The human person

Introduction                       Person                           Family                             Education

The person

(First talk of the Person, Family and Education series 1950) 

If you ask young people what they admire most in a man they would probably talk about strength, sports and cycling champions, and feats of outstanding successes in the field of work. 

If you were to ask the majority of girls what they admire most or what they most envy in a woman they would probably talk of cinema stars, or of women who are loved because they are wealthy, live in comfort, and so on. Ask them what they are most anxious to have for themselves, and the answer will probably be wealth, pictures, and dance halls. 

The boys, the mass of boys and men as well as of girls and women, must learn through missionaries and apostles to reflect about their own dignity and their own value. Girls and women above all demand that this dignity be respected, far more than men and particularly by men. 

This first lesson is indeed difficult and I ask you to think about it. You must not go about tomorrow saying: "Canon Cardijn said this, that, and the other." It is a matter of reflecting and of being convinced yourselves. Because this is a truth of which we must ourselves be convinced personally. We say and proclaim that all the gold in the world compared with a man has little value. Do we really believe it? But we say it and when the young workers say it, do they understand it? 

We have, therefore, to try and understand and realise the first fundamental truth which lies at the root of all rights as well as of all duties, at the root of religion itself, at the root of the struggle to get rid of the proletariat. It is a primary, fundamental, essential and universal truth, which admits of no exceptions. It is true for the negroes, the Chinese, the Hindus, the Japanese just as it is for the whites. And it is as true in every age for a child who has just been born as it is for others; it is true for them all. It is a universal truth to which there cannot be the slightest exception; it is the same for those who don't understand it, and for those-for instance people in asylums- who cannot understand it. It is true even for them. 

Why must we respect a madman, why must we respect a child when it is two days old, why can't we kill it or abandon it, why must we respect the little black working girl in a cotton mill where conditions are now even worse than with us fifty years ago? Why respect her, help her, and support her and recognise in her a supreme dignity? The poorest of the Chinese or Indians or the one thousand two hundred million of girls, women and children; for them all this same truth is essential no matter how old they are, no matter what their conditions are. In the working boy and the working girl just as much as in a king or an empress, in a wicked man utterly corrupt, in the woman utterly lost, the prostitute, the woman of evil life; in all of them there is a dignity that everybody, even those who some-times have to act against them, must respect. 

I say that this truth is the truth which is the most necessary truth at this time and in the world such as it will be in 1951, 1952, 1953, and during the half century now beginning. 

This truth can be put shortly: each young working boy, each young working girl, each man, is a person, a person like the Three Divine Persons. 

We must understand what this word person stands for and what is the reality expressed by the word. All the young working boys and girls of the world, whether they be black or yellow, brown or white, no matter what their race or their age, each young working boy, each young working girl, each young man, each girl and each man is a person. 

In the scale of beings the person is the being on this earth which has the highest perfection, and shares in the perfection of God; a person is very close to being a God because it shares in God's perfection which we express when we say "God is a person." 

Let us try to see other beings and to compare them with men. 

Among beings which exist the minerals come lowest in the scale: iron, sand, earth, stone with everything which can be made out of them: machines, instruments of work, robots which are being increasingly used in industry and shops. They are inanimate things. They can be solids, liquids, or gases, they can even be made to change from a solid to a liquid by different processes, as we see with petrol and oil. They can be made into gases and can become vapour, fog, clouds. They are thus inferior beings, but which are splendid things all the same. We have only lately begun, thanks to science, to penetrate into the wealth these beings contain; by analysis we are discovering energies unknown until now, such as hydrogen and the atom. It is, I say, splendid. 

Above these things there are those we call the vegetable kingdom: plants, trees, cereals. They possess extraordinary properties which we have not yet succeeded in analysing thoroughly, properties which are superior to physical and chemical properties: these beings are living. Plants are living, and this marvellous property causes the seed to grow, whence comes the shoot, the flower and the fruit. The life of the plant is a marvellous thing that we can't admire enough. Not only do these plants grow but they reproduce. They produce a seed which in due course also becomes a vegetable. And they can be improved; there are plants and wild trees which have been cultivated and are now our domestic vegetables and fruit trees. Through various processes they can even be made to produce more; even the colour of flowers can be changed, as you can see in the tulip fields of Holland. 

