New York City. Flickr

This Is It!

Three days “in search of the human face.” With scientists, business managers, students and many other people from all walks of life, it was a surprising journey into a theme which, these days, means entering a debate.
Mattia Ferraresi

You can plan an event (as evidenced by the unfortunate title “event planner” that crept into common usage some time ago). But it is impossible to plan an encounter. An encounter is unpredictable. It can’t be decided around a conference table, because it exceeds the sum of its parts, like a math problem that you rework a thousand times but never adds up. At the New York Encounter, you see the unpredictable fruit that exceeds your plans, the calculation that just doesn’t add up is right in front of your eyes. You plan it; it happens.

This year the theme was “In Search of the Human Face,” an exploration of the topic of identity, a question underlying many of the debates in America today. The title was inspired by a quote from Fr. Giussani: “There is nothings mesmerizing as the discovery of the real dimensions of one’s own ‘I’, nothing so surprising as the discovery of one’s own human face.” From there, we just followed what happened.

This is how the three days (January 16-18) in the Big Apple went by: with talks, exhibits, and world renowned professors; familial meals over plates of pasta amatriciana; music and witnesses; a common interest in what is noble and transcendent; and the simple work of an army of volunteers (over 300) clothed in purple t-shirts, all in a gleaming new location in the heart of Chelsea, amidst its artists and post-industrial lofts. Still, all these factors fall short of explaining what happened to Dr. Brad Stuart, a declared atheist who was invited to speak about caring for the elderly. “I can truly say that participating in the NewYork Encounter, even for a day, was an event that changed my life.”

Not Missing a Minute
When he saw “The Beautiful Road,” the documentary put together to mark 60 years in the life of the Movement, he was overwhelmed: “This is it! This is what I was looking for.” And to think that, when he had seen the New York Encounter website and all its references to the Church, he had thought about backing out. In the end, he was so engrossed in the documentary, so intent on not missing a minute, that he forgot about lunch. He had been invited because of the thoughtful and human way in which he encouraged care for elderly patients in their homes, rather than transferring them to hospitals; and that day in New York was what finally broke down his preconception that the humanity he engages in his work is at odds with Christianity.

It’s the same point that the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, expressed with an incisive joke in his introductory remarks, speaking of Fr. Giussani’s charism. “For [Fr. Giussani], God and man were not like oil and water, but more like gin and vermouth.”A total change of perspective. As Stuart and others said later, “If this if the Church, then I’m interested.” An encounter happens like this, an overwhelming impact and a surprised response. It’s the same reaction that we saw in Martin Nowak, professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard. He participated in a roundtable on human evolution, about the place where the human face literally emerged, which could be reduced to determined biological processes or could be considered using a wider lens of reason. “One thing I know after these two days is that I have to study Giussani,” the scientist told us. What is a human being? This is the question that has always fascinated paleontologist Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program exhibit that has drawn over 25 million visitors to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.We saw the question expressed as an intimate and personal entreaty by those who gave witnesses explaining how they, in their various circumstances, were changed by their encounter with the person of Fr.Giussani, even if they did not meet him in person. Only thanks to this could Kim Shankman, Dean of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, say that her 16-year-old son John, who spent long days in a coma after a car accident (see Traces,January 2014),“is a witness of the positivity of reality,” because he “belongs to an Other who will save him.”

Looking at the human face, we see the traces of an Other. At times, the attempt to recognize those traces takes us on winding roads as we grasp at what strands of truth we can find. One such attempt is the effort to create “new rights” to fill in the gaps missing when we don’t account for that Other, explained Marta Cartabia, Vice-President of the Constitutional Court of Italy, and Jennifer Nedelsky, University of Toronto Professor of Law. Alternatively, “you fill the emptiness of existence by constantly being connected”–another substitute for the infinite connection for which we all long, as described and unpacked by sociologist Christian Smith and researcher Donna Freitas.

The Key
“Understanding our humanity means understanding our dependence,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, in his presentation on disabilities. He spoke alongside Timothy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, who carries the traces of his Kennedy family ancestry in both his way of speaking and his square jaw. JFK was his uncle, but he spoke more about Rosemary, his aunt who was born with a severe disability and from whom he learned“unconditional love.” Jean Vanier, theologian and founder of the L’Arche community of homes for people with disabilities, gave his contribution to the discussion with a moving video interview.

Saying that the human face becomes visible in our dependence is a precarious but captivating hypothesis. It challenges our human reason at every level, as Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete reminded us in the 2004 video “What is Man That You Care for Him?”,which was projected as an homage to the dear friend who recently passed away. He spoke, as always, of the mystery of the Incarnation. “The key to the Christian life is this,” he said: “Before becoming the center of the cosmos and of human history, Christ was a lump of blood in the womb of a woman.” What tools do we have to verify this hypothesis of the Eternal entering history? In the final talk of the weekend, Fr. Julián Carrón spoke again about the infallibility of the heart. The heart doesn’t leave us in our uncertainty; it recognizes a correspondence that is objective, though “we have to learn how to use this criterion.” It’s a question of educating our freedom, because “God’s method is to beg of our freedom, to pass through it to reveal Himself.” Our problem, Fr. Carrón explained, is “poverty of heart. It seems so small to us, but it is everything. And, pay attention, it’s a problem of knowledge, not of ethics. It’s not a question of coherence, but of relationship.” Like a child who “is certain when he is with his mother, not when he becomes more capable.”

Frank and the Eyes of Angels
The heart is like the human chord that resonated in those who witnessed and were a part of what happened at New York Encounter: the experiences that overwhelmed and left them in wonder, whether in ways that caught the attention of many, or were written in the smiles of the volunteers who greeted you at the doors; the teens who spent the whole weekend cooking; in the inner conversions seen only by the eyes of angels; or in the mystery of suffering like that of Frank Simmonds. He was one of the leaders of the New York CL community, with a past that included heavy drug use and prison time. He was among the faces in the video marking the Movement’s six decades. After years of battling cancer, he passed away on Monday morning. He waited until after the Encounter to take his leave for his encounter with the Mystery.