The greatest account of this miracle that I have ever read is found in the Jesuit records of Saint Francis Xavier. The one that I will mention now was given as a testimony at the hearings for his canonization. In one of his missionary tours around the Fishery coast of southern India, the saint was accosted by a huge crowd of people who had gathered from far and near to hear his word. They were drawn by the reports of his stupendous miracles, which included raisings from the dead. Xavier did not know the Tamil language of these Indians, which was different than the Goans on the west coast, so he had an interpreter with him helping him to learn and be understood. As he spoke he was given a fluency such that the natives thought he had been raised in the language. But there is more to the miracle. People from further north on the east coast had also heard about the miracle-worker. These people were familiar with Christianity because Saint Thomas the Apostle had reached that area and his tomb was still venerated further north in Meliapur where there was the Syro-Malabar Catholic community of Saint Thomas. These east coast Indians also perfectly understood the preaching of the saint. And that’s not all! There were as many questions in the minds of his listeners as there were listeners. Lo and behold, each person who had doubts or questions heard the answers to their questions in their own language, even though the Jesuit missioner was not addressing those questions in his discourse. Now that is a miracle! And it is unique to Francis Xavier. We know that angels do not preach, but they can move a preacher to go here or there, as they did with Saint Paul in his vision of the man from Macedonia. And, as we see with Saint Francis Xavier, the angels can do wonders with the air waves so long as they have a human voice to manipulate.
Nevertheless, it was a rare thing when Saint Francis Xavier received this gift. Usually he had to learn the basic rudiments of a language and make himself understood in the simplest of terms. In Japan, for instance, he relied almost totally on his companion, a Jesuit brother who had learned the language with far greater ease than the saint. In fact, Xavier would credit this brother, I have forgotten his name, with founding the Church in Japan.
Reading in the Book of Acts about the events of Pentecost, three physical things accentuate the spiritual. In fact, without them, the coming of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles would be impossible to imagine, being, as we are, creatures of sense: mighty wind, tongues of fire, and speaking miraculously in foreign languages.
Today, speaking in “tongues” is a side show of charismatic gatherings, a feature resurrected by the Pentecostals from the second century Montanist heretics. Their mumbling jibberish, needless to say to our readers, has nothing to do with the charism manifested at Pentecost and which Saint Paul counts among the least of graces (charismata) that were given certain members of the Church for the edification and building of the living body of Christ.
“To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom: and to another, the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; To another, faith in the same spirit; to another, the grace of healing in one Spirit; To another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy; to another, the discerning of spirits; to another, diverse kinds of tongues; to another, interpretation of speeches” (1 Cor. 12: 8-10).
Glossolalia, as it is called theologically from the Greek word for language, glossa, ought rather to be rendered in English as “speaking in languages.” For the companion charism of “interpretation of speeches” could not have been given to one if the speaker had not been speaking or praying in a language. Saint Paul admonished the Corinthians for paying more heed to this manifestation of “tongues” than the other charisms which edified the whole Church: “[H]e that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself, he that prophesieth, edifieth the church. And I would have you all to speak with tongues, but rather to prophesy. For greater is he that prophesieth, than he that speaketh with tongues: unless perhaps he interpret, that the church may receive edification” (1 Cor. 14: 4-5).
What happened at Pentecost, however, was first and foremost, the interior elevation of the Apostles from fearful men, already reborn in Christ’s grace to be sure, and incorporated in His Body through the Eucharist, into confident sons of God imbued with the fortifying power of the Holy Spirit and His seven gifts. They who had put on Christ in baptism were now confirmed in the Spirit of Christ, who, in an instant, transformed timid and uncertain witnesses into the fullness of Him who is the “Lion of Juda.”
I have a friend who is a very involved Pentecostal. He told me once that occasionally he speaks in tongues. When he told me this, I replied, “And what do you say?” He said, “I don’t know, it is the spirit speaking through me.” So, I said, “Well, what does the spirit say?” He said, “I don’t know, no one understands the tongues.” I couldn’t help myself, so I asked him if he could ask the spirit to say a few words right then and there, maybe I could recognize the language. He wasn’t biting. All I can do is pray for the poor man.
What an inestimable blessing to be a Catholic and a member of the one true Church that speaks all languages!