Then come the animals, which possess a property of life much more developed and totally different from the life of plants. They can feel - strike a dog and it will yelp. You have no right to hurt it. The animal kingdom with all its wealth of feeling and mobility; animals can move about by themselves. You can even, extraordinarily enough, tame them. Even bears and pigs can be domesticated, and like the horse and the ox be made animals which help man, carry burdens and pull vehicles. 

All these beings have a splendour which we must appreciate. 

This is where we have to start thinking. Above all these beings, above even the strongest such as the elephant or the tiger, above them all there is man. 

Man is not an animal, man is not a machine; he is not a vegetable; he has a value and a dignity infinitely greater than the whole of creation, he is what we call the king of creation. 

Why are there minerals, vegetables, and animals? All of them are for the service of man, for man and all men, not merely for a few wealthy or powerful men, but for all men without exception. Nature is at the service of man, it is a means for man to develop himself, clothe, feed, and lodge himself and cultivate himself, to live and be really a man. We must therefore not be satisfied with saying that a man is more than an animal because a man is quite different from an animal. We must try to understand what this dignity is which belongs to him and is different from all the characteristics of other creatures; and we must ask ourselves what do boys and girls think, what do they admire most in a person. 

It is not the body of a man which is the person, although the body shares in the dignity of the person. There is no person on earth without a body. (God is pure spirit.) All men are persons incarnate in a body and that is why you have not the right to treat the body of a man as you treat the body of an animal. You have no right to ill-use the body of man. Scholars have no right to use the body of a man as they use bodies of animals, for experiments which go against the dignity of the body of a man. 

Young men and women admire strength and beauty of body. If they understand by this that the body is of the greatest value, they make a mistake. Nevertheless, the body has a value all its own, because without it a man or woman would not exist. 

Is it then the soul which in man makes the person? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the soul is certainly the essential principle; but there is no soul separate from a body. There are not two things; on one side, a soul which is a person and on the other a body which is the instrument for that person. A person is a soul which is incarnate in a body, acts by the body, and is given value by the body. 

Is it the intelligence of man which constitutes the person? The intelligence is a property of the person, but there are persons who because of some particular circumstances are with-out intelligence, such as the people in asylums. They seem to have nothing else but a little vegetative life. But still they remain persons. So it is not the intelligence which constitutes the person. We must respect people in mental asylums, they cannot be killed off. 

Is it then the will? Yes, but not only the will. The will is also a faculty, a property, of the person. 

It must not be thought that the person is constituted by a succession of actions or even by being conscious of itself. The person is that being which is unique in the world whom we name when we say "I." I am this "Someone." The other beings are "something" but I am "someone," and note that "I'' have been this someone since my birth, and I am the same now in spite of all the changes that my person has under-gone. But what makes me me has remained the same. I could even write the story of my person. I remember the first time I went to school, and all the things my mother taught me. 

All that is the person. 

Now think about that. This being which remains identical with itself in spite of all the changes it undergoes, will remain so for the whole of eternity. It will actually be "I" who will be with God. It is actually "I," and not another, who am eternal. The person is a being identical with itself, distinct from all others, belongs to itself, is incommunicable. 

You can put iron with another metal and make a third. You can mix water with petrol. But you can't mix one man with another, the person is a being which cannot be com-municated. You can say I love you, I give myself entirely to you, I give myself entirely to God. .. but you remain yourself. 

I am a conscious being, but it is not consciousness which makes the person. It is man who is conscious. Sometimes I have acted wrongly and I regret it. I remember days when I acted wrongly and I am ashamed; an animal cannot do that. 

I am a being who can choose. I had to choose when I became a priest. I had to say like every person at some time: I am going to marry; or become a religious; I am going to become a priest; what am I going to do? Am I going to continue going to Mass?-l had to choose, and nobody could choose for me. The choice had to be mine, because I am free. Other beings are led by instinct, by inner forces, by chemical properties; but I, I can decide for myself. I can be hungry and yet not eat; I can be thirsty, and because I am shortly going to Mass, I do not drink. I am free and above all I am responsible. Being responsible means that you can answer for your whole life. I may be eighteen for instance, and difficulties will come in my way, but I want to become a priest and answer the call of God, and be responsible for my own life and that of others. 

An animal is not responsible. When a horse kicks its owner it is not responsible for the injury it does. 

