LAST SUNDAY a lady came to me for confession. The woman was really desperate because one of her next-door neighbours had, in practice, ruined her life.

According to the lady, her neighbour, an elderly man, had spread the rumour that he had seen a young man enter her house while her husband was away, and that he had even seen the two of them kissing in the garden. When the lady’s husband got wind of this, he became furious, and was now threatening to divorce her.

Now the whole incident was merely a figment of the neighbour’s imagination! The lady in fact found out that the ‘young man’ who had repeatedly come into her home was her son’s 15-year-old friend, and that the kiss was none other than a spicy detail to make the whole story sound more real.

Why is it that we feel inclined to pry into other people’s business? Why do we feel the urge to express judgements on other people which are often without any real basis? Why do we indulge in the guilty pleasure of gossiping?

According to social psychologists, the reason we do it is that, during our evolutionary development, learning as much as we could about the members of our immediate social group increased our chances of survival. Knowing who might betray you, who could be counted on to provide help, or who was available as a mate, gave you an edge over your contemporaries at a time when people lived within smaller and more immediately connected social groups. But what about now, when survival isn’t such a dicey proposition for most of us? Is it perhaps a remnant of genetic heritage of which we have no guilt?

In the Book of Proverbs, the Bible clearly indicates the sinful nature of ‘gossip’, and gives us some interesting advice: “A gossip tells secrets, so don’t hang around with someone who talks too much” (Proverbs, 20:19); “It is foolish to belittle a neighbour; a person with good sense remains silent. A gossip goes around revealing secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence” (Proverbs, 11:12-13); “A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends” (Proverbs 16:28).

In the last two years of his pontificate Pope Francis has dwelt on the subject of gossip, slander and judgmentalism on numerous occasions. In one of his famous speeches the Holy Father said, “It’s so rotten, gossip. At the beginning, it seems to be something enjoyable and fun, like a piece of candy. But at the end it fills the heart with bitterness, and it also poisons us.”

On the subject of gossip I am reminded of the following story that our novice master told us as young friars during our novitiate to make us understand its pernicious nature. It is the story of a most unusual penance St. Philip Neri assigned to a woman for her sin of spreading gossip.

The 16th century saint instructed her to take a feather pillow to the top of the church bell-tower, rip it open, and scatter the feathers to the four winds. This probably was not the kind of penance this woman, or any of us, would have been used to. But the penance didn’t end there. Philip Neri gave her a second, and more, difficult task. He told her to come down from the bell-tower and collect all the feathers that had been dispersed throughout the town. The poor woman, of course, couldn’t do it – and that was the point Philip Neri was trying to make in order to underscore the destructive nature of gossip. When we detract from others in our speech, our malicious words are scattered abroad, and cannot be gathered back. They continue to spread dishonour and division in people’s minds days, months, and even years after we have spoken them, as they pass from one tale-bearer to the next.

Last year, in one of his Sunday Angelus messages, Pope Francis preached to the crowd filling St. Peter’s Square, “I tell you the truth, I am convinced that if each one of us would purposely avoid gossip, in the end, we would become a saint! It’s a beautiful path.”

Dear readers, do not let your words ruin others, their careers or personal relationships; remember that if you are talking about people behind their backs, your words say more about you than about them.

Updated on October 06 2016