‘When You’re Certain, You’re Open’: New York Encounter Looks at All of Reality With Eyes of Faith
The annual Communion and Liberation-sponsored event was inspired by the question posed by the Psalmist, ‘Who am I that you care for me?’
NEW YORK — It’s not every Catholic event that allows an attendee to listen to the testimony of a mother whose son was publicly executed by ISIS, experience an exhibit on the earth’s geological formation, and top it off with Sunday Mass celebrated by an American cardinal, all under one roof.
Then again, nothing else on offer in the American ecclesial landscape is quite like the New York Encounter.
The distinctness of this annual three-day cultural event, put on by the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation in the heart of New York City, was on display yet again at this year’s installment, which took place Feb. 17-19. Inspired by Psalm 8’s “Who am I that you care for me?,” the discussions, performances, and interactive exhibits at this year’s Encounter sought to underscore, in ways both subtle and explicit, God’s intimate affection for each person, detectable amidst every aspect of reality.
All of Reality
The approach of the Encounter was evident during its opening sequence Friday evening in the main room of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Pavilion. Following a stirring choral performance of Rachmaninoff’s Hail Mary and a stage-setting reflection on the year’s theme, prominent guests reflected upon the legacy and impact of a Church figure who was a friend of Communion and Liberation and continues to be an inspiration of the New York Encounter: Pope Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston described the late pope as “the Mozart of theologians.” Father Alex Zenthoefer, rector of St. Benedict’s Cathedral in Evansville, Indiana, reflected on the “childlike demeanor” of Benedict that allowed him “to see everything” reality had to offer. J. Steven Brown, a Catholic University of America (CUA) dean of graduate studies, explained how the German prelate helped him to deepen his understanding of the connection between faith and reason. And Bishop Steven Raica of Birmingham, Alabama, celebrated Benedict’s “simplicity, boundless curiosity and joy.”
But these reflections on Benedict’s genius and witness weren’t capped off with a reading from one of his encyclicals or a recollection of his liturgical preferences, but with a performance of a Chopin mazurka by the pianist Christopher Vath, who had played the same piece for Benedict during a small private audience in 2005.
The symbolism of moving from reflections on Benedict’s faith and theology to a piece of secular, classical music loved by the late pope was clear: The encounter with Christ makes one more, not less, engaged and interested in all of reality. Or, in the words of Benedict XVI that serve as a guide for the Encounter, it demonstrated the “intelligence of faith” becoming the “intelligence of reality.”
It also served as a fitting transition to the rest of the three-day event’s varied offerings, which included everything from discussions on the current state of the economy and inflation to an exhibit on the impact of the German atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzche on American culture.
Scientists from NASA discussed their work on the James Webb Telescope, earning a collective, involuntary “wow” from the crowd when they unveiled beautiful, deep-space images captured by the recently launched infrared telescope. An exhibit on geology provided an interactive walk-through of the earth’s formation, demonstrating what one of its organizers described as “God’s patient preparation for humanity.” And the live performance of an original composition setting excerpts from the God-seeking writings of Jewish Holocaust victim Etty Hilesum to string music moved many in the crowd to tears.
Confident and Open
Sometimes, the Encounter’s engagement with something in the world was injected with clear Catholic perspectives, such as an exhibit on the value of work that interspersed personal testimonies with quotes from Catholic teachings like Pope St. John Paul’s 1981 encyclical on human work, Laborem Exercens, or the Nietzche exhibit’s juxtaposition of the German philosopher’s views with Christian commitments.
But oftentimes, the Encounter simply consisted of experts discussing challenges in their field, or of people with compelling experiences sharing their stories, not necessarily making an explicit connection to faith.
Some Catholics might be taken aback by the Encounter’s bold approach of mixing the sacred with the profane, concerned that it might be an instance of watering down the distinction between the Catholic faith and the secular world. After all, many of the experts invited to speak were not necessarily Catholic, and there’s no guarantee that what they’ll say will be echoed by the Catechism.
But according to Maurizio Maniscalco, the president of the New York Encounter, the Encounter’s approach is indicative not of faith’s absence, but of its certainty. He told the Register that the Encounter is only able to do what it does because of its organizers’ conviction that Christ is the answer to the longings of every human heart and draws people to him through his presence in reality.
“I always say that if you’re certain, you’re open, and if you’re not, you’re not open,” said Maniscalco. Insecurity in the faith, he said, can lead to a kind of overprotectiveness, or even aggression, while conviction allows you to confidently listen to the experiences of others, even those who don’t share your beliefs.
“That’s why we fear nothing here.”
Maniscalco acknowledged that this approach can lead to unpredictable outcomes on stage that might not be what you’d want to tell kids at Sunday school. For instance, a Ukrainian refugee speaking this year acknowledged that she was not sure if she had reached a point where there was no hate in her heart for the Russians who had invaded her homeland.