I am responsible, that is, I am free to act or not to act; and therefore, when I know that something is wrong I don't do it, but when something is good I do it. 

That is why I have duties. A person essentially has duties and must perfect itself and become increasingly a person. A person is not like the pet animal which necessarily becomes what it has to become. A person progresses and must increasingly become itself. The unborn child is already a person: you have no right to kill it. If you let a newly-born child die of hunger, the child one day will say before the Judgement Seat of God, You my father or you my mother, killed me. It will say that because it is a person. 

The same is true for the poorest and lowliest in China, Japan, or Africa; each of these children is a person. It must be respected and recognised as a person; if it is misused it is possible that no one will know, and yet because it is a person, because it remains identical with itself, one day it will make you account for your action. 

On this earth the person is the most perfect being. It is a being which in itself is its own end. In a certain sense I live in order to remain a person for all eternity and St. Paul says "Everything belongs to you and you belong to God." We, each of us, is an end. 

Other beings are instruments and means. The person is inviolable and sacred; no one must touch it, or use it as a means. 

Finally, every human person has a mission and a part to play, that is, a vocation. Why does it exist, why is it on this earth? On this earth it has a vocation and must answer the call of God. 

A person must have personal relationships with other beings and especially with other persons, relationships of person with person and not those of owner with object owned, or of a factory manager with a machine. A worker must not be con-sidered merely for the amount he produces. All persons however poor they are have personal relationships, not those of owners with property, which would be slavery. 

These relationships which persons have with each other always demand respect. I must treat you as a person, I cannot despise you because you are poor; I must treat you as I would treat God himself. Christ said, "What you do to the poorest and weakest person you do to me." I must respect the person as I would respect God himself. Imagine the incredible and revolutionary value of that truth. The most ordinary young labourer, the most ordinary working girl, a pit brew girl, must be respected and recognised as a person; they must also be helped to be conscious that they are persons. We must help them to become persons, to emancipate themselves, to personalise themselves. That is why out of respect for the person we must overcome the condition of the proletariat. 

We can sum up the human person by saying that on this earth he is the being who is the image of God and the resem-blance of God here below; and that is why every person is indestructible. It could be annihilated, but it cannot be destroyed. We call it immortal, and by that we mean that even death cannot destroy it. Death will not completely destroy the body; it will rise again because it is part of the person. Christ rose, body and soul, and we also, body and soul, will rise again. The person is eternal, shares in the eternity of God, for its happiness, or its unhappiness: It will be damned or happy as a person. 

I have tried to give you a few characteristics of what a person is in itself, the "I" of each human person, what brings it about that the person is "someone" and god-like. In order to understand that properly we must not only think but above all ask God to help us, because in the very essence of the person there is a mystery, and a truth so deep that we can never succeed in understanding it as it is completely. But we must believe it; we must believe in the personal value of every human being, in the personal dignity, the personal mission, the personal vocation and the eternal vocation of every human being. 

In the person there is a kind of paradox or contradiction. From one angle a person is the weakest thing there is (for instance, a small child of one or two years old); it needs someone to help it; the person is therefore dependent on others and cannot do without them. But on the other hand, a person is a being which possesses a certain perfection, must be respected by all, and ought by itself to become more and more perfect and realise its own perfection. 

There are in fact two contradictory explanations of what a person is. Everybody says "you are a person," but some give a materialist explanation of it. They say that man consists only of matter. This matter has doubtless evolved, progressed, and changed but really there is only matter. There is no God and no soul. Matter is eternal (materialism); but this matter by inner forces and diverse reactions became alive after millions of years. First there were plants and animals, then after hundreds of millions of years, and because of the constant struggle for life, the person emerged as a result of that struggle, but above all as the product of that struggle. That is how the person was formed, say the materialists, a being becoming conscious of itself, freeing itself, realising it was responsible. But the person for them is merely the result and the conclusion of a long struggle which material forces waged among themselves; little by little they gave birth to a life increasingly conscious and free-the person. 

The class struggle is the historic means, laid down by the dialectic of history in order that men shall become more and more conscious that they are persons. 

Notice that this materialist explanation is really a serious menace to the human person; because if the person is merely the result of a struggle, then the personality can also be despised and degraded. Today by science we can already destroy or change a man's personality, as we see in the case of Cardinal Mindzenty and other recent trials. By these psychological and technical methods personality can be changed and the person can again be dragged down to the level of an automaton. 

