Reading in the Book of Acts about the events of Pentecost, three physical things accentuate the spiritual. In fact, without them, the coming of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles would be impossible to imagine, being, as we are, creatures of sense: mighty wind, tongues of fire, and speaking miraculously in foreign languages.
Today, speaking in “tongues” is a side show of charismatic gatherings, a feature resurrected by the Pentecostals from the second century Montanist heretics. Their mumbling jibberish, needless to say to our readers, has nothing to do with the charism manifested at Pentecost and which Saint Paul counts among the least of graces (charismata) that were given certain members of the Church for the edification and building of the living body of Christ.
“To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom: and to another, the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; To another, faith in the same spirit; to another, the grace of healing in one Spirit; To another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy; to another, the discerning of spirits; to another, diverse kinds of tongues; to another, interpretation of speeches” (1 Cor. 12: 8-10).
Speaking in Tongues Languages
Glossolalia, as it is called theologically from the Greek word for language, glossa, ought rather to be rendered in English as “speaking in languages.” For the companion charism of “interpretation of speeches” could not have been given to one if the speaker had not been speaking or praying in a language. Saint Paul admonished the Corinthians for paying more heed to this manifestation of “tongues” than the other charisms which edified the whole Church: “[H]e that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself, he that prophesieth, edifieth the church. And I would have you all to speak with tongues, but rather to prophesy. For greater is he that prophesieth, than he that speaketh with tongues: unless perhaps he interpret, that the church may receive edification” (1 Cor. 14: 4-5).
What happened at Pentecost, however, was first and foremost, the interior elevation of the Apostles from fearful men, already reborn in Christ’s grace to be sure, and incorporated in His Body through the Eucharist, into confident sons of God imbued with the fortifying power of the Holy Spirit and His seven gifts. They who had put on Christ in baptism were now confirmed in the Spirit of Christ, who, in an instant, transformed timid and uncertain witnesses into the fullness of Him who is the “Lion of Juda.”
Two Kinds of Grace
Grace can be divided into two types, both depending on God. In the first type, the grace sanctifies the recipient, increasing the supernatural grace already enlivening the soul, or infusing the soul with divine life if the soul is dead. This sanctifying race is called in Latin gratia gratum faciens, literally “grace making gracious” or “grace making pleasing” to God. The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord, are special graces, direct divine impulses from the Holy Ghost, that make the recipient holier. They are gratia gratum faciens. The nine charismata of the Holy Ghost, which Saint Paul speaks of in First Corinthians, are given to a member of the Church for the benefit of others, either to strengthen co-members of the Body of Christ, or to draw those to Faith who are outside the Church. They do not sanctify the recipient but are for the pious edification or even the further sanctification of others. They are gratia gratis data, “graces freely given.”
Three of the charismata have to do with understanding the faith (faith, wisdom, and knowledge), four with confirming the faith (miracles of healing, miracles of power, prophecy, discernment of spirits) and two with proclaiming the faith (gift of tongues, interpretation of tongues).
Prior to Our Lord’s Ascension He instructed His Apostles to remain in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Ghost with whom they were to be baptized not many days hence. (Acts 1:5) Then, as He was about to ascend into heaven from Mount Olivet, He parted with these words: “[Y]ou shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Pentecost and the Tongues of Angels
Indeed this was fulfilled literally ten days later on the feast of Pentecost when “Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven” were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast that marked the closing festival of the harvest, fifty days after the Passover. Hence we have the Greek word, Pentecost, which means fifty, with the New Testament fulfilling the Old and the birthday of the Church superceding the joyful festival of the closing of the harvest and the end of the Passover season. Filled with the Holy Ghost, Saint Peter would address this crowd of Jews in his own language, or perhaps in Greek, from the porch of the Upper Room. The Prince of the Apostles did not speak in a tongue unknown to him, but his words were understood by Jews in the language in which they were born, “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews also, and proselytes, Cretes, and Arabians: we have heard them speak in our own tongues the wonderful works of God. And they were all astonished, and wondered, saying one to another: What meaneth this?” (Acts 2: 9-12)
What drew this crowd to the house where the Apostles had been praying? Did they hear the “mighty Wind”? Scripture does not say that they did. Did they see “fire” descend upon the house? No, they did not see the “tongues of fire.” What drew them then? Very simply, the word of what had taken place in the Upper Room. “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Saint Luke tells us that there were about one hundred and twenty disciples, including Mary and the holy women, praying and persevering in one mind in the home of the parents of John Mark after the Ascension. If all of these were still there in that house at Pentecost, then these disciples are the ones who spread the word around the city about what had just happened, and what was happening. So, the crowd came to see for themselves.
