‘When Reality Hits’— New York Encounter Wants Us to Take What Happened Last Year Seriously

This year’s version of the annual Catholic event will be livestreamed via YouTube from Feb. 12-14.

Background: Felix Stahlberg, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons. Foreground: Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1877.
Background: Felix Stahlberg, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons. Foreground: Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1877. (photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Remember 2020? The craziest, most challenging, painful year in recent memory, which left many of us batted around like a ping-pong ball between the hard paddles of a pandemic, social unrest and rancorous political division?

As we flip the calendar into the second month of 2021, the temptation is to forget what happened to us last year, and to simply press on into the future with a mixture of ignorant optimism and self-imposed confidence. After all, we made it through 2020 — why spend even another moment thinking about a year so full of such strife and disappointment?

The folks who organize the New York Encounter, however, are proposing something else: coming together to take seriously the events of 2020 and their impact upon us, as a way of better understanding our humanity and how we can move forward with authenticity. Anything less would be a denial of the fact that God comes to meet us through the circumstance of everyday life.

For those who’ve never heard of it, the New York Encounter is a three-day public cultural event typically held in Manhattan every February. Organized by the lay movement Communion and Liberation and inspired by St. Paul’s instruction to “test everything and retain what is good,” it is both deeply, essentially Catholic, while also radically open to participation and contribution from others. 

As its website says, “the Encounter aims to discover, affirm, and offer to everyone truly human expressions of the desire for truth, beauty and justice.” Built upon an unshakeable conviction that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all human desires, the Encounter explores the lives and longings of peoples from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences, with a degree of trust and freedom that — quite frankly — took my breath away when I first went back in 2019. I remember thinking at the time, where else can you not only encounter such seemingly disparate themes as John Coltrane’s music, Walker Percy’s fiction, and Dr. Takashi Nagai’s Catholic witness, but encounter them in a context that emphasizes their shared humanity and desire for God? 

The theme of this year’s encounter is “When Reality Hits.” 

“What happened in 2020 indeed changes and is still changing us,” the official program declares. “What is the nature of this change? What are we looking for? Will life ever be the same? Can this change be a milestone in the journey of life?” 

These are the types of questions the Encounter will attempt to answer, through three days of witnesses, discussions and exhibits on a variety of relevant topics, from Feb. 12-14. Philosopher Charles Taylor and Notre Dame legal theorist Paolo Carozza will speak about “The Core of Our Humanity,” as revealed by the events of and responses to 2020. 

Issues such as the epidemic of suicide and mental health crises and social media censorship will be examined through a personal lens, and I’ll be moderating a discussion with three Black Christian leaders on authentically pursuing racial justice. 

The inspiring lives of Father Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, and Father Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian and former rocket scientist, will be explored in different video presentations. And, for good measure, a segment on Saturday night called “When You Hit Reality” will feature a “roast” of 2020 by a handful of comedians.

Intent on encouraging people to take reality seriously, even when it is uncomfortable and disappointing, the Encounter will have to put its money where its mouth is this year, as COVID-related precautions will prevent the event from taking place in person. On the one hand, this may allow more people to participate, as anyone who wants to will be able to watch a livestream on the New York Encounter’s YouTube page. On the other, it will prevent people from gathering together in New York, which perhaps even more so than any of the talks, is always the most inspiring aspect of the Encounter. 

“If those are the conditions I cannot change them,” NYE chairman Riro Maniscalco said in a recent interview. “But life is now; I cannot hold my breath until reality changes.” As an alternative, “Zoom Encounters,” organized by friends of the New York Encounter across the country, will be held to discuss some of the main events and to provide some semblance of digitized fraternity.

The New York Encounter may look different this year, but it’s never been about achieving idealized perfection or pushing a blueprint on how to live life. Instead, it’s been rooted in the conviction that fidelity to the grace of God in the moment is both what leads to our own personal happiness, and also what is capable of transforming the world.

As Maniscalco said, “this may seem a minimalist approach compared to the enormity of the problems that plague this country,” but that this is ultimately what Christians have to offer: “our experience. A life that, by the grace of God, is different. A life that, with all our limitations and defects, full of mistakes, is at least in momentum and open to encounter. That is what is most needed today: to have our eyes wide open, our hearts and ears open, for us to understand that the other is a precious gift for us, as we are for them.”