The Brooklyn Bridge. CC0 Creative Commons

Person and People: A Continuous Generation

"Thousands of people made their way to the 'capital of the world' for a different reason: not to create themselves, but to belong to a people." An overview of the 2014 New York Encounter.
Maura Kate Costello

While New York City’s bustling sidewalks and high-rise buildings are packed with people, it is becoming increasingly easier to get lost in its crowds and to live in anonymity. As modern men and women, we live as islands unto ourselves and we often find it impossible to achieve connection with others no matter how desperately we long for it. Many come to New York in search of the modern ideal: to create themselves, to fulfill dreams, to invent their own glorious expression of America’s “rugged individual.” But the protagonists of these stories are often left alone with no community to support them, even if they do find success, and they remain restless and unsatisfied. However, for five years in a row now, New York has been the home of an exception to that rule. From January 17-19, 2014, thousands of people made their way to the “capital of the world” for a different reason: not to create themselves, but to belong to a people.

The theme of this year’s New York Encounter dramatically challenged our culture’s individualism by exploring the theme: “From ‘I’ to ‘We’: The Time of the Person… the Origins of a People.” All of the events, gestures, and participants of this cultural festival engaged this theme and made clear that, contrary to our modern convictions, the “I” cannot exist outside of a relationship with another–both the others that make up the communities in which we live and the Other at the foundation of reality. Through the rich program offered by the New York Encounter, we were able to see the revolutionary light this sheds on all areas of life, from the coexistence of religions in the Middle East, to just business practices, to music and art, to the state of education. As one of the New York Encounter’s speakers, Fr. Richard Veras, said, “A person is generated by a relationship with an Other, who, within this relationship, generates a people, which generates persons, who each generate more peoples, and so on.” By witnessing to this chain of generation in both its presentations and in the entire gesture itself, the New York Encounter offers a place where modern society in its persons and communities can truly be reborn.

For many of us, adverse circumstances are the moments when our sense of selves and meaning feel most threatened, but Fr. Giussani proposes something different, from which the first half of the theme of this Encounter was taken. He says, “When a cultural and social hegemony tends to penetrate the heart, stirring up our already natural uncertainties, then the time of the person has come.” Instead of an impediment, Fr. Giussani views the adverse circumstances that surround us as an opportunity to become true persons.

Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, by the example of his life, shows us the truth of Fr. Giussani’s conviction. Martin Palous, the President of the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation, came to offer his personal experience with Havel and to provide some insight into this great man. As one who suffered dearly under the tyranny of the Communist regime in his country, Havel developed a keen sense of the justice, good, and freedom he sought. Palous explained that this was integral to his varied professional life as a playwright, an activist, and a statesman. His relationship to these ideals and his desire to pursue them is what drove his actions throughout life. In allowing his adverse circumstances to truly and deeply provoke him, he engaged in a search for meaning at their root, and that is what made him free, even under tyranny, despite numerous occasions of imprisonment and living under constant surveillance. This steady gaze outward, in turn, ultimately led him to motivate, generate, and build a new people and a new nation.

The exhibit on Walker Percy, “Humanity: the Strangest Thing in the Cosmos,” also demonstrated a similar dynamic. The difficulties of this writer’s life pushed him to engage the questions they provoked and eventually led him to discover the Mystery–even to the point of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. His family was devastated by suicide, which would haunt him for the duration of his life. It led him, at first, to look to science for answers to his questions, but he contracted tuberculosis while pursuing a medical career and was unable to continue. On a trip with a friend to America’s Southwest, Percy discovered his vocation as a writer and as a husband, as well as his desire to convert. This trip marked the beginning of his lifelong relationship with the Mystery. He became equally fascinated by the mystery of the human person and would dedicate much of his writing to this theme.

Sean Cardinal O’Malley, OFM, Archbishop of Boston, provided an even more contemporary example of the fullness of a person. Faced with extremely difficult issues of violence and exploitation of the immigrant population in Washington, DC, O’Malley became a dominant figure in these matters, but clearly never tired of his ministry to serve both the spiritual and material needs of the poor. Later on, he was appointed to address the sex-abuse scandal in Boston. He arrived on the scene and reached out to the congregation in every possible way, desiring to be with them and to ultimately engage in the desperately needed healing of that city. His method is to build community and to accompany those in need. This is what generated the communities around him, both in Washington, DC, where immigrant workers gathered to greet and embrace him when he came to their work places, according to Monsignor Albacete, who conducted the interview, and in Boston, a city with only fifteen seminarians when he arrived and whose seminary is now unable to hold the current number. The conversation between Cardinal O’Malley and Monsignor Albacete was truly a delight. Their friendship was yet another witness of the Encounter’s theme–each of their persons was exalted in the friendship they’ve shared for 45 years, and those of us in the audience were warmly invited to participate in it with them.

