2015: First Impressions
Standing outside it looks unassuming, just another building on the crowded streets of Chelsea. But entering through the doors of the Metropolitan Pavilion, out of the cold New York evening, one is immediately greeted by a veritable explosion of life. Volunteers in color-coordinated shirts are busily working, making last minute preparations, selling raffle tickets, and collecting coats. A bright and inviting food stand offers Italian cakes and cannoli and, of course, espresso. The lobby of the Pavilion is quickly filling with people of all kinds; some are clearly here for the first time—shy and curious—and others reuniting with friends from across North America in a storm of embraces and chatter. Yet, tangible in all the craziness, is a warmth, a fervor of life that one perceives simply by looking around. It’s the beginning of the 2015 New York Encounter.
What is Man That You are Mindful of Him?
Eventually, the hundreds of people file into the North Theater for the opening talk. As the rustling and conversation slowly settles, a trumpet player walks on stage, alone. The first moments of the Encounter are not a welcome speech or a formal introduction, but the slow mournful notes of an old negro-spiritual. “I am a poor wayfaring stranger,” began the beautiful melody, eventually breaking off into a jazzy exploration of the traditional song.
As the song came to a close, Riro Maniscalco, the founder and president of NYE, came to the stage. “Welcome to New York Encounter. A home we have built out of faith, hope and charity, but a strange home nevertheless.” Riro commented on the significance of the opening song. “Wayfaring Stranger” is a song of longing for a home, of longing for a father. It is appropriate, Riro points out, because we are here as searchers. The New York Encounter is built by and welcomes those who are searching, following the longing deep within them for something more. “I’m going there to meet my father,” the lyrics of the song go, and as Riro went on to explain, “This search for our true father is what really brings us together.”
The next greeting came from a father: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York City greeted the packed auditorium with great gusto, expressing his great gratitude for the event of the New York Encounter happening in the heart of his diocese. “I see you in action,” he said. “Truly, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
He then posed a question: What does the theme of the Encounter, “In Search of a Human Face,” have to do at all with religion, with faith, with Christianity? “To one who does not know, it could appear to be a dermatology conference or a meeting for cosmetics,” he joked. Immediately though, the Cardinal offered his answer to that question: the theme is appropriate because the search for the true human face is actually part of our odyssey in search for the face of God. Recalling another father for many at the Encounter, Fr. Luigi Giussani, Cardinal Dolan expressed wonder at the late priest’s conviction that, “the Glory of God is man fully alive.”
“Fr. Giussani knew,” the Cardinal stated playfully, “that the compatibility of God and man is not like that of oil and water, but rather like that of vermouth and gin in a good martini.” In the same light, the Cardinal listed a litany of “New Yorker” saints, all the way from St. Isaac Jouges to Dorothy Day, whose lives were lived with this conviction of the absolute correspondence between the face of man and the face of God. It was clear from the words of Cardinal Dolan that this same reverence for the human face experienced by the saints of the past is what fuels the present experience of the New York Encounter.
A Tribute to the Monsignor
Riro then took the stage to briefly introduce a tribute for, in his words, a founding father of the New York Encounter, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, who passed away earlier this fall. Monsignor’s guidance and enthusiastic participation had been a cornerstone of the Encounter since its inception. As Riro began to speak however, it was clear that along with gratitude for Monsignor, the atmosphere was also one full of sadness for his absence. “He himself was a strange, poor, wayfaring stranger,” Riro said, “and he has now gone home.”
A tribute for a man such as Msgr. Albacete is an enormous task. Acknowledging this, Riro simply stated that he wanted to let Monsignor do the tribute himself. What followed was a video of a talk by Monsignor, given in Seattle in 2004. The talk was appropriately titled “What is Man That You Care for Him?” In the talk, Monsignor told his own story very simply. When his unbelieving colleagues at NASA questioned his childhood faith, he was forced to re-evaluate his beliefs in order to provide them an honest answer. That time in his life coincided with the Second Vatican Council. Realizing that the Council was engaged in the same “re-evaluation” as himself, Albacete dove into the texts of the Council and into the writings of the “council fathers,” such as DeLubac, von Balthasar, Claudel, and Bernanos. This exploration eventually led to a sound intellectual conviction about the connection between faith and life that, as he said, any reasonable person would accept.
But, Monsignor went on; sound intellectual conviction is not enough. Eventually he came into contact with the now Cardinal Angelo Scola, a man who not only intellectually understood the connection between faith and life, but also lived that connection in an astonishing way. Monsignor’s questioning of Cardinal Scola eventually led him to discover Fr. Giussani and the Movement of Communion and Liberation. It was there, he said, that he “finally discovered the key of the Christian life: that before Christ was the center of the cosmos and human history, he was a lump of blood, in the womb of a woman.” The Incarnation is not a discourse, but a fact. It is only in encountering this fact, Monsignor explained, that man can truly live the life that he seeks. In his participation in the Movement, Monsignor began to experience anew that fact for himself and, as he witnessed time and time again, that fact gave birth to a way of living that was astoundingly beautiful.
“Blues is Something That’s From the Heart”
The final event of Friday evening was a blues concert by the Encounter Blues Band, led by Riro Maniscalco and Jonathan Fields. It began with a passionate a-cappella performance of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Shortly after this, Riro explained the goal of the concert: “We are not here to rock, but to discover the roots of rock. At the bottom of every human expression there is a longing, a Blues cry, a need for something more.” And rarely paralleled in the expression of this longing are the music of the Negro spiritual and the blues.
The band played a diverse collection of songs, ranging from the old spirituals, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” and “Twelve Gates to the City,” to modern interpretations of the blues by ZZ Top and Cream. However, what was constantly present in diverse range of music was the expression of sadness, a concept that Riro stressed has been lost in our culture. “Sadness,” he explained, “does not equal the clinical depression that we have transformed it into. Sadness is, instead, the desire for an absent good, a good that proclaims its own existence even through a lack.” It was this experience of sadness that led many of the singers of the blues to identify so strongly with the man, Jesus of Nazareth. In his suffering, they saw the image of themselves and from this self-identification they drew a hope that radiated, even in the sadness of the music.
The evening ended with song familiar to many in Communion and Liberation, “The Things That I See,” written by Fr. Rich Veras. As the first day of the New York Encounter drew to a close, the words of the chorus were especially fitting: The things that I see got me laughing like a baby / The things that I see got me crying like a man / In The things that I see I can look at what He gave me / And He’s gonna show me even more than I see.
2015: First Impressions