HomeCommentaryOn Pentecost, Language, and Gift of Tongues

On Pentecost, Language, and Gift of Tongues

“America and England are two countries separated by a common language.” – George Bernard Shaw

This is a late post on Pentecost Sunday. It is not a homily but some random thoughts on the function of language with the Pentecost story as the starting point.

The story of the descent of the Spirit upon the disciples can be a source of confusion, specifically that part where the disciples received the gift of tongues. The account says that they “began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance,” (Acts 2:4). But a few verses later, the account refers not to the gift of tongues but to the gift of ears: “Are not all of these speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2: 7-8). If the verses 7-8 were separated from verse 4, we can imagine the Galilean disciples talking in their own language (most probably Aramaic) but the Parthians, Medians, Elamites, and Mesopotamians could hear them in their own languages.

Is it the gift of tongues or the gift of ears? Reflecting on this story further, I now think we are not made to choose between the two. It is possible that Luke was saying that the gift was given both to the speakers and to the listeners.

This brings me to the point about language. For communication to be possible, there has to be a shared language between the speaker and the listener. To illustrate, one may be reading a beautiful poem in French, but if no one in the audience can understand French, then no communication is taking place.

The same is true of Latin. In the past, it was said that Catholics could be anywhere in the world, but the prayers are always understood for they are always in Latin. But believe it or not, there were some important figures in the past (and certainly even today) who asserted that Church prayers should be in Latin for the sense of mystery is heightened if one does not understand the language.

Francois Rene de Chateaubriand wrote about Latin and ordinary people: “The charm of the prayer lies in its vagueness, for his troubled soul, which hardly knows what it desires, loves to form wishes as mysterious as its needs.” Dom Prosper Gueranger, an important figure in the modern liturgical movement also expressed the view that liturgical language is in its nature “mysterious, so it ought not to be vulgar.” He adds that not only should prayers be said in Latin but it is also desirable that priests murmur it in low tones so that the laity would not be distracted from its awe. (The source of the quotes is “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis by Garry Wills)

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One can see from these quotes not only the high regard for the Latin language but also the corresponding (maybe unconscious) condescending look at the laity. The idea is that it would be better for the people in the pews to hear prayers in a language that they could not comprehend so that they could relate to the mysterious God more deeply. But can people get to heaven faster if they say “Credo in unum Deum,” instead of “I believe in one God”?

The use of the Latin language in prayer, in principle, cannot contribute to the idea that clergy and laity listen to each other and that they travel together towards the Kingdom of God. It does the opposite: it leads to further division between those who claim to understand the language and those who are led to passive participation in the liturgy. In the quote with which I started this post, the English language is humorously seen as the cause of division since Britons believe that the Queen’s language has been colloquialized by the Americans. In a different sense, Latin has become a manifestation of the division between the clergy and the laity.

Thus, on my part, unless the master of ceremonies or the sacristan hands me a copy of a prayer in Latin, I always pray in the vernacular. But my students should not get me wrong. It is good for students of Catholic theology to have a basic knowledge of Latin, so much the better if it is beyond the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, and the memorization of Cicero’s “Quo usque tandem abutere Catilina patientia nostra”. After all, there are times when we need to go back to church documents or the writings of some fathers of the Church in its original language. But Latin should not highlight the exclusivity of the priestly caste.

The point I stressed above should also apply to movements that induce people to speak in tongues. Of what use is it if nobody can understand outside of the speaker? St. Paul already warns that if he does not understand what is spoken, “I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me” (ICor. 14:11).

People who speak in tongues to people who cannot understand can be neo-Gnostics. With the admission that I may be inevitably oversimplifying, let me briefly explain what Gnosticism was in the early Church. Gnostics believed that they had special knowledge not possessed by the rest of the people. This knowledge enabled them to figure out how to speak about or even to the Deity.

In the end, while St. Paul acknowledges that speaking in tongues can be a legitimate religious experience, he considers prophesying more relevant to the building up of a community of believers: “He who speaks in tongues edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the Church,” (ICor. 14:4).

It is better to prophesy for what is right rather than consider ourselves different by speaking esoteric languages.

Fr. Ramon D. Echica is the Dean of Studies of the San Carlos Major Seminary. He obtained his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in 1998.

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