In the beginning

Column: What is the purpose of speaking in tongues?

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Most Catholics, except those in the charismatic movement, associate speaking in tongues with certain Protestant sects, along with handling rattlesnakes, rolling around on the floor and other bizarre behavior.

At the same time, St. Paul makes it clear in his writings that the phenomenon of speaking in tongues existed in some of the early Christian communities. He writes at length about speaking in tongues in 1 Cor 12.

When someone speaks in tongues, it will sound like unintelligible gibberish to others. Even the person himself or herself will not understand what is being said. It seems as though an outside force has taken over the person and is using that person as a means to communicate. But if no one can understand the communication, then who is the person speaking to?

We find the answer to that question in Sunday’s second reading, Rom 8:26- 27. According to St. Paul, it is the Holy Spirit who is speaking in unintelligible speech. “The Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” And if no human being understands what the Spirit is saying, it really doesn’t matter, because it is God (the Father) who is being addressed. The Holy Spirit is praying on our behalf. “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Not only do we not know how to pray as we ought, we do not even know what to pray for. But God does.

And so does the Spirit, even before the Spirit utters it in prayer, because the Spirit prays according to God’s will: “And the one who searches hearts [God] knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because he [the Spirit] intercedes for the holy ones [us] according to God’s will.”

We might wonder, if God already knows what is being prayed for why bother to pray? Similarly, if what is being prayed for already is according to God’s will, what does it matter, that we pray? But isn’t that what we pray for, when we say the Our Father: “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

It turns out, that the purpose of prayer is not so much as to change God’s mind, as it is to enter into his will. When we allow the Spirit to pray through us, we are immersing ourselves in the communication between the Spirit and God (the Father), the communication that goes on among the members of the Holy Trinity.

Most Catholics, except those involved in the charismatic movement, are not familiar with praying in tongues. They do not think in terms of praying in the Spirit. At the same time, the traditional formula for the collect, or opening prayer of the Mass, tells us that we pray to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit. In other words, we address our prayer to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, and motivated by the Holy Spirit. We always pray with the Holy Spirit, even if we are not praying in tongues. The presence of the Holy Spirit in us makes our prayer effective and fruitful.

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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