Did You Hear??
The phone rings. “Hello?”
“Hello, Father. Did you hear?”
“Mrs. S___ had a stroke”.
Now Mrs. S___ is a dedicated Church member whose whole family is involved in parish life. If something had happened to her I was sure someone would have called.
“Are you certain? Who told you this?”
“I don’t want to say”.
“I’ll call you back in a minute” I said, and hung up. I immediately called Mrs. S___, who, miracle of miracles, answered the phone. We had a nice conversation, after which I called back the parishioner who had originally telephoned.
“I just spoke with Mrs. S___. I think you should call ‘I don’t want to say’ and tell them to let Mrs. S___ know that she’s had a stroke, because Mrs. S___ is under the impression that there’s nothing wrong with her!”
This true conversation is a relatively benign example of one of the greatest problems any Church, organization or community faces - rumour mongering.
The willful creation and spreading of rumours is destructive to the person who starts or spreads rumours, to those who are the object of the rumour, and to the community. The person who starts or spreads rumours wastes time and creativity that could be put to constructive use; rumours are often derogatory or destructive to other people’s reputations; and rumours always tear at the fabric of interpersonal relationships, for even when they are not aimed at destroying someone else’s character they destroy the credibility of the person who spreads them.
Rumours are usually spread behind people’s backs, which makes them doubly poisonous. Accusations are made with no chance for the accused to respond. Things which have no basis in reality – lies – become “facts” and take on a life of their own. There is a sociological principle that false beliefs become real in their consequences. Real people suffer, and often suffer greatly, because someone else has nothing better to do than sit on the phone or the internet for hours every day exercising their imagination.
Why do people engage in such destructive activity? Usually in order to divert attention from themselves, or to avoid their personal feelings of inadequacy, sadness, or inferiority, or because they want to “be somebody” and find that this is more easily accomplished by tearing others down than by engaging in positive and constructive activities themselves.
How can we minimize this social and spiritual cancer?
The obvious first step is to never start rumours. Being involved in the central administration of the Church and present at all meetings of the Church leadership I am always amazed to hear stories from “out in the field” about what is allegedly going on at the Consistory, the priest transfers which are supposedly in the works, or the decisions which are purportedly being made which I have never heard discussed or proposed by anyone.
These stories start somewhere. The source is usually someone who could be praying, or reading the bible, or doing some other constructive spiritual work, but is captivated by the diabolical sensuality of being the first to say the words “Did you hear. . .?”
If someone relates a rumour to me I should at least attempt to verify its accuracy, inquiring as to the source of the information. If the answer is “I don’t want to say” it’s probably wise to remember that what is good and true isn’t afraid of the light. Honest people aren’t secretive – thieves and murderers are. If I can’t trace a rumour back to the source there’s probably a good reason.
I’m sure many of us have suffered as a result of malicious gossip. How should we respond when false and malicious rumours are spread about us?
When people maliciously gossip about us we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Defending yourself against a rumour is often taken as proof of its truthfulness: “He wouldn’t react if it wasn’t true, would he?” But not responding is usually interpreted as proof of its accuracy as well. When dealing with people who aren’t concerned about truth, who won’t let facts get in the way, it’s a no-win situation. So what do we do?
We follow the example of our Lord. He was slandered. He was called, among other things, a Samaritan, a drunkard, and Beelzebub! How did he respond? “Like a lamb that is silent before its shearer he opened not His mouth” (Is. 53: 7-8). He not only refused to return evil for evil, He forgave, prayed and died for those who maligned Him. Though it’s not an easy thing to do, it’s the only thing that ultimately works.
The problem of rumour mongering would be non-existent if we all just remembered a simple children’s lesson. A well brought up child is taught that before they say anything they should ask themselves three simple questions: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”
“Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” We can follow this simple advice when choosing our words and avoid gossip, rumour mongering, and the myriad of problems they cause. Or we can choose to ignore this simple advice and face the eternal consequences: “For every idle word men may speak they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt. 12:36).
Fr. Bohdan Hladio