Mark well how dangerous this materialist conception is for the human person. If the latter is merely the result and the culmination of change and progress, what guarantee is there that it has reached its final stage? And what guarantee is there that there are no races or persons who should be at the service of others? There you have the origin of fascism and the heresy of racialism. What guarantee is there that the working class is not meant to be at the service of an allegedly intellectual class? An economic regime can reduce the working class to the rank of robots. Men, women and children will be made into mere producers; their children will be placed in creches, and in nursery schools and they will be brought up as you bring up animals. And this is already being done. I therefore beg you, first for ourselves to try and understand better than we do how crucially important this materialist explanation is, and then we shall confront it with the Christian and spiritual explanation. 

How do we explain the dignity of that being which in itself is a person? 

First, we explain it because for us there exists a person who is eternal, all-powerful and infinite; a person who is the person of all persons and who has always had that personal existence, total, complete, definitive: God. And this God is love personified, love which desires to have its own eternity, its own happiness, its own love freely shared by other beings: God, the Father of creation, God, Father of the Redemption and of the salvation of all men. 

God himself created the world, its minerals, plants, and animals, to witness to his all-powerfulness and his love. That was why at the head of creation he placed persons like himself who had received something divine and immortal and who, like God, are free, made in his image and in his likeness. We call them sons of God, his collaborators and his heirs. When man refused that responsibility by the first sin he refused to respond to the call God made. 

Then it was that God himself decided to become man himself to save man despite himself. God long prepared that union of God with human nature, with the soul, the intelligence and human body carried by a divine person. Throughout the whole history of the world he called men to form a people which should prepare his birth. God born of a woman would come on this earth to save all men and restore to them their dignity, their consciousness, their respect, their vocation,, their destiny as persons, and their eternal destiny. 

He prepared that through the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then by the prophets, Moses, David, Isaiah, whom he sent to remind the people that it had been chosen by God to make known the personality of God and the personality of all men. It was then that Christ was born. 

The gospel really explains the human person; it is the explanation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that admirable person, the Son of God, with a mission and a vocation to fulfil. When we see the person of Our Lord we then understand to what a dignity God intends to call men. It was Our Lord who said: "You will love the poorest of men as you love me; you cannot love God unless you love men, and especially the poorest and the humblest." Note how he speaks of the person of children: "Cursed is he who scandalises a child or harms a child; it would be better for him if a millstone were placed round his neck and he were thrown into the sea." Those are the words of Our Lord. He ordered that children should be respected, that the young working girl should be respected, even the adulterous woman and the street girls. They must be helped and saved. 

Respect for the person and help for the person; he helped the sick and the paralysed; he even brought the dead back to life in order to show the eternal destiny of the human person; and at the end he was willing to die in order to show the high value he had for all persons, of all races, for the whole of mankind. 

The Church was founded by Our Lord to proclaim the respect due to the person, to the weakest as to all the others. And Our Lord continues this teaching in the Church and in the world, through the missionaries, the organisers, the leaders, the bishops, the priests, the religious; in order to teach all men-blacks, Chinese, Indians, everybody-that they are human persons, that God has called them to a personal dignity, that they are the heirs of God. By missionaries and apostles the Church publishes throughout the world respect for the human person. 

Pope Pius XII speaks constantly of the respect due to the human person. Recently he said to journalists: "The Press must above all respect the human person." He said to judges and magistrates: "We must respect the human person." A few weeks before he had received doctors and scholars who invent medicines and treatments, which, alas, can kill as well as cure, and to them he said: "Science must respect the person, doctors must respect the person. In clinics, in hospitals, in universities the person must be respected." 

Today in the history of the world, we have come to a moment that has been called "The hour of the person." We have arrived at a moment when on one side there are the greatest possibilities and on the other the greatest dangers. That is why the present time is a providential and revolutionary time. The hour of the human person, without distinction of race or continent, and of every class without exception. They must all be saved and they can all be saved. 

That has never been possible until now, because the nations lived separated from each other and formed a closed system into which you could not succeed in entering because of distance or the difficulties of crossing mountains, marshes, and deserts. Today, by aeroplane, you can go anywhere, and we owe this also to the radio, to the cinema, and other technical achievements. Today it is possible to reach all the persons in the world and tell them their dignity as men. 

