Speaking in Tongues at Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Speaking in Tongues at Mass

ROME, 24 AUG. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is allowed for regarding the (so-called) "speaking in tongues" during a Charismatic Mass? And what exactly is an acceptable type of such Mass? Recently, I attended a Mass where the priest added his own prayers during the elevation of the Eucharist (having said the formal prayers of consecration) and, with those present (who were, excluding myself, members of the parish charismatic prayer group), prayed in tongues during the Eucharistic Prayer and at other moments of the Mass. There were various other obvious illicit moments during the Mass and perhaps afterward as well (e.g., layperson anointing with some type of oil), but I'm particularly curious about the "tongues." As far as I can deduce, this is not allowed, but it's exceedingly difficult to find anything to the contrary aside from mere opinions. — P.H., Limerick, Ireland

A: There are practically no universal guidelines on this subject, except of course the general norms that prohibit adding anything whatsoever to officially prescribed texts.

Although some individual bishops have published norms for their dioceses, as far as I know the most complete treatment of this subject is that published by the Brazilian bishops' conference. The document, "Pastoral Orientation Regarding the Catholic Charismatic Renewal," was issued in November 1994. It can be accessed in the Portuguese original at the bishops' Web site: www.cnbb.com.br.

It must be noted that the Brazilian bishops have a generally positive view of the Charismatic Renewal, and a significant number participate in charismatic Masses. The renewal is considered as being especially attuned and appealing to a wide swath of Brazilian society and is credited as helping to stem the hemorrhaging of Catholics toward Pentecostal sects.

Therefore, the norms issued by the bishops should be seen as genuine orientations to help the Catholic Charismatic Renewal achieve its full potential as an integral portion of the wider Catholic community. They should not be seen as condemnation of aberrations and abuses.

In dealing with liturgy (Nos. 38-44), the bishops' document recommends that the members of the renewal receive an adequate liturgical formation. It reminds them that the liturgy is governed by precise rules and nothing external should be introduced (No. 40). No. 41 has precise indications:

"In the celebration of Holy Mass the words of the institution must not be stressed in an inadequate fashion. Nor must the Eucharistic Prayer be interrupted by moments of praise for Christ's Eucharistic presence by means of applause, cheers, processions, hymns of Eucharistic praise or any other manifestations that exalt in this way the Real Presence and end up emptying out the various dimensions of the Eucharistic celebration."

In No. 42 the bishops indicate that music and gestures should be appropriate to the moment of the celebration and follow the liturgical norms. A clear distinction should be made between liturgical hymns and other religious songs that are reserved to prayer meetings. Hymns should preferably be chosen from an official repertoire of liturgical songs.

Finally, the bishops say that Charismatic Renewal meetings should not be scheduled to coincide with regular Masses and other gatherings of the whole ecclesial community.

When referring to speaking in tongues (No. 62), the document offers the following clarifications:

"Speaking or praying in tongues: The object or destination of praying in tongues is God himself, being the attitude of a person absorbed in a particular conversation with God. The object or destination of speaking in tongues is the community. The Apostle Paul teaches, 'When I am in the presence of the community I would rather say five words that mean something than ten thousand words in a tongue' (1 Corinthians 14:19). Since in practice it is difficult to distinguish between the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and the instigations of the group leader, there should never be a call encouraging praying in tongues, and speaking in tongues should not take place unless there is also an interpreter."

I think that these wise counsels and norms from the Brazilian bishops show that it is not in conformity with the authentic charism of the Catholic Charismatic renewal to speak in tongues during Mass.

* * *

Follow-up: Speaking in Tongues at Mass [9-7-2010]

After our mention of the norms of the Brazilian bishops' conference on speaking and praying in tongues during Mass (see Aug. 24), a reader from Indiana wrote:

"In 1975, at the International Conference on the Charismatic Renewal held in Rome, Pope Paul VI allowed Cardinal Suenens to concelebrate a charismatic Mass in St. Peter's. At that Mass, there was most definitely praying in tongues (not 'speaking in tongues') along with singing in tongues by the cardinals, bishops, priests and laypeople all gathered together at this Mass, with the Pope's approval. It was a beautiful time of worship in the heart of the Church. The Pope himself spoke to us after Mass with words of welcome and advice for those involved in the charismatic renewal. It is important to make a distinction, as St. Paul himself does, between speaking in tongues and praying in tongues."

The document I quoted from Brazil clearly made the distinction between praying and speaking in tongues, but finally decided that neither was appropriate in the context of Mass.

The fact that in 1975 Pope Paul VI allowed this concelebration in no way suggests an official approval of all charismatic practices during Mass. In 1975 the Catholic charismatic renewal was barely 8 years old and the Pope was offering cautious encouragement to the movement.

The Church is not hasty in granting definitive approvals or condemnations. It prefers to observe new spiritual realities and orientate little by little. In this sense the 1994 Brazilian document or the 2000 Instruction on Prayers for Healing by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith represent more mature reflections in the light of lived experience.

The aim of such reflections and guidelines is not to condemn the charismatic renewal but to help it achieve its full potential as an integral part of the Church.

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