A "Whole Person Revolution"

How to begin again in the general unease that seems to dominate life? The New York Encounter 2019 posed this question to speakers and attendees, and what was revealed was an irreducible core able to make us protagonists again.
Letizia Mariani

I have never seen so many people unafraid to live and to live well.” These words of Anne Duchesne, a nursing student from Canada, perfectly captured the essence of the 2019 New York Encounter. Taking place on February 15-17, 2019, with thousands of attendees, about 400 volunteers, twenty-four talks, and four exhibits, the three-day cultural event in the heart of Manhattan was a reverberation of an uncontainable desire to live.

“The core of the issue is the heart, the theme of this Encounter is the heart,” said the president of the event, Riro Maniscalco, in a video interview. The theme in question was “Something to Start From,” a short but provocative title accompanied by a stirring quote from writer Cesare Pavese: “Has anyone ever promised us anything? Then why do we expect something?” “I’ve never been happier than I am this year about the absolute usefulness and relevance of the theme,” said Angelo Sala, one of the coordinators of the Encounter who, along with others, selected the theme based on a need observed in American society today. “What happened to the American dream? Did it ever make any sense? Because today it doesn’t,” remarked Maniscalco, commenting on the spark behind the theme’s idea of promise. “In America there is still a desire to build and be protagonists, but this desire is suffocated by a general unease,” added Sala. This unease, according to him, is primarily caused by societal disunity, a general crisis of identity, and demoralization in the face of the once-foundational pursuit of happiness. But all is not lost. “By looking even more attentively at our own experience,” continued Sala, “we did not stop at an analysis, but realized that this unease is not simply negative but reveals something else, positive and strong, in us.” From this discovery came the fundamental notion expressed in the 2019 theme: That “something” which is revealed is “an innermost, irreducible, decisive core marked by a stubborn expectation” that must be fostered in the America of today.

This something, this internal ache that thirsts for meaning, this cry that cues us to who we are, was the common thread running through the Encounter. Whether it be in a talk on the Sandy Hook shooting, a Bob Dylan exhibit, or a panel on human approach to business, each speaker came to the Metropolitan Pavilion not to give a self-gratifying speech on his or her area of expertise, but to be in dialogue with the pressing needs of others as well as one’s own. In the end, each panel and exhibit begged the question, “What does this have to do with you? And what does this have to do with me?” Such an all-encompassing approach is what allowed professor and art historian Francis Green to see in Andy Warhol’s "Campbell’s Soup Cans" the perhaps paradoxical signs of a genius “gazing on ordinary things.” Or what lead Pietro, a business student who contributed to the research for the “Kindness of Science” exhibit, to affirm that learning about doctor Takashi Nagai, a Japanese radiologist who survived the Nagasaki bombing and spent the rest of his life in service of the suffering, allowed him to “start to pay closer attention to things” and “learn more about [him]self.” Or what granted Enrico Petrillo, the husband of the late Chiara Corbella Petrillo, the space to affirm that on our journey to holiness we often claim that “if things were different, we would have been different. But life is written with the ‘yeses’ not with the ‘ifs.’” Or what pushed David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, to speak freely about his own life falling to pieces when he was consumed by work. “Freedom sucks when it is unattached,” he said in a panel alongside Fr. Javier Prades and moderated by John Zucchi. In the discussion titled “An Irreducible Expectation,” both Brooks and Prades spoke of the encounter of the human heart with modernity, which provides a false sense of freedom. Brooks shared intimate details of his search for meaning, plunging into his own heart and opening it up for all to see. “People in times of suffering are either broken, or they’re broken open. If they’re broken, they shrivel. If they’re broken open, they grow,” he stated after recounting the collapse of his idealized pull toward self-sufficiency. A response to the questions of man and his pursuit of desire in front of modernity, according to Prades, should come in the form of creative action–in order to transmit real values, the Church must be a tangible witness: “We need a humanly significant ‘encounter,’ precisely because the self matures in its capacity of knowing both reality and itself through a relationship with others, who put the self in movement. The self is fulfilled in a ‘you’ that the self recognizes as its own completeness.”

The New York Encounter is unlike anything else proposed in America today because, rather than being politically or socially partisan, it takes the entire person seriously. It is what speaker Anne Snyder, the Director of The Character Initiative at the Philanthropy Roundtable, would call a “whole person revolution,” a movement to meet the needs of the whole person. The Encounter allows people to engage with a wide range of timely topics without caving in to idealism or self-referentiality. Through it all, however, what pumps rejuvenating life into and sustains the dynamic of the Encounter is its consistent aim at taking the heart seriously in everything that is proposed, being faithful to it, and following it to the “something” it is seeking. As law student Matt Soltys exclaimed, “What a beautiful something!”

