Religious orders and communities must combat "the terrorism of gossip," which is even worse than an occasional physical confrontation, said Pope Francis, a former Jesuit provincial in Argentina.
Meeting Friday with Italy's superiors of men's orders, which combined have a total of nearly 19,000 members, the pope said the way members of religious orders live should attract people to Christ and the church, and should be a model for other Catholics of creating harmony among a varied group of people thrown together by a common call.
"Please," he told the superiors, "don't let the terrorism of gossip exist among you. Throw it out. Let there be fraternity. And if you have something against your brother, tell him to his face. Sometimes it might end in fisticuffs," he said, causing the superiors to laugh. "That's not a problem. It's always better than the terrorism of gossip."
In a modern culture dominated by individualism, the assertion of individual rights and "a culture that corrodes society beginning with its primary unit, which is the family," he said, the healthy fraternal life of religious orders demonstrates to the world that it is possible for people to live together as brothers and sisters, helping each other even when it means setting aside their own interests.
"This is important," the pope said. The communities of religious orders mirror what civil communities often are: a group of people of different ages, abilities and interests called to cooperation and mutual respect.
But in a religious community, "we try to live as brothers," he said. "Certainly, we don't always succeed, we make mistakes because we are all sinners, but we recognize we have erred, we ask forgiveness and we offer pardon."
Such an example, he said, "is good for the church. It makes fraternity circulate in the body of Christ. And it's good for society, too."
The way religious men and women live their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience also is meant to help the church grow, he said, because it attracts attention and causes people to ask themselves why a man or woman today would choose to live that way.
The reason religious live their vows must be Jesus Christ, he said. The particular identity or approach of a specific order -- its charism -- must never be such a focus of members' attention that the centrality of Christ is lost.