For instance, in India more than half of the children used to die before they were a year old; millions of children were born and died almost at once. There are still some peoples where the average length of life is 23, 27, 32 years. Now thanks to hygiene and science it is possible to extend the expectation of life in some places to 67 years. The difference is immense. 

The same applies to illiteracy in the world. There are people who cannot read or write, 90 per cent, in some countries. And what is worst in the history of mankind is that it is woman who is most often sacrificed. No respect is shown to them and the personality of the woman, of the young working girl, is despised. In North Africa there are three hundred and fifty thousand Mohammedans; the women are not educated and cannot be educated, for as soon as they grow up they must be veiled. Now a change is coming. It is due to science, because they are going into factories, and there is no alternative but to go into the factories. It is the moment when the personality of the woman and the girl is being expressed, and that is why today more than ever we must know the dignity of the person. 

Today we talk a great deal of a "concentration camp world," of a world made up of countries which have been made into camps. In the last few years millions and millions of persons have been killed, millions of others have become displaced like animals or pieces of furniture. Since the war there have been between 80 and 100 million displaced persons. There are thousands of them in Belgium and in all the countries of Europe; it is even worse in Africa and also in America. Imagine how in all that respect for the person is lacking; when really it is possible to save all the persons in the world. 

Where is the problem of the person most acute? In the working class, in the proletariat, where the person is not sufficiently respected or recognised. We must learn to respect the person of the worker, of the young worker and of the young working girl. When shall we see these hundreds of millions of young working boys and girls respected in their work, their leisure, and the preparation of their future? 

We must first understand and bear witness to the dignity of the person; but it will not be enough to be a witness, we must commit ourselves as persons who have consecrated themselves, priests and leaders, to defend this dignity of the person in the factories, the workshops, the offices. 

In order to do that, in order that we shall he able to make others understand it, I ask this from you: meditate more and more on what the human person is, and first of all about our own personality, our own dignity, our own responsibility as persons. We proclaim that we have heard the call Christ makes to us, that we are pledged to Christ the Worker; well, that is a call to personality, to a divine vocation, to be missionaries. We tell the workers to be proud of themselves - it is part of our outlook. But it is not enough to sing and proclaim it: we have to believe it and communicate it to others. 

In order to believe it and give it to others we must reflect and try to have a better understanding of her who as a person, was the most total, the most perfect and the most holy, and who as a human person is for men and women the highest example of their dignity. Think more often of what Our Lady was. Not like children or those who have religiosity and who do it out of habit; but reflect and understand why Mary plays and will play an increasingly important part in the Church. She is the most divine and the most perfect incarnation of the person. She was merely a poor working girl; she was not a nun, she was the fiancee of a worker, the wife of a worker, the mother of a working family, yet she was the Immaculate, the Virgin Mother, the most Holy Mother of God and of all men. She was a poor working woman. Why did not God choose an empress, an educated woman, a woman of commanding presence? He took the humble, poor, and simple working girl and she remained all her life in the working world; she did not go into a palace and live there with Our Lord; she lived only with the simple, she the highest, the most perfect, and the great collaborator with God. Without her there would have been no Christ, no Church, no Pope, no Bishops, no Sacraments, no salvation for the entire earth. And Our Lady remained a poor working woman. 

We ought to reflect deeply about that; it is the most beautiful example and at the same time the best and the most influential. She is the mother who, at this moment when the human person is in such danger, will play with her Son in the Church an important part, so as to make men increasingly understand how they must respect the smallest human person; respect a servant, a charwoman, a pit brew girl, a factory girl, a mill girl, and all the others; respect the least important of our workers in our working world, whether it be in office or factory. 

Do not be satisfied with having listened for an hour to what really needs continual meditation; a meditation on that truth which is at the root of the dignity of every human person, respect for the human person which is the image and the resemblance of the divine person. 

The Y.C.W. does not exist merely to proclaim a truth; it exists in order to begin a decisive phase in the Church of tomorrow, among the whole of mankind and for that part of mankind which is the worst off, the working class; so that the reproach of being "the damned of the earth" and "the prisoners of hunger" shall end; so that all shall feel increasingly, shall understand and shall wish to be, persons, sons, collaborators, and heirs of God.

Joseph Cardijn, 1950

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