Most of these devout Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the annual festivity were simple hard- working people and farmers. They had not been in the city for the Passover, so the execution of Jesus of Nazareth and the report of His resurrection was fresh news. The festival of the first fruits was a great time for them, a time to thank God and rejoice and pray for blessings in the lands where they were dispersed. But also, with the crowd, came native Jerusalemites and, perhaps too, scribes and pharisees.
A new Peter emerged. Lifting up his voice he addressed the crowd with the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and fortitude:
“Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you, by miracles, and wonders, and signs, which God did by him, in the midst of you, as you also know: This same being delivered up, by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you by the hands of wicked men have crucified and slain. Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that he should be holden by it. For David saith concerning him: I foresaw the Lord before my face: because he is at my right hand, that I may not be moved” (Acts 2: 22-25).
The Apostle spoke of Christ’s divinity, His propitiatory death, His resurrection and ascension using the prophets and the witness of many of the Jews to whom he was speaking to verify all these truths. Then he concluded:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know most certainly, that God hath made both Lord and Christ, this same Jesus, whom you have crucified.” Hearing Peter’s words these Jews had compunction in their hearts and they asked the Apostles, “What then shall we do?” And Peter answered: “Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are far off, whomsoever the Lord our God shall call.” Saint Luke continues “And with very many other words did he testify and exhort them, saying: Save yourselves from this perverse generation. They therefore that received his word, were baptized; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2: 36-41).
This, then, was the first manifestation of the “gift of languages,” and a peculiar one in that Saint Peter did not speak in a foreign tongue. No, this miracle was far greater than what is commonly understood as glossolalia. It was the work of the angels. As Peter spoke the angels must have taken his voice and created new sound waves that fit the understanding ears of people of many different tongues. It was the reverse of what happened at the Tower of Babel. In fact, this is what I think Saint Paul meant when he extolled the supremacy of the virtue of charity over the gift of tongues: “If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1). Angels do not have tongues, but they know all human languages, and can infuse that knowledge whenever God wills it into the mind of a true believer in Christ. (Angels, in a sense, have their own invisible language, but it is not one of visible or audible signs; it is a spiritual communication, intellect to intellect, by means of intellectual concepts.)
You may be wondering about the case of the gentile Cornelius and his family, which is recounted in the tenth chapter of Acts, for the gift of language was given in a different manner here. While Saint Peter was preaching a summation of the gospel of Christ to this believing gentile, his family, and invited friends, behold “the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word. And the faithful of the circumcision, who came with Peter, were astonished, for that the grace of the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they heard them speaking with tongues, and magnifying God. Then Peter answered: Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost, as well as we?” (vss. 44-47)
Cornelius and His Household Receive the Holy Ghost
Cornelius was a Roman centurion who, while serving in Palestine, embraced the true Faith of the Jews. He was a God-fearing man, as was his family, praying much and giving generous alms to the poor. I need not recount the whole story of his being visited by an angel who told him to send for Peter who would come to instruct him. It is the miracle of tongues that I will say a word about.
Cornelius’ mother tongue was Latin. While Peter was speaking the Holy Ghost poured out His grace upon these believing gentiles. Peter and his companions were astonished because these gentiles received the same Spirit that the Apostles had received. There was no wind or tongues of fire, but there was the sign of a kind of ecstasy and “speaking in tongues” in praise of God. What language, or languages, were they speaking? The scripture doesn’t tell us. We can surmise that Peter and the Jews with him understood what they were saying, or someone did, because it is written that they were “magnifying God.” A language, foreign to the Romans, was being spoken by the Romans. And, to Peter’s edification, their praise was understood. And so, the household of Cornelius was baptized in Christ.
The Passing Away of the Gift of Languages as a Sign of the Coming of the Holy Ghost
In the early post apostolic times these charismata of the Holy Ghost were still operative. Many fathers testify to it, but it was not so common a thing as it was while the Apostles lived. No one was being cured by the passing shadow of saints like Polycarp, Justin, Ignatius, or Irenaeus. But there certainly were miracles, and prophecies, and temporarily infused intellectual and spiritual gifts, and even “tongues” in some instances. Other signs, mentioned by Our Lord that would follow those who embraced the Faith, had long passed — such as immunity from poison: “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name they shall cast out devils: they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17).
