Setting up for the New York Encounter

Rendezvous at the Heart of the City

Conferences, exhibitions, and shows… but the three days in Times Square was not a “festival” like others: at stake here was the bet that the Christian fact is something inherent within everything and the testimony of something greater.
Giacomo Maniscalco

“Excuse me, are all these meetings religious?” The question comes from below, an older lady out of Mass at St. Francis of Assisi in Manhattan, left hand leaning on a cane, right hand clutching a New York Encounter flyer handed to her minutes prior. Receiving a frown rather than an answer, she repeats the question, more forcefully: “Are these meetings all religious?” I instinctively glance at the flyer I’m holding, then say, “Yes, of course.” Walking away, the lady mumbled something about a previous engagement, but it didn’t matter. The tone of the question was actually rather hostile, almost implying that we had no business standing outside of a church inviting faithful Catholics to a non-religious event. Yet the answer I gave was natural and, in fact, 100% correct.

The New York Encounter publicized itself or, rather, was promoted by its humble organizers as a “weekend-long public festival in Times Square centered on relevant and fascinating presentations, artistic performances, exhibits, and information booths introducing a variety of charitable, cultural, and work-related initiatives.”

From the first moment that I saw the Broadway Ballroom at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square, there was an inherent feeling that I didn’t belong, that we, members of the Catholic movement of Communion and Liberation and sponsors of the New York Encounter, did not really belong in that grandiose, luxurious environment. The mere idea seemed farfetched, yet there we were, literally in the middle of the greatest city in the world, being ourselves and nothing more.

The New York Encounter took shape with the volunteer time put into it by countless people, as well as by the financial generosity of many more worldwide. People gave freely of themselves, from Saturday morning’s “set-up” crew to Sunday night’s “clean-up” crew, and everyone that came inbetween–ushers, those at the welcome desk, those at the booths and the exhibits–were all witnesses to something much greater than themselves. All this led to the first event, the Saturday night meeting and the first confirmation that I had not lied to that little old lady outside of Mass. The topic was the reason behind the entire New York Encounter: “Faith Lived in the Public Square,” taking, as its primary example, the Rimini Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, which is the largest Catholic public cultural happening in the world, a week-long event taking place annually in Italy in August. The keynote address was delivered by John Sexton, President of New York University, who took the podium, inviting everyone on a journey, his personal journey of understanding what it means to live faith in the public square or, essentially, what it means to live. Sexton told us about how teachers, important figures in his Brooklyn life of the 1950s, introduced him to this notion of openness to all that is human and the formation of a community of communities in this world. In a personal way, Sexton displayed enthusiasm for what he had in front of him. Next up was Emilia Guarnieri, President of the Rimini Meeting Foundation, who explained how the idea of the Meeting arose from the desire to bring to Rimini “all that is beautiful, true, and interesting in the world.” The Meeting has grown in size and importance since that very first special summer of 1980. Speaking of herself and her collaborators, she said, “We are simply people who have met an affection more satisfying than any individualism–that is Jesus, the Mystery that became flesh.”

Guests and Guides
The conference then shifted to firsthand accounts from some illustrious guests of the Rimini Meeting. Brad Gregory, Associate Professor of History at Notre Dame University, said that he “knows nothing quite like” the Meeting, “a highly effective and attractive public expression of Catholicism at its best,” since faith ought to be shared, not merely privatized. Daniel Sulmasy, Professor of Medicine and Ethics at the University of Chicago, went to Rimini in 2004 to talk about his medical profession. On Saturday night, what he shared with us was the idea that there can be no culture without religion. He playfully walked the crowd through a typical exciting day at the Meeting, concluding by calling out to all present to endeavor to bring the Rimini Meeting to our home here in the United States. Delivering the final word was Joseph Weiler, University Professor at NYU School of Law, who has enthusiastically attended the week-long event in Italy many times. He underlined the extreme openness of the Rimini Meeting, a place where anyone, from any religion or culture, is wholeheartedly welcomed.

There was a buzz around the room, as excited guests veered off to the left and right where guided tours were available for the cultural exhibits. As I offered tours, I noticed New York City also inside the walls of the Marriott: like when riding a packed train to work in the morning, there were so many people, so many characters, making their way for example through the panels of the amazing Life and Fate exhibit, the moving book by Vasily Grossman about the Battle of Stalingrad.

Our True Nature
On Sunday the presentation of Father Giussani’s Is it Possible to Live this Way? Vol. 3 Charity was scheduled for the early afternoon.To introduce, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete made clear how in reality neither speaker, Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Theologian and Ethicist from Duke University Divinity School, nor Juliàn Carròn, President of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, needed any introduction. The Broadway Ballroom was once again filled, about 900 seats. Professor Hauerwas opened by telling of the importance of charity in our lives, stating, “Given the way many now live, Christians will only be able ‘to live this way’ if our lives are constituted by charity.” He immersed himself in a real-life explanation of the nature of charity and love–the “unselfing” process to which Giussani calls us all to–and how it is within the innermost identity of a Christian to believe in and live for and through God’s love for us. Father Carròn followed, “Hope and charity are not words to be superimposed from outside our human existence, but have to do with the structure of the ‘I.’” In a world where these words have all but lost their meaning, a world filled with doubt about the very existence of good itself, it is important to stick to the true nature of our humanity: “When one experiences being loved gratuitously–and we all have, at least once in our lives–all these theories are interpretations.” Carròn described our infinite desire as the “greatness of man,” that truly great desire that might however allow us to sink into skepticism, abandoning the hope that “there is something capable of matching it.” [the integral text is on page 23]

Literature and Life
The final event of the New York Encounter shifted location to the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City. Since more and more we had discovered that religion and the experience of Christ open man to all of reality, the theme remained cultural, this one dealing specifically with the world of literature: “Literature and the ‘I’: How Literature Helps us Judge the World and Our Experience.” Greg Wolfe, Publisher and Editor of Image journal, mediated a discussion between John Waters, journalist for the Irish Times, author, and playwright, and Paul Elie, author and Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Elie described the nature of the great Catholic writers, such as Flannery O’Connor, who matured in environments that were hostile to their Catholic faith, yet they wrote anyway, not waiting for the culture to be ready for them. Meanwhile, Waters explored the actual meaning of literature: “I am opposed to literature with a capital L... Literature is not an edifice detached from reality wherein writers are encaged in a pursuit of literature. Literature is life written down.”

As Chris Bacich, responsible of Communion and Liberation, later said, “I always used to wonder what it would be like if the whole of the United States were part of the Movement. I got a feel of that this weekend.” In full evidence was the desire of all involved to witness to the Fact that has changed so many lives, to generate something–a people. Like the Meeting was and is for Emilia a beautiful gift, so too the Encounter can be for us, a concrete part of reality to which we can freely give of ourselves, to learn to live more and more.