Speaking new tongues

These signs will accompany those who believe:
… they will speak new languages.
Mark 16: 17 

St. Paul

St. Paul outside the Walls

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle.

An ardent Pharisee Saul, as he was known at that time, was going to arrest followers of Jesus in Damascus. He fell to the ground, surrounded by light. (There is no account of any high horse that he fell from, though that is the common image we have of the event.) Paul went on to preach Jesus to people in many lands, opening the Way for non-Jews. After many travels, he was arrested and sent to Rome, where he was eventually beheaded.

The Gospel for today is Jesus’ sending of the apostles at the end of Mark’s Gospel. As I read it this morning I came across something that I hadn’t noticed.

Among the signs of those who believe is “speaking new languages.”

I never thought of this as a sign of belief. I just thought that learning and speaking a different language was part of what we missionaries often have to do.

But it is a sign of God’s presence, as Jesus notes.

Though I’ve been here in Honduras for more than six years, I still sometimes struggle with Spanish. (I don’t think I’ll ever get the subjunctive right.) I sometimes wonder if people can understand me.

And so I am comforted by this Gospel passage, as well as by the words of the St. Louis Jesuit’s hymn “Be Not Afraid”:

you shall speak my Word in foreign lands
and all will understand.

 But I wonder if “speaking a new language” is just being able to speak another language fluently.

What is the new language that we need to speak?

In a world where the poor are despised, where they are treated like dirt – or worse, what language do we need to speak?

In a world where people lack hope, struggling to survive or to find meaning in their lives, what language do we need to speak?

I think it’s the language of love, of friendship, of solidarity.

Gustavo Gutiérrez puts the challenge simply:

 the first question of theology is how do we say to the poor: God loves you?

That is the language we need to learn – and, “the first thing to do is listen,” as Gutiérrez says.

Paul listened to the voice that he heard on the ground near Damascus and he learned how to speak in other tongues and to speak to people in many lands.

It starts with listening – to God and all those around us. Not always easy, but part of the process of conversion.


The two quotations from Father Gustavo Gutiérrez are from In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez (Orbis Books). I highly recommend this recently published book.

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