Q. What does it mean in the Acts of the Apostles when it says that the disciples at Pentecost “began to speak in different tongues?”

A. We will hear this passage Sunday (Acts 2:1-11). Often when we think of “speaking in tongues” our minds go to someone at a Pentecostal or Catholic charismatic prayer service speaking in an

Fr. Hennen

indecipherable language. If you have never heard this, it can be a little disturbing. I have to confess that I have never really understood it — not just the language, but the phenomenon itself. At the same time, I do not categorically deny the possibility of the Holy Spirit working in this way. But why? Especially if no one can understand it?

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St. Paul writes about different gifts of the Spirit and lists among them both “varieties of tongues” and “interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor 12:10). Later, he differentiates between the gift of tongues and the gift of prophesy: “One who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God … he utters mysteries in spirit” (1 Cor 14:2). He continues, “Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church. Now I should like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor 14:4-5). Therefore, even the gift of tongues (with interpretation) is meant for the building up of the Church.

In the passage from Acts it says they “were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues [emphasis mine], as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:4). People from different parts of the Mediterranean world heard these Galileans “speaking in [their] own native tongues of the mighty acts of God” (Acts 2:7-11). The gift of tongues, then, might not have been some otherworldly, angelic or mystical language, but the gift of being able to speak spontaneously in a variety of existing human languages. This too was for the building up and unity of the Church, and so there is a kind of undoing of Babel here (see Gen 11:1-9).

Again, I would not rule out the possibility of the Spirit granting people the gift of natural languages previously unknown to them. However, another interpretation of this passage might be that the disciples spoke in whatever language and the people nonetheless heard them in their native language. In this case, the gift of tongues may have actually been the gift of ears, the gift of understanding poured out on those listening to the preaching of the disciples that day.

I have to point out verse 13. It says, “But others said, scoffing, ‘They have had too much new wine.’” I can’t say as I blame them for thinking this, as I also tend to be skeptical about this sort of thing, but it is interesting that even in the apostles’ time people sought to rationalize away any possible spiritual explanation. My experience is that wine only helps my language skills up to a point.

What exactly happened that day we may never know. I am reminded, though, of the famous saying of the character Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Also, we should not ignore those more ordinary, but no less powerful gifts of the Spirit. The right use of any language to preach the Gospel for the building up and unity of the Church is surely a spiritual gift.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)


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1 thought on “Speaking in tongues

  1. My understanding of Acts 2:1-11 is those in attendance the Day of Pentecost heard the message in their native tongue, “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” ️

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