But the point of the Encounter isn’t to provide catechetical instruction. Instead, as its name suggests, it offers attendees the opportunity to encounter the lived experiences and insights of others, taking seriously St. Paul’s charge to “test everything and retain what is good.”
Sometimes, this leads to unexpected opportunities that organizers didn’t necessarily predict. For instance, a discussion on digital attempts to provide belonging, like social media, cryptocurrency and the metaverse, at this year’s Encounter allowed attendees to not merely make judgments about the technologies discussed, but also to distinguish between the different perspectives on the relationship between technology and the human person espoused by the speakers and identify with the one they found more compelling.
For instance, many attendees were struck by the perspective of Luke Burgis, director of programs at CUA’s Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship, who remarked that although many of the technologies discussed are problematic, they nonetheless valuably reveal the deeper human need they’re attempting to address.
As such, the Encounter operates as something like “the courtyard of the Gentiles” spoken of by Benedict XVI, where Catholics and people of goodwill can meet on a common foundation of the search for the truth and beauty and have a meaningful exchange.
It’s an approach greatly appreciated by Church leaders like Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who provided introductory remarks for a discussion on The Religious Sense, Communion and Liberation founder Luigi Giussani’s paradigmatic text, which was recently published with a new translation.
The Encounter displays an “illuminating understanding of the teachings of Vatican II,” said Cardinal Dolan, and demonstrates the proper relationship of the Church to the world, society and culture.
‘This Impossible Unity’
But the Encounter isn’t only about creating opportunities to engage with secular areas of interest or with broad human experiences. Many of its exhibits and discussions are also explicitly Catholic, providing ample space for participants to speak to how Christ makes a difference in their lives.
This year’s Encounter’s featured a number of these provocative witnesses and their heart-moving stories. Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim, Norway, spoke movingly of his experience as a Cistercian monk during a conversation with papal nuncio Archbishop Christoph Pierre, describing monastic life as a way of following his “desire to see Christ, but not on my own.”
A discussion on forgiveness featured Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, a U.S. journalist publicly executed by ISIS in 2014. She shared how she begged God to not let her heart become bitter in the wake of her son’s death and how she was inspired to start a foundation advocating for the freedom of American hostages held abroad.
Later during the same discussion, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, spoke via Zoom of the hard and often thankless work of advocating for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians in a place where “forgiveness” is often taken as a slur. The only way to teach forgiveness, he said, is to first experience oneself as forgiven, ultimately by God.
And on the Encounter’s final day, during a panel discussion on Christian hospitality, Ashley and Nate Kaufmann shared how in the aftermath of heartbreaking experiences of adoption arrangements falling through at the last minute, God expanded the capacity of their hearts to allow them to become the foster parents of three young girls.
“Hospitality is about approaching others with the love that Christ has for them,” shared Nate. “Mine and Christ’s.”
The intermingling of these kinds of faith-filled discussions with, for instance, a Wall Street Journal business reporter and a senior adviser at an investment management firm discussing the economy and inflation, may surprise or even confuse attendees unfamiliar with the Encounter.
But it can also lead to the discovery of what Maniscalco calls “this impossible unity,” the Catholic faith’s ability to bring together all things in Christ.
“Catholic means universal, so what can be against me?” Maniscalco asked rhetorically. “Nothing. Everything can help me go deeper into my relationship with Christ.”
At the Encounter, this unity takes the form of a program that brings together the sacred and the profane, the secular and the holy, but also in the community that is drawn to the event. While in some ways an oversized family reunion for members of Communion and Liberation across the country, the Encounter also attracts other Catholics and non-Catholics too, who come together on a shared foundation of dialogue and welcome.
Maniscalco hopes that those who attend are moved to ask what’s behind the Encounter and to seek it out in their own life, so that it “may bear fruit in God’s time in mysterious ways.”
Something like that seems to be taking place in the life of Christian Boekhout, who attended the Encounter for the first time after recently getting involved in Communion and Liberation in South Bend, Indiana. The recent Notre Dame graduate said his experience of the Encounter, which included not just the presentations but the communion he shared with others in attendance, has helped him to have a renewed awareness of God’s love and presence in everyday life.
For instance, on his journey back to Indiana, he found himself marveling at the beauty and incredibleness of the airport and flight, as if he was experiencing it for the first time. He also found himself open to encountering others in a new way and ended up having a meaningful conversation with a secular philosophy graduate student he met in the airport, sharing his experience of the Encounter and how his Catholic faith is a response to his desire for fulfillment.
Boekhout said he hopes to continue to live what he experienced at the Encounter as he returns to his work and everyday relationships, and he is grateful for renewed sense of wonder and re-enchantment in his life.
“I’ve been to Catholic conferences and retreats, and had ‘mountain-top’ experiences, but this was something else.”
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