New York Encounter. Traces

Magnetic Attraction

Three days of presentations, exhibits, and performances in the pursuit of answering man’s true question. We took part in a public event that is the crossroads for the life of CL in the United States to see what generates it and the effect it has.
Luca Fiore

On the curbs you see the trees from this past Christmas. Tiny evergreens tied up with string, ready to be picked up by the trash collectors. On the eve of the blizzard at the end of January, the Big Apple had just bid farewell to Christmas lights and religious holidays. It is here that the New York Encounter sheds light on something forgotten and that (at least in America) people would rather not talk about. Something that causes embarrassment; one of those topics that you would rather spare yourself and others.

This “something” was revealed in the theme of this year, harkened in a verse from Edgar Lee Masters’ poem, George Gray: “Longing for the sea and yet (not) afraid.” Fear in front of the great journey of life. The desire, the nostalgia for something great on the one hand, and the reluctance to risk everything for that lack on the other. This “not,” inserted within the poet’s verse, shows that here at the Encounter there are people who believe that it does not have to be this way. That in America today, where polling institutions have been closely studying the “quarter-life crisis” (the paralysis of life experienced by disillusioned individuals at twenty-five years of age), fear is not the final word.

Fresh Air
The New York Encounter, in essence, is this: it is a place where Americans from all four corners of the continent have begun to live in a different way; have come together to experience a new intensity. A people who, instead of seeking shelter in their convictions, have decided to come here, to Manhattan, to tell everybody what they have discovered. In other words, coming to this event in New York really helps one to understand the life of Communion and Liberation in North America, and, one could add, Communion and Liberation itself. Fifteen presentations, 6 exhibits,3 shows, and 360 volunteers. Attendees numbered in the thousands. A three-day event clearly inspired by the Rimini Meeting. This year, the Encounter opened on the stage of the Metropolitan Pavilion with the words of Texas poet Christian Wiman: “I am struck by how often I can articulate a psychological dilemma, and being able to articulate it cannot rescue me from it...I think we live in a therapeutic culture, we think if we can just put words on it, then we will be released from our tensions; but I often find that’s not true, and I think what releases me are remembrances of moments when I was released.”

Those who come to the New York Encounter seem to be attracted by something close to what Wiman describes. Take for example Curtis and Rachel, a couple from Des Moines, Iowa. They asked their five friends from their School of Community (a weekly meeting of formation that is typical of the experience of CL) to take care of their five kids so that they could come to the Encounter. A brave gesture, to admit one’s own need to friends, and a rarity in the country that tries to conform itself to the image of the self-made man. But what is this need? “Recently we lost a child,” said Curtis. “It was a difficult time in our lives and we needed to go back to the last place where we clearly saw the face of Christ. Where we experienced Him.”

Or look at Emily, who amidst the noise of the restaurant area stands next to the young Juliette and wraps herself with a white shawl: “I left my three kids with some family friends. It was important to me to come. You know, I have a beautiful life, but often I am not able to realize it and I become sad. Here at the Encounter, I find people who teach me to see my life as it is. And for me, this is a breath of fresh air.”

At the Pavilion there were discussions about poverty, the environment, immigration, and research on outer space. The humanity of astronaut Tom Jones was visible here, as that of Priscilla La Porte, sister of Matthew, killed while attempting to stop the 2007 assailant atVirginia Tech, who took the lives of 32 other students before taking his own. And Joshua Stancil, a former inmate who rediscovered faith during the 18 years he spent behind bars, was also present.

An Investment
All lives are wounded, needy, but content. Not unlike the rest, this is the life of Fr. Branson Hipp, a man with the face of a child, ordained a priest just six months. He lives in Atlanta and attends a small School of Community with two families. “My friendship with them helps me understand my vocation,” he explains. “I need this friendship…it takes me back to the fascination I have lived for the person of Christ and that made me become a priest. After a few years in the seminary, I became cynical; I only saw the negative aspects of the Church. When I discovered the works of Fr. Giussani and CL, something snapped inside of me, that bridged the gap between the breviary and everyday life.”

