Hey, Watch Your Language!

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

You probably know that just before Christmas Pope Francis had a rather serious talk with members of the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, in which he challenged some of their attitudes and behaviors. The Pope listed 15 “diseases,” temptations to sin, which sometimes afflict members of the Curia. He encouraged the cardinals, bishops and priests to undertake an end-of-the-year examination of conscience so that their service to Christ and the Church would be purified.

First, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Pope challenged the Curia in this way. After all, it is widely believed that one of the mandates the Holy Father was given upon his election was to “clean-up” the Vatican bureaucracy. With the help of his Council of Cardinals, he has begun a restructuring of the Curia, its offices and titles.

More importantly, however, Pope Francis is trying to instill among the members of the Curia a new heart, a new attitude of humble service. This is surely the more difficult task, and it will take a long time, but the Holy Father is demonstrating by his own words and example what he expects of his collaborators.

The second thing to keep in mind, though, was the Holy Father was addressing his words not only to the Roman Curia, but to the whole Church. He suggested that the Curia is a microcosm of the Church and said that these “diseases are naturally a danger to every Christian, and every curia, community, congregation, parish and ecclesiastic movement.” In other words, the Pope is speaking to you, and me!

Among the 15 diseases the Holy Father listed is what he termed the “disease of gossip and chatter.” It’s a theme the Pope has discussed on a number of prior occasions as well. To the Roman Curia he said that this abuse of language “takes hold of a person making them sowers of discord, and in many cases ‘cold-blooded murderers’ of the reputation of others.” The Pope added, “It is the disease of cowards, who do not have the courage to speak upfront and so talk behind one’s back . . . Watch out against the terrorism of gossip.”

Wow! Could the Pope be any clearer?

We know that gossip is a sin, and both confessors and penitents know that it’s among the most frequent of transgressions. The Letter of St. James in the New Testament describes the destructive nature of gossip: “Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire. . . No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (Cf: James 3: 1-12)

So, the Pope is clearly challenging all of us to examine our conscience about the use of language, and particularly gossip and the spreading of rumors.

Let’s start with our Church communities – our parishes, schools and organizations for example. Do you find that there are cliques, rivalries and jealousies in your community? Do you and your friends make a habit of gathering before and after Mass, class, or meetings to talk about others and perhaps say some really nasty things?

The secular workplace can be fertile ground for the misuse of language. In some places the lunchroom becomes a veritable petri dish for gossip. Are you angry at, envious of, or plotting against a co-worker? Are you nice to someone in person and stab them in the back when they turn away? Has your evil, untamed tongue turned your office into the destructive forest fire St. James describes?

Sadly, even families can be torn apart by harmful language. I wonder how many families have been irretrievably broken because of angry words exchanged during some tense period – perhaps at the time of a wedding, a serious illness, a funeral, or a fight over an inheritance. Sometimes these ancient wounds are kept open and become infected by poisonous words spread from one family member to another.

Of course, modern technology for all of its achievements, has also become a locus for gossip and rumor. Think of the hastily written, angry emails that have been sent; the inappropriate postings on Facebook; the slanderous, vile comments attached by anonymous posters on news websites; and the cyber bullying that so many of our young folks have to deal with these days.

But conversely, as we examine our conscience, we should also check to see if we use proper, positive language as often as we should. Do we say “thank you” when someone has done us a favor? Do we offer words of encouragement when a relative or neighbor is going through a bad time? Do we congratulate a co-worker for a special achievement, or simply because they quietly do their job everyday with quality and consistency?

The point is that our use of language can be a dangerous weapon that causes a great deal of spiritual and personal harm. It can also be an uplifting instrument of grace and peace for others when used properly.

So, as we begin this New Year, it’s a good time to think about what Pope Francis had to say about the “disease of gossip and chatter.” But, before you gleefully pile on the “villains” of the Curia, look in the mirror. The Pope is speaking to you too.