By the fourth and fifth century, however, Saint Augustine asserts that the “gift of languages” was given for a time, so that all nations would hear the gospel before the death of the Apostles and eye-witnesses, but that its time had passed away.
“In the earliest times, ‘the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,’ which they had not learned, ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away. In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when he laid the hand on infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so strong-minded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times? If then the witness of the presence of the Holy Ghost be not given through these miracles, by what is it given, by what does one get to know that he has received the Holy Ghost? Let him question his own heart. If he love his brother, the Spirit of God dwelleth in him.” Homilies on the Gospel of John 6:10, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [7:497-98]
Saint Thomas Aquinas quotes Augustine in order to prove the same point in his Summa Theologica: “And therefore, as Augustine says (Tract. xxxii in Joan.), ‘whereas even now the Holy Ghost is received, yet no one speaks in the tongues of all nations, because the Church herself already speaks the languages of all nations: since whoever is not in the Church, receives not the Holy Ghost.'” (II,II, Q. 176).
Extraordinary Miracles of Languages
This is not to say that the gift of speaking an unknown language was never given at all by the Holy Ghost after apostolic times. It certainly was. But the gift was given to holy missionaries or saints who bi-located to teach foreigners or hear a confession in an unknown language. And bi-location is a far greater miracle in itself than speaking in an unknown language. Saint Padre Pio, who would only hear confessions in Italian at his monastery, bi-located to teach a little boy in England who was to be taken soon to heaven. He was also seen at least once hearing confessions in Saint Peters. Blessed Maria D’Agreda affirmed that she was bi-located to teach a virtuous tribe of Indians in what was then Mexico. There are many such stories.
The greatest account of this miracle that I have ever read is found in the Jesuit records of Saint Francis Xavier. The one that I will mention now was given as a testimony at the hearings for his canonization. In one of his missionary tours around the Fishery coast of southern India, the saint was accosted by a huge crowd of people who had gathered from far and near to hear his word. They were drawn by the reports of his stupendous miracles, which included raisings from the dead. Xavier did not know the Tamil language of these Indians, which was different than the Goans on the west coast, so he had an interpreter with him helping him to learn and be understood. As he spoke he was given a fluency such that the natives thought he had been raised in the language. But there is more to the miracle. People from further north on the east coast had also heard about the miracle-worker. These people were familiar with Christianity because Saint Thomas the Apostle had reached that area and his tomb was still venerated further north in Meliapur where there was the Syro-Malabar Catholic community of Saint Thomas. These east coast Indians also perfectly understood the preaching of the saint. And that’s not all! There were as many questions in the minds of his listeners as there were listeners. Lo and behold, each person who had doubts or questions heard the answers to their questions in their own language, even though the Jesuit missioner was not addressing those questions in his discourse. Now that is a miracle! And it is unique to Francis Xavier. We know that angels do not preach, but they can move a preacher to go here or there, as they did with Saint Paul in his vision of the man from Macedonia. And, as we see with Saint Francis Xavier, the angels can do wonders with the air waves so long as they have a human voice to manipulate.
Nevertheless, it was a rare thing when Saint Francis Xavier received this gift. Usually he had to learn the basic rudiments of a language and make himself understood in the simplest of terms. In Japan, for instance, he relied almost totally on his companion, a Jesuit brother who had learned the language with far greater ease than the saint. In fact, Xavier would credit this brother, I have forgotten his name, with founding the Church in Japan.
I have a friend who is a very involved Pentecostal. He told me once that occasionally he speaks in tongues. When he told me this, I replied, “And what do you say?” He said, “I don’t know, it is the spirit speaking through me.” So, I said, “Well, what does the spirit say?” He said, “I don’t know, no one understands the tongues.” I couldn’t help myself, so I asked him if he could ask the spirit to say a few words right then and there, maybe I could recognize the language. He wasn’t biting. All I can do is pray for the poor man.
What an inestimable blessing to be a Catholic and a member of the one true Church that speaks all languages!
Let us join Our Lady and the Apostles, “persevering with one mind in prayer,” that we, too, may receive “the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon [us]” this Sunday at Mass, and may He abide in us that we may be abide in Christ.