Pope Francis is a priest.
That sounds like an absurdly redundant statement. Of course he’s a priest. But I’m not talking about the collar and the black clothes. I’m not even referring, for the moment, to the fact that he is one of those men whose life work it is to gift the world with the sacraments. From priests’ hands we receive the Eucharist.
I don’t mean that right now. I am referring to the fact that Pope Francis is a pastor of souls. He is the good shepherd we’ve been given. Not all priests are pastors of souls. Some are more turned to other things that can range from mysticism to a flair for administration. None of these things are bad. In fact, taken together, they give us the whole of the faith.
But pastors of souls, true shepherds of God’s people, are what Jesus specifically mentioned when He commissioned Peter. “Feed my sheep,” he said.
I am beginning to look forward to the reports each day coming out of Pope Francis’ morning homilies. These homilies are deeply pastoral, dealing as they often do with ordinary sins and vices, daily weaknesses and challenges, that every Christian faces. He gave a homily this morning on complaining. When Vatican radio posts it, I’ll put it here for you to read.
Today, I’m going to share one of his previous homilies. This one is about gossip.
Gossip is such a common vice. Everyone does it. People are interested in other people. We live with, love, cherish, compete with, hate and hurt one another. For most of us, our whole world is other people. Walk through any cemetery, and what you will see on the gravestones are words linking the dead person to relationships with the living. Beloved Father, Dearest Mom, Sister, Brother, Son and Daughter; that’s what we inscribe on the stones we leave to mark the fact that there was a life here, a life lived in relationship with other people.
We know ourselves through other people. Most of what we think of ourselves comes from what they tell us. They are the mirror we have for our selves and our lives.
Which is precisely what gives gossip its power. Idle chit-chat gossip is usually harmless, and can even be kind. But the darker kind of tale-telling that involves dwelling on people’s faults and criticizing their weaknesses can hurt. If it gets to the point that it becomes a group judgement, it can inflict deep wounds. I am not talking here about deliberate calumny and character assassination for gain. That is an obvious, terrible and mortal sin; the kind of thing you can go to hell for.
What I am talking about is the picking and pecking away at another person to the point that the whole group of people they associate with — be it family, classmates or co-workers — makes a kind of group assessment of them and fixes it on them. Gossiping about someone in this way is almost always unkind. Fixating on them in some small and critical way is cruel. When a group of people they have to associate with decides through gossip that this is what they are, it is destructive.
It wounds the person who is the object of the gossip. It dirties the souls of those who engage in this gossip. It damages the harmony and happiness of the group or community which has allowed this to happen to itself.
Gossip hurts people. It fractures community and damages the ability of people to work together for a goal. Whether that goal is a happy home life or building a bridge, gossip can make achieving it a hard and thankless slog.
If we are truly born again into a new way of living and thinking, then gossip that wounds can not be a part of us. The ultimate harm of gossip is that it separates us from who we are meant to be in Christ. It not only weakens our witness for Him, it weakens our relationship with Him.
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who have been made in God’s likeness,” James tells us.
I need to remember that as much as anyone else. When it comes to gossip, I think almost everyone could take a good look at themselves. Let’s consider what the Holy Father had to say about it.
(Vatican Radio) May the Holy Spirit bring peace to Christian communities and teach its members to be meek, refusing to speak ill of others. With this hope, Pope Francis concluded his homily at Mass Tuesday morning with staff from the Vatican medical services and office staff of the Vatican City Government. “The first Christian community is a timeless model for the Christian community of today, because they were of one heart and one soul, through the Holy Spirit who had brought them into a “new life”. Emer McCarthy reports:
In his homily Pope Francis reflected on the Gospel passage that recounts the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, who did not immediately grasp how a man can be “born again”. Through the Holy Spirit, the Pope said, we are born into the new life which we have received in Baptism.” However, Pope Francis added, it is a life that has to be developed, it does not come automatically. We have to do all we can to ensure that our life develops into new life”, which may be “a laborious journey” but one that “depends chiefly on the Holy Spirit” as well as our ability to be “open to his breath”.
And this, the Pope pointed out, is exactly what happened to the early Christians. They had “new life”, which was expressed in their living with one heart and one soul. They had, he said, “that unity, that unanimity, that harmony of feeling of love, mutual love …”. A dimension that needs to be rediscovered. He noted that today, for example, the aspect of “meekness in the community,” is a somewhat ‘forgotten virtue’. Meekness is stigmatized, it has “many enemies”, the first of which is gossip.
Pope Francis further developed this reflection. “When we prefer to gossip, gossip about others, criticize others- these are everyday things that happen to everyone, including me – these are the temptations of the evil one who does not want the Spirit to come to us and bring about peace and meekness in the Christian community”. “These struggles always exist” in the parish, in the family, in the neighborhood, among friends”. Instead through the Spirit we are born into a new life, he makes us “meek, charitable.”
The Holy Father then outlined the correct behavior for a Christian. First, “do not judge anyone” because “the only Judge is the Lord.” Then “keep quiet” and if you have something to say, say it to the interested parties, to those “who can remedy the situation,” but “not to the entire neighborhood.” “If, by the grace of the Holy Spirit – concluded Pope Francis – we succeed in never gossiping, it will be a great step forward” and “will do us allgood”.