Manhattan hosts many large events that draw massive crowds. But when the New York Encounter comes to the borough’s bohemian Chelsea district each year, even the custodians who clean the venue before and after can feel that something’s different — often telling volunteers how distinctively positive the “Encounter” seems.

Organized by members of the Catholic ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation (CL), the New York Encounter is an annual cultural event that focuses on the elements of truth, beauty, and goodness in human thought and culture. Free and open to the public, it draws thousands of attendees each year for three days of stimulating discussions, interactive exhibits, and even cultural events, such as poetry recitals and live musical performances. Sunday Mass alone, which will be celebrated by Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston this year, typically brings over 1,500 participants.

Among the many interesting panel discussions this year will be a conversation on the current situation in Ukraine with Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the archeparch of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. There will also be a panel discussion with scientists from the James Webb Space Telescope about its discoveries. A panel on forgiveness also features Diane Foley, mother of journalist Jim Foley, publicly beheaded by ISIS.

This year’s installment of the Encounter will take place Feb. 17-19. As it is every year, the Encounter is organized around a central theme, chosen for its relevance to the current cultural moment. For instance, during the coronavirus pandemic, the theme had to do with loneliness and isolation. 

This year’s theme — “Who Am I That You Care for Me?” — is drawn from Psalm 8 and is meant to speak to the widespread longing for belonging that cannot be met by models of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” nor technological solutions like social-media influencers or the metaverse.

“I yearn for someone who is not uncomfortable with my brokenness, put off by my failures, or embarrassed by my sadness,” reads the Encounter’s description of this year’s theme

“Someone who values my deeper questions, who is certain of the meaning of life and walks with me to meet it. Someone who knows me and, inexplicably, really cares for me.”

 ‘This way of being together’

Some discussions and events from the New York Encounter will be livestreamed, a holdover from the height of the pandemic. But past participants and organizers say that virtual participation misses out on one of the most distinguishing features of the Encounter: community and a sense of belonging.

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“The first time I went to the Encounter was when my sister asked me to come and volunteer,” said Patrick Tomassi, a teacher from Portland, Oregon, who recalls that it was “an incredible experience.”

“There was this way of being together that was so striking and new to me. The people I volunteered with had come from all over the U.S., many of whom I am still friends with today.”

Communion and Liberation was founded in Italy by Servant of God Father Luigi Giussani in the 1950s. CL members, who live in 90 countries, strive to find the presence of Christ in all things. 

The New York Encounter, the movement’s premiere event in the United States, has been taking place for 13 years. CL members hold a similar event in Spain, called “EncuentroMadrid,” and one in England, called “London Encounter.” These events are inspired by “The Meeting,” CL’s original public cultural event that has been taking place annually in Rimini, Italy, since 1980. Over the past several years, the “Meeting” has grown to 4,000 volunteers and 800,000 people participating.

Though the New York Encounter is organized by members of CL, Catholics from many different groups — or none at all — attend.

“We have people coming from Opus Dei, Schoenstatt, the Neocatechumenal Way, the Sisters of Life, the Missionaries of Charity. When you see this, you get a sense that the Church is alive,” said Tomassi, who noted that non-Catholics also attend, drawn by the conference’s focus on thought and culture as a place where humanity’s God-given desire for goodness, truth, and beauty shines forth.

‘Unafraid of reality’

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As a whole, the New York Encounter takes its bearing from a quote of Pope Benedict XVI, that “the intelligence of faith has to become the intelligence of reality.”

“This is a very enigmatic statement, which means that faith in Christ generates a new person who looks at all of reality differently,” Tomassi explained. “This new person is able to be unafraid of reality because everything that is made is loved by God. We believe that all of reality is God’s.”

Pope Benedict XVI had a long-standing relationship with CL. In fact, after his recent death, it became more widely known that consecrated CL women, known as Memores Domini, had been living in his household at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery within the Vatican walls for years. Their names are Cristina, Carmella, Loredana, and Rosella. Another, Manuela, was killed after being struck by a car in 2010. Pope Benedict XVI made a public statement about it at the time, lamenting the tragic death of a dear member of his household.

“Pope Benedict was very close to Don Giussani. One of his last major events before becoming pope was to preach at Don Giussani’s funeral,” Tomassi said.

In honor of CL’s friendship with Pope Benedict, the first panel discussion, on Feb. 17, will feature poetry, music, and discussion in memory of Pope Benedict XVI, with Cardinal O’Malley as one of the panelists.

Carlo Lancellotti, a math professor at the City University of New York and member of CL’s organizing committee, explained the mission of the Encounter as “trying to learn without preconceptions.”

For CL members, the deeper one goes in their relationship with Christ, the more one becomes open to the world.

“We develop more interest in life and what is happening in the world. Everything has meaning,” Lancellotti said. “The most natural desire is to discover new things, but also within the truth of faith. The encounter with Christ makes us open to life.”

A broad appeal

Not all of the panelists at the Encounter are Catholic.

“The idea is to find people who are experts in their field because we are open to reality. We are open to having true encounters with people whom we may not agree with,” said Fiona Holly, a librarian from Wichita, Kansas, and member of CL.

“When we invite someone to be on a panel, we want someone who helps us look at reality and see more of what’s there, more than what we normally encounter,” Tomassi added.

Another part of the New York Encounter’s mission is, according to St. Paul’s suggestion, to “test everything and retain what is good.” Conversations and exhibits at this year’s Encounter treat a myriad of topics, such as the value of work, geology, hospitality, and the implications of rising inflation.

Past speakers have included Sohrab Ahmari, previous op-ed editor for the New York Post; Christine Emba, writer for The Washington Post; Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health; and David Brooks, New York Times op-ed columnist.

In 2020, a panel discussion took place with Daryl Davies, who has convinced members of the Ku Klux Klan to leave their organization, and Christian Picciolini, a former Neo-Nazi who tries to help people leave white supremacist groups, which Tomassi recalled as particularly impactful.

A similarly powerful panel will take place this year, titled, “You Will Never Succeed in Convincing Me to Hate You.” It will feature Diane Foley, the mother of Jim Foley, a journalist who was publicly beheaded by ISIS, and Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzabolla, the Latin patriarch in the Holy Land; a Ukrainian refugee will also participate in this discussion.

Another presentation this year will focus on Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, a priest known for his heroic care for others in a POW camp in North Korea during the Korean War. A recorded testimony will be given by a survivor of the prison camp who knew Father Kapaun.

CL families from around the U.S. attend the Encounter with their children. In addition to food and exhibits, there is a “Kids’ Village” where parents can engage in art, singing, crafts, and storytelling with their children. For children over 6, there are guided tours of all the exhibits especially geared toward their age group. On the second floor is the “Infinity Lab” for children 10 and older to recreate the stone sculpture on Chartres Cathedral. Children will learn how to make a bas-relief using plaster and wood, which they can take home.

“When people come, they see that there is something for everyone,” Holly said.

To learn more about the New York Encounter and view livestreamed events, please visit the event’s website.