"There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning 'favor,' 'gratuitous gift,' 'benefit.' Whatever their character - sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues - charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church."
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2003
Please note that what follows is a Catholic understanding of tongues. I have no delusions about it being the definitive understanding. They are my personal reflections, excerpted from Chp.4 and Appendix VI of my The God Who is Love: Explaining Christianity From Its Center
The Purpose of Praying in Tongues
If you have never been exposed to it, you are probably wondering why someone would want to pray in a language they do not understand. It is a fair question, no doubt about it. I cannot claim to give God’s final answer, His rationale for tongues. I can speculate though, given the texts of Scripture and the opinions of myself and others.
First, I believe that tongues allows us to open our spirits to God - to express our deepest longings, our most profound inclinations of love to Him. Because we have been fused to Jesus, we are caught up into His Loving of the Father (in the Spirit). Praising God in tongues is an earthly manifestation of the Son’s eternal adoration of the Father – manifested through members of His Body. Through this charism we are given the opportunity to express things our conscious mind could never adequately formulate.
The second benefit builds upon the first. Not only does tongues allow someone to praise God, but also to intercede– the Holy Spirit allowing a person to pray Jesus’ intentions for the members of His Mystical Body. It is a visible manifestation of something going on within the soul of every Christian:
…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
The third value I see is the potential for personal spiritual development. Paul said in First Corinthians that “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself” (14:4). One way this spiritual edification occurs is for a person to yield to tongues in the knowledge that they are worshiping and interceding on behalf of other members of Christ’s Body. They are, in a sense, allowing the Head of the Body, Jesus, to more fully conform the intercession rising from earth to Heaven to that of His sacred heart. In cooperating with Him, the Christian’s soul progresses in grace, being molded more in Jesus’ image and thus more responsive to the stirrings of the Spirit. When Paul said that the person who speaks in tongues builds himself up he was not saying that that was the only way a Christian is built up interiorly; that is foolishness. The same happens within souls whenever they cooperate with the Lord’s will. For example, when a Christian serves someone in need they have allowed Christ to meet that person’s need through them, and the Christian’s soul grows in the image of the Master.
Humility before God is the final value I see in tongues. What is more childlike than “babbling” before our Father? With the gift of tongues one yields to God in a simple but concrete way, trusting Him to supply each word in turn. Such an act can build faith - the type of faith necessary to pray with a sick person, or speak out what you believe are His words to a prayer group (or your classmates). Tongues is a gift which has benefited me personally.
I do not, however, believe that everyone needs to receive it. The Holy Spirit knows what each of us needs to progress in grace, and He wants to bestow those gifts in abundance. It is our part to be open, not to dismiss any gift He wants to give: “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Charisms are no guarantee of personal union with God. When a charism is manifested it only means that at that moment, that individual was open enough for God to work through them. Jesus warned that on the Day of Judgment there will be many who say, “’Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? …and do many mighty works in your name as well?’ to whom He will reply, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matthew 7:22-23). The evidence of a person’s union with God is not charisms, but how much they love with Jesus’ Love (His Spirit).
Should Every Christian Receive the Gift of Tongues?
There are some believers who hold that without evidencing the gift of tongues a person cannot have been “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” There are others who do not go that far, but claim that each Christian has a prayer language, if they would only yield to it. I am convinced, from looking at Scripture and the face of the Church today, that both positions are in error. I will restrict myself to explaining my disagreement with the latter position since those reasons automatically apply to the former.
First, I do not see the gift of tongues always accompanying the “release” of the Spirit in Acts of the Apostles. We are told in Acts 10:45-47 and 19:6 that tongues accompanied the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on new Christians; in the second example this occurred when the Apostle Paul laid hands on the newly baptized. In Acts 8:14-17, however, we are told that the Holy Spirit came upon the newly-baptized Samaritans through the laying on of Peter and John’s hands – but without a mention of tongues. An oversight on the author Luke’s part? Well, consider also that there is no mention of the three thousand who were baptized on the day of Pentecost receiving tongues either. In fact, if you went through all the other conversion stories in Acts you wouldn’t find another mention of the charism.
St. Paul is clear that tongues is not an integral part of everyone’s Christian experience. In The First Epistle to the Corinthians he wrote:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess the gift of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” (1 Corinthians 12:27-13:1).
At this point some “charismatic” believers will object to my citation of the above passage. They interpret Paul as saying that not all Christians should expect to speak a prophetic message in tongues, one in need of interpretation; but every Christian should expect to pray in tongues. I acknowledge that the gift of tongues has two different manifestation – but I see no justification for dividing it up into two different gifts. In the list of gifts given in First Corinthians 12 Paul listed tongues – just tongues; he did not speak of a gift of praying in tongues and a separate gift of speaking in tongues. He then went on in Chapter 14 of the same letter to discuss different manifestations of this one gift – primarily a gift of prayer, but sometimes a gift of prophecy when combined with the gift of interpretation. Notice how Paul goes back and forth between the terms “speaking” and “praying” in the following passage:
Therefore, he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also. I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue (14:13-18).When you come together…if any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God (14:26-28).
Do you see what I mean about the terms praying in tongues and speaking in tongues referring to one and the same gift? In time I experienced both forms. When I was finally moved to speak a message in tongues at a prayer group I wasn’t receiving a new gift; I was only moved to direct toward others what up until that time had been directed only toward God. (An interpretation in English followed and the group heard the message the Lord had for them.)
I think that the overemphasis some Christians have placed on tongues flows from the blessing it has been in their own lives – because it has been a great blessing for them they conclude that it should be a blessing received by all. It is a pretty common human reaction. The reality, however, is that the Holy Spirit decides which gifts each member of the Body needs to best fulfill their assigned task:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith…to another gifts of healing…to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy…to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor. 12:4-11).
 Paul stated in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that “A man who speaks in tongues is talking not to men but to God. No one understands him, because he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (14:2). It’s evident that St. Paul saw a value in tongues, “I should like it if all of you spoke in tongues” (14:4) and “Thank God I speak in tongues more than any of you” (14:18).