Why we should shut our ears to gossip

By Moira Billinge

The parish priest, a wise and caring man with many years of dedicated ministry behind him, was becoming tired of hearing reports of the trouble that one of his parishioners was causing through gossip. He knew that, because of the very nature of a gossiper, it would not be confined within his parish boundaries but would undoubtedly include the wider community.

There came a time when, despite his already busy schedule, he realised that he would have to address the situation. The weather forecast indicated that the next few days were set to be extremely windy so he phoned the woman in question and left a message on her voicemail asking her to call in to see him the following morning. She was curious about the reason for her 'summons' but duly turned up at the presbytery at the appointed time. Although rather surprised when the priest handed her a well-upholstered feather pillow, she nevertheless took on board his instructions which were that, on her way home, she was to open up the pillowcase and scatter the contents wherever she wished.

Ever anxious to add to her repertoire of gossip, she did as requested and even enjoyed the experience as the feathers were whisked greedily from her hands by the gale-force winds as she contemplated the mileage she would get from this particular story. Next day, she returned to the presbytery to report that she had completed the task. The priest thanked her and then asked her to go home and gather up all the feathers along the way. She was aghast: "How on earth do you expect me to do that, Father? You know how windy it was yesterday. I'll never be able to get them all back. They could be anywhere by now."

"Correct" replied the priest. "It's impossible to retrieve them because you really don't know where they are. Just like all those tales you've been spreading about people – you have no idea how far they've gone or how much they've been changed as they've been passed around." His parishioner looked suitably embarrassed and he imagined that this was one story that she would not too readily share with others.

Gossip is a pernicious activity; it has a domino effect which wrecks reputations and lives, because it is impossible for its victims to pull in all the threads of what is said about them, and it destroys and divides whole communities. Pope Francis, who often speaks out against it, maintains that "there is no such thing as innocent gossip" and he is right, because someone always gets hurt by it – even the perpetrator, because gossiping is sinful.

It can be difficult to avoid a gossiper at times. They have a knack of homing in on people who are perhaps nervous of becoming fodder for the gossiper's stash, or those who fear they are being impolite in avoiding conversation. In listening to gossip, however, we are equally at fault, because by doing so we are giving the gossiper a spurious power and the oxygen to fuel their compulsion to "entertain" their captive audience with it. Proverbs 26:20 declares that: "Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip, a quarrel dies down." No matter how difficult it is, we are obliged to walk away.

In the words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie: "If wisdom's ways you wisely seek, five things observe with care: to whom you speak, of whom you speak, and how and when and where."