With these witnesses of real, full persons, engaged with the challenges that life set before them, we are compelled to go deeper into what really generates this level of humanity and personhood. The conversation between Fr. Julián Carrón, President of the Fraternity of CL, and Fr. Peter Cameron, OP, Editor-in-Chief of Magnificat, enlightened this issue. Fr. Cameron began by asking Fr. Carrón about the desire we all share of not wanting to miss out on or lose the beautiful things in life. Fr. Carrón suggested that this is a decision we each have to make every morning: to live every instant with this curiosity is what coincides best with the sense of possibility life holds–everything is a possibility to find an answer to this question. Living like this is the beginning of the kind of personhood we have seen. Fr. Carrón went on to mention an image Pope Francis used in his homily on the Feast of the Epiphany: God who moves toward men and men who move toward God. God’s movement comes first and stems from love. We are His children and He wants to help us. And we move toward God because beauty, truth, and goodness keep drawing us closer, through the experiences He gives us. Carrón explained that Jesus is the meeting point of these two movements and it is in Him and His humanity that we see the possibility of not losing the most beautiful things in life. Personhood, then the desire to not lose any of the best, is fulfilled in allowing Christ to enter our hearts and become our Companion in the adventure of life. In other words, personhood is fulfilled in relationship.

The exhibit entitled, “The Face of Jesus: From that Gaze, the Human Person is Born,” deepened our understanding of this two-way relationship in its tracing of the images of Jesus left to us throughout history. Beginning with the Kamouliana, the exhibit documents a series of transparent cloths, including Veronica’s Veil, that illustrates the face of Jesus with neither paint nor colored thread, and that brings us to the Veil of Mannopello today. A story full of mystery, what is clear is that the face of Christ does not want to abandon humanity. Jesus left us His face in order for us to gaze upon Him; He continues to give us His gaze so that we may know His mercy and also so that He can experience our gaze on Him, that He may be consoled by us in His desire for our love. The permanence of His gaze, depicted in these images, assures us that our personhood, found in His eyes, may never be lost.

"With these witnesses of full persons we are compelled to go deeper into what really generates this humanity."

“ALONE” NEVER EXISTED. How then can we make the move to the “Origins of a People”? A person generated by a relationship with others and an Other creates a people. Fr. Richard Veras, pastor of St. Rita’s parish in Staten Island, NY, and Dr. David Flatto, Associate Professor of Law, Religion, and History at Penn State Law, spoke about personhood and community in the Judeo-Christian experience. Dr. Flatto began by explaining that Abraham had to break from his original family and was privileged by a new relationship with God. From this new relationship, on which Abraham utterly depended, God began to fulfill His promise of making him a father of many nations. Several communities were born: a new family, a new Jewish people, and a new world of nations. Dr. Flatto observes that this happened because Abraham’s love for God spilled over to the others within these communities, and this is the model of how an individual belongs to a community. Fr. Veras began by pointing out that, for Christians, the Trinity allows us to see that “alone” never existed, because God, who created all things, is three persons in one. God has never been “alone,” and so the origin of all reality, including ourselves, is, in fact, a relationship of persons. He continued on to the New Testament. He pointed out that Jesus, like Abraham, generated by his relationship with the Father, generated a people: the community of His disciples. Furthermore, He continues to generate peoples, Christian communities, throughout history, with the Holy Spirit. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is clear that communities are created by people who are in relationship with God, and so, with each other.

Fr. José Medina, FSCB, former principal of Cristo Rey High School in Boston and U.S. coordinator of Communion and Liberation, discussed the importance of relationship in education today with Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at NYU. In the dramatic situations of the Newtown shootings and the bombing at the Boston Marathon, Fr. Medina observed that the immediate reaction to such tragedy is to come together and accompany each other. However, Dr. Noguera noted that the response to the heightened need for safety was a call for “army teachers” and armed security guards; he argues against this and says that our “source of safety is not in armed men but in relationships.” He and Fr. Medina went on to discuss the central work of schools in teaching the members of our society how to build these relationships. The only way we, as educators, will be able to accomplish this is if we ourselves are in relationships that sustain us and make us grow. What is needed in education is a refocusing on the centrality of relationships with others and a greater presence of an Other at all levels of the school environment if we are to successfully build a society of solid, stable persons.

