That passage mentions the gift of tongues as a sign associated with believers in Jesus.
So what is the gift of tongues?
Our starting point must be that every gift that comes from God is good and has a good purpose and is worth having and asking for.
Usually for each Sunday Mass there are two options for the Opening Prayer (sometimes known as the Collect), - a short one and a longer one - and I am saddened that with the new translation of the liturgy we seem to have lost one of the most beautiful Opening Prayers for Pentecost ever. Only one option is provided in my new Missal.
Here's what we used to have an option to use:
'Father of Light, from Whom every good gift comes, send Your Spirit into our lives with the power of a mighty wind, and by the flame of Your wisdom open the horizons of our minds. Loosen our tongues to sing Your praise in words beyond the power of speech, for without Your Spirit man could never raise his voice in words of peace or announce the truth that Jesus is Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.'
So this is the prayer the Church Herself has prayed, at least since Vatican II and probably many centuries before, asking God to send His Holy Spirit and to give His gift of tongues.
If holy mother Church takes seriously the injunction of St Paul to 'be ambitious for the higher gifts' 1 Cor 12:31 and 'by all means be ambitious to prophesy, do not suppress the gift of tongues' 1 Cor 14:39, then we should too.
The gift of tongues was widespread in New Testament times, and is widespread in our times as well. In fact, a careful study of the lives of the Saints will show that this gift has always been present in the Church. A long time back I read a little book that had done this research, and I recall several quotations from St Teresa of Avila being part of it. The term the Church uses is ‘glossalia’, and plugging that term into a search engine may help you whenever you do your own studies.
So what exactly are we praying and asking for? I will deal with the more ordinary gift of tongues first, and the less ordinary gift of interpretation later.
The gift of tongues is the only one of the so-called ‘extraordinary charisms’ of the Holy Spirit to be under the control of the person. All of the others only happen when the Holy Spirit wills it. This gift appears to be a gateway to all of the other charismatic gifts. This is possibly because it requires a person to trust God enough to risk looking a little foolish, and this is a necessary training ground for the other gifts.
The gift of tongues does not usually come with any ‘spiritual feelings’ attached. It feels exactly similar to speaking any language other than your mother tongue. And we all feel minor embarrassment when speaking in a foreign language in front of someone else.
The gift of tongues produces a similar effect to saying the rosary. Most people have had the experience of saying the rosary and getting lost in thought or meditation and your saying of the words becomes almost background noise because you are not paying attention to the words. The gift of tongues ‘feels’ like that. It replaces the usual soul/heart-mind-God prayer process with a soul/heart-God process, bypassing the mental formation of words.
For those of us who intellectually believe in God, but find that our hearts haven't caught up or are not quite so sure, this is an important gift for getting that ‘I believe’ down from the mind to the heart. It is a gift that lets the heart - through the Holy Spirit - speak to God.
Most of the time when the gift of tongues is in use, we have no idea what we are babbling about to God; but we know that God knows. When that happens Romans 8:26-27 starts making perfect sense: 'The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit Himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words, and God Who knows everything in our hearts knows perfectly well what He means, and that the pleas of the saints expressed by the Spirit are according to the mind of God.'
The hardest part of receiving the gift is the initial surrender of letting God be God and being willing to look and sound a bit foolish for His sake. It is a gift that God never forces upon anyone. True, sometimes it is given spontaneously by Him at moments of great joy or intense sorrow, but normally we have to specifically ask for it and then wait for His perfect timing to receive it.
This gift teaches us that it is truly God who prays in us, as the scriptures tell us He does. It is also a gift that brings unity and harmony when people pray in this gift together to God.
The gift of tongues is like the plug that goes into an electric socket. It plugs us into the sources of God’s power through prayer. All prayer does this, but praying in tongues appears to have a particular efficacy.
The gift of interpretation of tongues is a far less ordinary gift, due in big part to the large degree of trust a person has to have in God for God to be able to use them. The trust is needed on the part of the person God calls to speak out loud in a tongue. It is a gift only given when a group prays together. The members of the prayer group are alerted by this first charism that the good Lord has some rather important message to give. The prayer group then prays for an interpretation, and waits. The praying opens hearts further to listen and receive the message. Usually more than one person receives an interpretation and they confirm the message.
There is also a lesser manifestation of this gift when a passage of scripture is being read out loud, and you hear an inner voice from God giving a particular line by line application of that scripture to your life or to a specific situation.
Because God is God, He is not limited by our preferred ways of doing things. Talking donkeys, burning bushes and being asked to go to Straight Street to meet a determined persecutor etc, are all unusual things God has done in the past. We might think speaking in tongues falls into this category, however there is ample evidence in the New Testament that the Apostles and other early Christians saw speaking in tongues as a gift from God to those who accepted Jesus as Saviour and were baptized. It is a worthwhile project to find a concordance (online or book) and to look up all of the scripture references to speaking in tongues.
Dear God, that You have strange gifts to give like this gift of tongues puzzles me. I don't usually associate weird stuff with You. I don't understand it. It even frightens me a bit. But I know that You are good, and so many times You have shown me how faithful and trustworthy You are. So I am willing to trust You in this matter. If You want to give me this gift of tongues, then I am willing to receive it at the time and place of Your choosing. Even now, if that is Your good pleasure and holy will for me. Just please assure me when it does happen that it is definitely from You. Amen
Holy Apostles of Jesus, pray for us.
Holy Disciples baptized on that first Pentecost day by the Apostles, pray for us.
St Teresa of Avila and all Saints who experienced this gift, pray for us.
For anyone wanting a deeper level of understanding, and access to research on this topic, here are two recommended books:
They Speak With Other Tongues by John Sherrill is a classic because it is written from the point of view of a skeptical journalist gathering evidence.
As By A New Pentecost by Patti Gallagher Mansfield tells the story of the beginning of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and its links to Pope Leo XIII and the Pentecostal movement.