[homily given at St Mary of the Snows, Palazzola, Albano, Italy]
In this ‘Year of Faith,’ I’ve chosen in my parish to follow a pattern of preaching on the Catechism. So I will continue that here also at Palazzola, even though in some sense for you, we just land in the middle of this cycle. We find ourselves at Section III, The Commandments: presently at no. 8: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
So, what does this exactly mean? Well, it covers a whole set of things, but ultimately it’s about asking us to tell the truth, to stick to the truth in all circumstances; not to mess with the truth or get caught up in lies and false gossip … all of which whittles away at friendships, and relationships, even business partnerships and international relations. When we depart from the truth, in big or little things, it’s always going to undermine our ability to trust, or be trusted — it will always lead to unhappiness in one way or another. I want just to think about three areas of telling the truth: first, about the Truth which is our faith; second, about so-called ‘white lies’; and third, about ‘gossip.’
1. When Jesus was facing Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, and Pilate is questioning Him, Jesus says to him at one point, “All those who are on the side of Truth listen to my voice.” Pilate answers with a curt reply that is dismissive of all that Jesus is: “Truth? What is Truth?” Pilate does not want to enter into Jesus’s world, the world of Truth. If he had done so, he would have had to face the crowd and stand up to their demands for the unjust crucifixion of Jesus. Standing up for the Truth demands courage, and maybe suffering; but brings the reward of knowing that one is in tune with the living God; God, the source of all Truth. All things only find their fulfilment in God — that’s why you celebrated the glorious wedding day here in the church yesterday: all things that are true find their truth in God. Pilate wants to make up his own truth, and isn’t interested in what is really true, that Jesus is the innocent Son of God. We can all make compromises, not stick to the Truth of our faith, but only standing firm to the Truth will bring us happiness. 44 members of our English College in Rome died for the Truth; they were martyred for not compromising on the Truth of Jesus and His Catholic Church. This is the supreme witness; the most powerful keeping of the 8th Commandment: rather than ‘bear false witness,’ rather than deny Jesus, they chose death. But martyrdom is not something dead and gone, in the past. Someone who was a student here in Rome in my time, and spent time at the Irish College, an Iraqi priest, was martyred just after he’d said Mass in 2007. This is the supreme witness to the Truth.
2. What about ‘white lies,’ then? It’s common to hear someone say that they told lies, but that “they were only white lies.” I’m never entirely sure what that means! I suppose what they mean is that, in their opinion, ‘it didn’t hurt anybody.’ Well, I’m not sure that that is true. It makes me want to draw a comparison: (6th C.) ‘I committed adultery but it was only a small one — it didn’t hurt anybody’; or … (5th C.) ‘I killed someone, but it wasn’t a big thing; it didn’t hurt anyone’!!! Telling lies in some cases might not be a grave sin, but it remains a sin, and something we should avoid always. I often draw children’s attention to the fact that, on reflection, lying always makes things worse, and I think that that’s true in all cases. Even the so-called ‘white lie’ that supposedly ‘doesn’t hurt anyone’ does represent a chipping-away at being totally truthful. It may not seem a big thing, but being content with telling small lies can wrongly prepare us for telling bigger and bigger lies. Let’s never forget that Our Lord described the devil as “the father of lies.” It’s part of the devil’s trickery that little lies are an OK thing. They’re not, and they can set up all sorts of tensions and mistrusts which eat away at relationships.
3. Finally, a word on gossip. My advice, always, in confession, is for the person to consider: If I’m talking to someone about someone else, would I be saying it, if that person that I’m talking about were present? Would I be saying it at all? Would I be saying it in the way I am? Am I saying things I don’t need to pass on? Am I mis-representing them? There’s nothing wrong with passing on news … but is it news I need to tell? In fact, the antidote to telling lies, or gossiping is always this: I don’t have to say anything! I can keep quiet, keep another’s confidence, give the benefit of the doubt, look for another’s good points, and not judge or presume the worst. When necessary I can keep quiet. If it’s a choice between telling a lie, or not saying anything, it’s best to stay silent! Let’s be people who are known for truthfulness, someone utterly reliable and honest. God made us in His image and likeness: we are made for the Truth that is Him; we are made to tell the truth, and to stick to the truth will always make us much happier!