The most important questions we can ask are the ones that inquire into the nature of God, reality and ourselves. Of these, there are a few that find their answers in all three. I found myself reflecting on one of these questions recently, and was compelled to find a suitable answer.
So, then, I asked myself: What is a person?
To answer this question, I turned first to a dictionary, which offered a possible solution. It defined the word “person” as “an individual, physical being, distinct from other creatures by virtue of humanity.”
, I thought. I decided to broaden my search.
I tried again, asking my question of several college students. One student, in reply to my question, said that a person is “a living creature with a mind and a soul.” Another simply responded with, “A human being.” Thinking that perhaps undergrads were not the most ideal source from which to draw a definitive answer, I climbed a bit higher up the academic ladder, hoping for the best.
I asked a philosophy professor my question, and he defined a person as “an individual substance with a rational nature.” Soon after, a biology professor told me that she could only answer me “in terms of man’s relation to other species.” These answers, of course, confused me even more.
The reality is, there exist many different ideas about what a person is, and the majority of these ideas, although certainly true, are often vague, incomplete, and shallow. As Catholics, we know that a person is much more than can be captured in the few abstract nuts and bolts of a dictionary or in the lofty language of philosophy, and we realize that a better, more thorough definition is needed.
This question of personhood is raised in Bishop Kagan’s second pastoral letter, a thought-provoking message entitled
“...and so man became a living being.”
Among several other intriguing topics, he discusses the Church’s understanding of the human person and attempts to answer the question of what a person is by illustrating where we, as persons, come from, and where we are going.
The bishop states two objective truths that elegantly summarize the Church’s teachings on the dignity of the human person. The first, he tells us, is this: As individual persons, we are distinct from all other created things because we are formed in the image and likeness of God; our dignity is given to us by God and God alone. Our dignity can, therefore, never be destroyed, undermined, or taken away.
Second, through Christ, persons have an eternal end as well. When God became man, born to live alongside us and eventually die for us, he confirmed our salvation and invited us all to be with Him in paradise. The mystery of the Incarnation calls us to participate in the life of God forever in heaven, and that calling is at the core of our humanity.
To realize one’s unique purpose, then—both as a member of the human race and an individual person—is to discover a truly staggering reality: to paraphrase Benedict XVI, every one of us is consciously willed by God, loved overwhelmingly by Him, and entirely necessary to His plan for His creation.
Somehow, this profound truth seems to inevitably escape us, but it’s not something we can afford to forget about for very long. We are meant to be stunned by the depth of divine love that springs from this reality—knowing that we were each created out of love by God to share in His own life – and we are meant to live as if we truly believe it.
This answer, I think, is more than enough for me.
Charley is a student at the University of Mary in Bismarck and a freelance writer for the DCA. This column is the first in a series discussing Bishop Kagan’s latest pastoral letter, “…and so man became a living being.” Hard copies can be requested by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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