An organizer for the New York Encounter, a three-day cultural festival held in January, says this year's theme of "Experiencing Freedom" is an idea both cherished and deeply divisive in American culture.

"What is it that defines this mysterious thing which we call freedom, which for us as believers is the ultimate reflection of the experience of God himself that's been given to us as creatures?" Maurizio Maniscalco, the event's chairman, reflected.

"Freedom is the territory where not even God intervenes in our life," which makes its experience a "pretty compelling thing," he told CNA in a Jan. 9 interview.

The New York Encounter will be held Jan. 18-20 in midtown Manhattan, and is the third annual installment of the event. It is free and requires no registration.

The Encounter is organized by the Catholic ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation and by Crossroads Cultural Center. The center aims to explore the relationship between religion and culture, and was founded by members of the Communion and Liberation movement.

This year's Encounter will feature reflections from an array of speakers, as well as musical and artistic performances, and exhibits on author G. K. Chesterton and the Cristero martyrs of Mexico. Mass will be said Jan. 20 by Cardinal Egan, archbishop emeritus of New York.

Among the speakers is Paul Bhatti, who is Pakistan's Minister of National Harmony and Minority Affairs. He will talk about the life of his brother Shahbaz, who was martyred in 2011 for his support of Pakistani Christians and his opposition to the country's blasphemy laws, which are primarily used to persecute non-Muslims.

Maniscalco said the organizers desire to share their experience of God with those who attend the Encounter, and that it is for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

"Our ultimate desire is that what happened to us, may happen to others. And since it happened to us through human encounters, our hope is that through the human encounter that the New York Encounter is, somebody could discover that God is not just an unknown mystery, but is a life, that the church is not an obsolete organization, but is a life."

"And for those who already believe, we desire that God willing they may return home with more hope, more faith, more charity; more passion, more love for what they are called to do, what they are called to live."

He said that freedom is experienced not as an achievement, but as a belonging-in-community.

"We know that the truth will make us free. And the truth has become man, dwelling among us. That is our certainty."

"And we hope that by spending some time there, listening to witnesses, maybe even seeing the 200 volunteers we have who make this happen, one begins to perceive, to see a glimpse of this possible fulfillment which is fruit of a belonging."

New York Encounter is "as Catholic event as it can be," Maniscalco said, "in a true sense."

"Those who make it happen do it with the one and only desire, to bring their humble testimony in the public square, in the heart of New York City."

He said the Encounter is in the spirit of St. Paul's admonition to test all things, and "hold fast to what which is good."

"We invite people, we present things...we try to embrace them and retain what is good."

While being a "Catholic" event, the New York Encounter is not one in which "we sit there to pray the Rosary," Maniscalco reflected.

"God willing we do that, but during the Encounter, it's a sign, an event of openness." The New York Encounter is the fruit of a "desire to bring our testimony in the heart of the world," said Maniscalco.

New York Encounter "aims to discover, affirm, and offer to everyone truly human expressions of the desire for truth, beauty, and justice," its website says. It is "a meeting point for people of different beliefs, traditions, and cultures striving for reciprocal understanding, mutual building, and true friendship."

The organizers of the event are all members of Communion and Liberation, which was founded in 1954 by Monsignor Luigi Giusanni. Maniscalco said the movement's gift to the Church is "a friendship in the name of Christ," and that the New York Encounter "is a little example" of this friendship.

Andrew Whaley will be attending the New York Encounter, and is traveling from Colorado to do so.

"I'm fairly new to Communion and Liberation, but am really intrigued so far, both by the thought of Fr. Luigi Giussani, but also by the way it is lived out so immediately in community," he told CNA Jan. 10.

"He was always saying 'Christ is an event that is happening to me 'now.' I find it a challenge to do that from moment to moment – to experience my life and my self as a question, in the moment, whose answer is Christ," Whaley added.

"I am looking forward to being surrounded by an entire community attempting to live that for a few days."