BUILDING AND REBUILDING. Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of St. Joseph in Beirut, shared his extensive experiences of the rapport between Muslims and Christians in the Arab world (see interview in the next issue of Traces). After outlining the reasons for today’s unrest in the Middle East, he suggests that the solution to radical Islam is to respect the Muslim culture by helping it to reconstruct enlightened Muslim thought and to build a new society collaboratively between Muslims and Christians. In order to bring peace and reconciliation, a cultural transformation must occur and new education must take place through media and public dialogue with other religions.

We have seen the importance of building relationships in education and establishing peace, but it is further relevant to the realm of business. In a world that is driven by cutthroat competition, Dr. Michael Naughton, the holder of the Alan W. Moss Endowed Chair in Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas (MN), invited us to consider the text, Vocation of the Business Leader, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP). In this document, the “logic of the market” is confronted with the “logic of gift” and asks business leaders to shift their understanding of the workplace from being dominated by profit to gift. The PCJP understands that a true workplace is a community of professionals that seeks to develop its members. Naughton explains, “We work on the understanding that everyone has received; everyone has received something. The workplace, then, should seek to foster these gifts and talents of each person. It should enlarge the goal of business from ‘profit’ to good goods (good products and services), good work (develop skills and talents), and good wealth (sustainable wealth and fair distribution).” The goal of a business is not to acquire profit, but to contribute to the common good. Bernhard Scholz, President of Compagnia delle Opere, then provided a living witness of such business practices. In this world’s shifting economics, he asserts that business owners are required to really be engaged, as persons, with the problems at hand, with the awareness that we can only survive as a group. His organization seeks to foster responsibility to others and to the common good, in the workplace and in the larger community. They have developed a simple, yet revolutionary, opportunity for businesses to help each other grow, called “matching,” whereby businesses can share information knowledge and experience through dialogue in order to improve their development and create jobs. Scholz strongly asserted that, in very concrete ways, the Christian experience of relationship with the other is a decisive factor in the evolution of the economy, and it is our task to be present in the economy, proposing this knowledge.

UNITY IN ACTION. The beauty of living in relationship with others was expressed in a spectacular way on Saturday night at the Encounter with an array of five different choirs singing their folk music: Ukrainian, Polish, Nigerian, Italian, and Filipino. Francesco Izzo’s banner design captures visually what the choirs expressed in voice: each individual face finds its fullness in belonging to a collection of faces; each voice finds its fullness in belonging to a unity of voices. Far beyond the array of these compelling presentations and exhibits, however, are the inner workings of the New York Encounter itself. Organized and run by a host of volunteers who vary in age from teenagers to grandparents and in occupations from lawyers to teachers to engineers to students, their simple and eager readiness and deep joy testify to the appeal New York Encounter has for many. Beginning with only 30-40 volunteers in 2010, the number of volunteers has increased each year to the 250 volunteers working this year. Their tasks include ushering, checking coats, selling tickets, waiting tables in the restaurant, selling coffee, making food, and conducting tours, among many others. It is remarkable to see the enthusiasm and seriousness with which they work because they want to be part of the New York Encounter. One volunteer from New York understood, from organizing the tours for the exhibit on the Face of Jesus, the importance of the sacrifices volunteers make: “There is no way to convey the beauty of the Veil of Mannopello and the history of our nostalgia for the face of God, without the presence of the personal face of the volunteer.” Another volunteer from Canada met CL not long ago and came to the NYE for the first time. She was there only on Saturday and unexpectedly ended up volunteering the entire morning–an experience that is not uncommon. At first she thought, “I didn’t come here to work! But no, here I am–it’s about being with people.That original encounter continues to become a larger, spreading circle of encounters, and I just love it.”

"Beginning with only 30-40 volunteers in 2010, the number has increased each year to the 250 volunteers working this year."

EXPANDING CIRCLE. Another volunteer, in her 20s, heard about the Encounter last year. Working there from Friday night to Sunday night this year, she was unable to attend the majority of the events, but she said, “I don’t feel like I missed out on the purpose of the weekend at all–the collaboration among the volunteers to make the weekend possible was the purpose of it, and I was really happy to participate.” The gift of this volunteer’s time is of particular value, because she has been accompanying her father in his battle with brain cancer for the past several months. Volunteering for the New York Encounter made sense because “belonging to CL has helped me be present to my father and his experience in the way I want to be for him. And to trust that being present to reality will dictate what is truly needed of me.” An event like the New York Encounter proposes itself as a real answer to the isolation and extreme individualism that plagues our world. Through an expanding circle of encounters, the New York Encounter continues to generate a people and to be a public invitation to a companionship that then generates persons.