By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
The Italian Bishops’ Conference recently sponsored a program called: “Digital Witnesses: Faces and Languages in the Cross-Media Age.” Their discussion, and the address Pope Benedict gave to them, can also be helpful to us and so we use them as our topic this week.
Seeing through to a deeper reality
You may have heard of and seen a type of stone material called alabaster. There are a couple of types of this stone. One type we sometimes see used in the small artistic objects that are fashioned from alabaster to make beautiful pieces, which are very pleasing to the eye. Alabaster can also be cut into thin sheets. When cut in this way, one of the great and hidden beauties of alabaster appears: the effect that is brought about when light shines through it. For this reason, many venerable European churches have made use of alabaster for small windows. More recently, in our own country, the new cathedral in my own birthplace of Los Angeles makes use of large panes of alabaster, replacing the traditional stained glass windows and allowing the light that shines through to create the atmosphere of the interior.
We might say that, as beautiful as alabaster is in itself, its true beauty is only perceived when we allow light to shine through it. The light takes what begins as cold, hard stone and softens its effect and creates great beauty. If we had been content to just leave it in its native state, without allowing light to shine through it, we would have been deprived of its full possibilities.
We can use that same imagery with the human person. The human person is a remarkable creation of interconnecting parts and organs. The result is a “machine” capable of great physical feats. However, what separates the physical person and his or her abilities from the physical abilities of animals is the unseen element. This element is composed of the mind’s ability to think, to know and to reason. It would also include the ability of the human person to love. All of these possibilities, including the possibility of eternal life, come from the element of the person which we call the soul. We cannot see it, but it shines through in the total glory of the human person.
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” describes this aspect of the human person in this way: “With his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul, which is the seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material” (CCC, 33).
The digital age and its possibilities
When we look at the remarkable advances in the means of communication we have witnessed in our own lifetimes, we are often overwhelmed at the thought of these advances. We rightfully admire those who have invented them and those who continue to develop them, with ever greater possibilities. However, like the human person and like the alabaster we spoke of, unless the light of humanity shines through these technological marvels and gives them a “soul,” they become mere machines and we become blinded to their exalted possibilities as well as to their dangers.
This does not mean that we view these means of modern communications with fear, nor are we threatened by them in our lives as Christians. However, it is our very power of judgment that enables us to call them to their higher purpose and use them for the purposes of truth, virtue and genuine knowledge. In his address to those gathered for the Conference I mentioned above, Pope Benedict spoke of the possible spanisions created between those who have the means of technology at their disposal and those who do not.
He said: “One speaks, in fact, of the ‘digital spanide.’ It separates the included from the excluded and adds to the other discrepancies that separate nations from each other and spanide them internally. The dangers of control, of intellectual and moral relativism, of truth reduced to the play of opinions, of the multiple forms of the degradation and humiliation of the human person in his intimate dimension enables us to witness a polluting of the spirit, which makes us smile less, makes our faces gloomier, less likely to greet each other or look each other in the eye” (Address, 24 April 2010).
The challenge of our Holy Father is to give a “soul” to modern means of communication, such as the Internet. This would enable us to make use of this, and so many other means of modern communication, but with both a critical and zealous spirit: a wholesomely critical spirit, that will not allow ourselves to be manipulated by distortions of the truth, and a zealous spirit that will enable us to use these means of communication for the spread of the Gospel, the increase of virtue and a deepening of human knowledge.
The “information highway”
You may have heard of the expression “information highway,” sometimes used to describe the technologies of the modern media, and especially the Internet. This is a term that presents us with a great challenge in living and proclaiming the Gospel. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, connected these terms in an interesting way at the Conference we have been speaking about. He used the imagery found in the Gospels by which the apostles were sent forth to go onto the roads and highways in order to meet the people where they were conducting their lives and present them with the message of Jesus. Archbishop Celli reminded his listeners that this modern “information highway” is one of the places where we are called to go with the message of the Gospel.
This is one of the ways in which we resist what can become a dehumanization of the person because he or she has been replaced by something mechanical. This is also why these marvelous means of communication cannot ever hinder or take the place of human relationships. They can certainly be marvelous means of maintaining relationships already established. Many people are able to do this through email.
The Internet can also be a way of beginning a relationship, although this must be done with great caution. It is a beginning, but not a replacement. Some of our priests tell me that, more and more frequently, couples who come to be married often relate that they met on the Internet. This is a modern reality and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In some situations, it seems to take the place of the neighborhood. There is certainly a certain sadness in that because, as we have said, nothing can replace interpersonal relationships, but as a beginning it can be of great value.
Pope Benedict XVI put this into its proper context in his recently released Message for the 44th World Communications Day. He said that these means of “meeting” can “smooth the way for new encounters, always ensuring the quality of the human contact and care for persons and their real spiritual needs.”
Here in the Archdiocese, we have made every effort to make use of these means of communication to further the message of Jesus and improve the service we give in His name. If you have not made use of our Archdiocesan web site, you may wish to do so. You can find it at: http://archphila.org/home.php. I have also recently started a “Facebook” page! You can find that at: http://www.facebook.com/CardinalRigali?ref=nf. Like many of you, I do not claim a thorough understanding of these latest forms of media! However, it is one of the “highways” that we must go out upon in order to preach the Gospel more effectively.
Our Holy Father gives us a summary and challenge as we conclude our topic this week. Once again, it comes from the Address he gave to the conference I have referenced throughout this article. He said: “The media can become a factor in humanization not only when, thanks to technological development, they increase the possibilities of communicating information, but above all when they are geared towards a vision of the person and the common good. This demands that they focus on promoting the dignity of persons and peoples, clearly inspired by charity and placed at the service of truth, of the good, and of natural and supernatural fraternity. Only under those conditions can the epochal journey that we are undertaking become something rich and fertile with new opportunities. Without fear we want to set out upon the digital sea embracing the unrestricted navigation with the same passion that for 2,000 years has steered the barque of the Church. More than with technical resources, although necessary, we want to dwell in this universe with a believing heart, that contributes to giving a soul to the uninterrupted communicational flow of the Internet.”
6 May 2010