The conference rooms of the Metropolitan Pavilion have a continuous flow of people going in and out (this year the number of attendees was 8,300 versus 5,500 in 2015).There are many families that brought with them even their youngest children. It is the occasion to see friends who live far away. It is a big sacrifice for everyone, but no one seems to regret it. A weekend in this city is very expensive, and in a country where people are inclined to save money, the decision to come to the Encounter means making a true investment. It seems that the attraction is worth the price of a plane ticket and a hotel. This also goes for those who come here to volunteer, and who forgo most of the scheduled events. Some forgo everything, including the exhibit on St. Junípero Serra of California, or that on the little world of Guareschi and Jannacci, or the contemporary music performance on the Psalms, or the staged piece on American music and poetry.

Among all the presentations, there was one organized by doctors who meet throughout the year to help each other look at the reason for their work. There is a similar gathering for teachers that meets annually. An event also takes place for members of Well-Read Mom, a network born in Crosby, Minnesota, an initiative of a CL mother that now includes dozens of groups throughout the country and world (see Traces, 11/2013).

Marta and Emad speak in Arabic between themselves. She was born in Jerusalem, to an Arab-Israeli family, and she lives in Toronto. At the Encounter, she curated an exhibit on the Christians in refugee camps in Jordan. He is Egyptian, and he met the Movement a number of years ago after moving to the United States. Emad is the host for Monsignor Amel Shamon Nona, the exiled archbishop of Mosul, a city taken by ISIS. He with the people of his diocese were forced to leave Mosul and now he leads the Chaldean Church in Australia.

Human Impact
The persecuted Christians were the ones who shook up the participants of the Encounter.During the discussion with Fr. Pizzaballa, the Custodian of the Holy Land, Monsignor Nona found himself repeating what he had been saying in the last few months: “The terrorists are afraid of a very happy Christian life.” In this instance, it is as if fear, mentioned in the title of the Encounter, has been abolished. Using different words, the same call back to the core of theChristian experience came from Fr. Julián Carrón at the conclusion of his talk at the Encounter: “A human impact is what can shake people up today. A human impact, not only as a set of values, not only a doctrine, not just preaching, but a human impact is what can shake people up today. An event that echoes an initial event in which we find the initial event.” It is here that the Spanish priest slammed his fist on the table. “Now! In the present. Otherwise, the Christian event is dead, it is something that remained in the past, that only rests in doctrines and traditions, but without any possibility of awakening desire now, and fulfilling it.”

Conquering Fear
And someone can feel this human impact come upon them even at the New York Encounter. Ashley and Nate, for example, are a young couple from Omaha, Nebraska. Nate grew up in a Protestant family and converted to Catholicism before getting married. He has cystic fibrosis. The option of staying home would have been much more comfortable, not to mention economical. Putting together the puzzle pieces of time off for the holidays, it was clear that for the first time he would not spend Christmas with his family, as this year he wanted to be in New York.

And his parents? His mother also came to the Encounter; she being the one who had not taken his “fling” with Catholicism well. Over the past few years she made the best of the situation–a good woman, a serious and devout woman, a volunteer in a rehabilitation community. Nate and his wife invited her without expecting her to say yes. “I spent a lot of time with my mother-in-law this weekend,” says Ashley. “She had spoken to me of her tendency to ‘not desire,’ to not expect much in order to not be disappointed. It struck me that this was the very same experience of Joshua, the inmate. But all of the encounters echoed the insistence of the possibility of conquering this fear. My mother-in-law was truly amazed.”The woman bought a copy of The Religious Sense by Fr. Giussani. She read through the first half of it in one night. She walked around the Encounter with her eyes wide open, and before getting on the plane to Nebraska she confided to her son and daughter-in-law: “I’ll use this as a text for the young women in the rehabilitation community.”