This “whole person revolution” spread like wildfire through the Pavilion, going far beyond just the speakers. Professor of Theology and Religious Studies Jaisy Joseph, for example, decided to come to the Encounter after watching last year’s talk “Out of Many, One: Really?” on YouTube and finding herself surprised to finally come across the kind of dialogue she had been craving. “Here was a space that did not infantilize lay people with top-down formulas but engaged them with real questions,” she explained. At the 2019 Encounter, Joseph was struck by the exhibit on the life of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, “From My Life to Yours,” put together by a group of GS students from across the United States. After her eyes filled with tears during a tour guided by two high school girls, Joseph “realized that the presence of these two young women evoked both a recognition and a hope within [her].” She continued, “[Communion and Liberation] does not numb this desire for more or dismiss it as idealistic or naïve. Rather, this movement encourages a person to start from that ‘something’ that is not satisfied with the status quo because it seeks after the abundant life that has been promised to us.” Then there was Patrick Tomassi, a volunteer who was asked to tend to speaker Jon Balsbaugh and was surprised again and again by his awe at watching “someone who does not belong to the experience of the Movement discovering the Encounter.” Duchesne, the Canadian nursing student, also new to Communion and Liberation and the Encounter, confessed that though she had been working on the “Kindness of Science” exhibit, she was dreading the three-day event. “[But] it soon turned into one of the most beautiful weekends of my life. I didn’t realize the weight of the Encounter,” she shared. “As I talked to other people about our exhibit, they made me realize how powerful this whole event was. We were there to share beauty with a world that craves it so deeply. The openness of the people involved in the CL movement has always astounded me, but this weekend especially. I felt like I had come home and met a family I didn’t know I had. […] There was never a feeling of wondering if I should be there, or if presenting the exhibit was something I was supposed to do. I knew that I belonged even though this was never spoken out loud.”

Unlike Joseph, Blasbaugh, and Duchesne, Beth Skinner had been to the Encounter before, but this year, for the first time, she was “able to be present without fear,” and discovered that in the vibrant life she saw before her, she was able to face herself: “The Encounter encouraged me and gave me the space and time to see myself and the events of this past year in the light of the truth of my identity–the identity I’m still learning to live.”

Even those who happened to be at the Pavilion working for the building were captured by what they saw occurring before their eyes. Maniscalco, who each year has the privilege to witness these encounters unfold firsthand, shared his amazement before technicians and security guards: “I love being with the people who work in the building,” said Maniscalco. “They love the Encounter, they love us. They listen to the presentations and they share their comments, the events of their lives, and they ask for advice. They acknowledge there is something exceptional about the Encounter and its people. Every year. It happens every year. Even that is a little seed of faith, hope, and love.” Brad Tretter, who volunteered in the welcoming area, recounted an episode that struck him more than most things that took place over the weekend. “As I was going up the stairs, I saw one of the ushers spinning a young boy in the usher’s chair. As I came back down, they were tossing a paper airplane back and forth to each other. They were both so happy and full of joy! I was so moved by this that I went back later and talked with the usher,” he said. “He told me how much the experience of the Encounter meant to him. He said he felt childlike...” Yet another example of this infectious life that calls out to the heart is that of José, a young security worker who hovered at the back of a GS assembly on the second floor of the Pavilion, moving ever closer, until he finally asked if he could speak and share his own experience of not being satisfied with his life.

At the Saturday afternoon panel “Do Not Be Afraid to Set Your Sights Higher,” Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, reminded the Encounter attendees that the Church must respond to the needs of the people. In the footsteps of Pope Francis, Archbishop Pierre, Fr. Julián Carrón, journalist Austin Ivereigh, and Fr. José Medina set out in a panel discussion to understand the role of the Church today. “The only possibility of responding to this situation is to announce the Christian event as it was announced for the first time,” stated Carrón, echoing Pierre, who claimed that the Church must break through its walls and tell people that they are loved by God. “The Pope says, ‘I dream of a Church in which she becomes missionary for the sake of the world and not for her own self-preservation,’” remarked Ivereigh, adding that the number of the faithful is decreasing because the Church is withdrawing from them. Is the Encounter missionary for the sake of the world, responding to the needs of the people?

While explaining the work that went into the selection of the 2019 theme, Sala asked, “Why is this ‘something’ relevant to America today?” The answer the coordinators came to through work and observation of their own experience was that the “something” that propels us forward “provides a method, a road to discovery,” that can “cure the discontinuity” that exists by “allowing sincere dialogue,” and can reorient the free pursuit of happiness in the hearts of Americans. After three days at the Encounter, it was clear that these were not just words. People from all walks of life were touched not only by the talks, the exhibits, the eclectic array of speakers, and the miraculous openness many experienced by engaging in free dialogue. People were moved by the freedom and vibrant shared life the Pavilion overflowed with, but even more they found themselves welcomed by that life–they perceived themselves as seen and embraced.

The New York Encounter truly differs from other initiatives because at its core is the human heart. For this reason, the effort expended in making the Encounter a reality cannot but bear fruit. But what our hearts are aching for, which was found in glimpses throughout the weekend, must be given a name. “It was evident that each person at the Encounter had met and encountered Jesus, craved another encounter with Him, and was living that which He calls us to,” said Soltys after his first time at the Encounter. Ellen Bauman, a veteran of the event, recognized the same things in her work preparing panels for an exhibit, and could point to specific faces of other volunteers who were, for her, the very real face of Christ. “It’s impossible to speak of this experience of Christ without it passing through the faces of Dr. Andrea Mariani, Dr. Elvira Parravicini, Dr. Gerard Brungardt, and Giovanni Lucertini, whose kindness and patience with me truly kept the memory of Christ alive and in the present,” she wrote at the end of the three days of work. “The exhibit is now stacked away and will begin to collect dust, but what Christ began in me through that work continues to this day, as do the friendships it brought about.”

The New York Encounter is over, but the life it generated, as Bauman said, “continues to this day,” and calls the wholeness of our being into action. From the arms of the Church and of the Movement, we go out into the world and “set our sights higher” because, as volunteer Joshua Layugan said, echoing the words of poet Paul Mariani, “The Christian experience is not subtle, it is an explosion of life."