Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Last week I had the privilege of hearing Daniel Cardinal DiNardo speak at a benefit dinner for the John Paul II Life Center in Austin. His keynote address was engaging and thought-provoking, and ranged from humorous to serious. The Cardinal made so many interesting points that I ended up filling multiple scraps of paper with notes (all the while lamenting that I hadn't had the forethought to bring a pen and a notebook), but there was a particular story he recounted that I've been thinking about ever since.
Cardinal DiNardo told us about the amazing experience of his first ad limina visit to Rome back in the 1990s, shortly after he'd been made the bishop of Sioux City, Iowa (including the anecdote about walking in to the papal quarters to see Pope John Paul II leaning over and squinting at a paper on his desk, trying to find Sioux City on a map). The Cardinal talked about what a momentous occasion it was to meet the great pontiff. Then, he recounted, at the end of his visit, the Holy Father paused to say something to him that he has never forgotten:
Pope John Paul II leaned in and said, "Remember, Your Excellency, it's all about the human person." I'm paraphrasing from memory, so his exact words may have been slightly different, but the point of it was:
Don't ever forget that it all comes back to individual human souls.
I was blown away by that simple but profound piece of advice. I could see how it would be just what a new bishop needed to hear. It must be tempting to get caught up in the whirl of pressing administrative demands, and to think of your main job as being about budget reviews or staffing concerns or running an efficient diocesan office. Bishops have so much important, large-scale work that needs to be done, I would imagine that it could be easy to lose sight of the individual souls out there that they're called to shepherd.
Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is particularly timely advice not just for bishops, but for every single Catholic living in the modern world.
It's an ironic fact that as our connectedness has increased, our intimacy has decreased. As more and more of our interactions with fellow human beings occur through dots on glowing monitors, it's increasingly tempting to forget about the souls behind those pixels. We see a status update we don't like, and dash out a response that lashes out at the ideas alone, using words that we would never employ if we spoke them while looking into another person's eyes. When we try to spread the faith in the online world, we're tempted to get lost in theories and arguments, seeing only words on screens, and not the men and women who write them. We text loved-ones instead of calling, send emails with pictures instead of visiting.
The late Holy Father's words to Cardinal DiNardo have almost a prophetic ring when we consider them in light of our times. His simple exhortation is clear, memorable, and is the most important thing for any of us to keep in mind as we navigate through our technology-filled lives. I wish that I could make that quote appear in the startup screens of my phone and laptop and tablet, so that I could never enter the online world without hearing John Paul the Great say, "Remember, it's all about the human person."