Speaking Well of God’s People

Find three positive affirmations, instead of gossip

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KirbyA few years ago, I visited one of the monasteries of our country. While there, the abbot gave a talk on confession. In the talk, he recounted how, in his earlier days as a priest and monk, he taught at the university attached to the monastery. At the university, there was a faculty member there that he disliked. On one occasion, he was sitting in the faculty lounge gossiping about the person.

A few hours later, that very same faculty member approached him and asked to go to confession. In his confession, the professor repented of the very character traits that the monk had gossiped about. The future abbot saw a vulnerable person seeking mercy, doing their best and trying to do better. The experience was humbling and radically shaped his understanding of the evils of gossip.

As a priest, monk and spiritual father, he should have been an advocate for the person. Rather than gossip about them, he was called to defend the person’s reputation and see and highlight their best traits. He was to give witness to the spiritual truth. We are defined by our goodness and God’s love for us, not by our sins.

As priests, it’s easy to fall into gossip. We move throughout the day and throughout our parish constantly having to address problems, correct faults, deal with personalities, smile despite ourselves, reconcile budgets, guide staff, make time for ministry leaders, check email, coordinate logistics, complete diocesan reports, stay healthy — and the list goes on. In such a state of affairs, it’s very easy — too easy — to react to complaints, express disappointment, blow off steam, and — well — gossip about our spiritual children.

Gossip is best summarized in two principal forms: 1) Calumny (also called slander) is when we say something about someone that is not true or is exaggerated. We can detect this when we find ourselves talking about a person, rather than specific actions. 2) Detraction is when we speak ill of someone about something that’s true but serves no good and harms the person’s reputation. We can detect this when we find ourselves talking and no good action follows the conversation.

In moments in which we are tempted to gossip, we have to remind ourselves that we are spiritual fathers and shepherds to the people entrusted to our care. We are the first ones who should make excuses for them, seek goodwill, stress their strong points and rally every effort to understand and show compassion to our parishioners as they struggle with real or perceived sin and character faults. We have to rise above the desire of our fallen nature to find false comfort in the cesspool of gossip and stand tall as patient heralds who defend those under our pastoral care and speak words of peace and kindness.

The spiritual masters teach us not to say, “This person bothers me,” but rather to think, “This person sanctifies me.”

Such a mental disposition is helpful in our interaction with parishioners, with parish staff, with diocesan officials and with our bishop. No one profits from gossip. The Body of Christ is weakened by it, and the Holy Spirit is grieved by malicious speech (cf. Eph 4:30-32).

We are all built up by positive speech, the benefit of the doubt and tenderhearted words of understanding and encouragement.

When we speak, we should imagine the person sitting across from us. If the person were present, what would we say about them and how would we say it? This can serve as a quick reference point for us and a sure help in avoiding gossip.

In addition, we can follow a spiritual practice of three affirmations, used when we find ourselves wanting to speak critically or unkindly about someone, but we pause our tongue. Instead of speaking, we internally say (and repeat) three affirming things about the person. We balance the playing field of our hearts and choose to find good things to say about the person.

In these ways, we can avoid gossip and speak well and kindly of the portion of God’s people entrusted to our care.

FATHER JEFFREY KIRBY, STD, is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina, and the host of the daily devotional, “Morning Offering with Father Kirby.”

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