By Santiago Ramos
The New York Encounter is a cultural festival that takes place for two days and one night on Martin Luther King weekend in New York City. This year marked the third edition of the festival. It’s eclectic—there are science lectures, art exhibits, panel discussions on John Paul II. It’s full of people—13 guests, 180 volunteers, 5 folk dancing groups; 2 chamber orchestras; 3 children’s groups for kids’ show and approximately 2,000 attendees per day. It’s free of charge. What is it all about?
Having completed his presentation on the question, “What is Christianity?” to an audience of hundreds at the New York Encounter, the curtain fell before him and Fr. Julian Carron turned around to find his way off the stage. He found his path immediately blocked by a camera crew from the TV channel of the Brooklyn Archdiocese. Would he be available for a brief interview? They spoke to him in Spanish—they worked on a TV show catering to the Spanish-speaking population of the diocese and they knew Fr. Carron is a Spaniard. Of course! A brief one, but yes, of course.
After a few perfunctory questions, the crew asks Fr. Carron a question that most modern-day professional philosophers will never deign to ask: “What is the relationship between faith and reason?” This being television, the answer had to be expressed in ten seconds or less.
Fr. Carron didn’t need that much time. He said: “It’s an encounter.”
Show, Don’t Tell
Fr. Carron has a degree in theology from the Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid, so he was perfectly capable of giving the type of textbook answer that would satisfy someone who is dissatisfied by the simple reply, “It’s an encounter.” But at that place and time a long answer would have been a moot point. The New York Encounter is meant to be a stage upon which the answer to the TV reporter’s question could be seen. Reason is what we use to understand the world. If faith is somehow reasonable, then it should help us to understand the world better—with visible results.
One way to look at the New York Encounter is as a showcase of those visible results. This is why there were, in the 2012 Edition (January 13-25), events on politics (Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon spoke about the vocation of politics), science (Massimo Roberto of the Space Telescope Science Institute of Baltimore spoke about star formation), art (Jane Milosch on the painter William Congdon), education (Ross Douthat, Matthew Kaminski, and Chris Bacich on secondary education and the meaning of life) and concerts of dance and music—in short, virtually every realm of human endeavor.
The Encounter was not all about lectures and panel discussions, however. There was food and drink and, most importantly, music. A concert on the last evening of the Encounter—Sunday night—became the concluding spectacle of the festival. It was called “Pure American Juice” and it was a celebration of American musical traditions, from jazz to rock.
Saxophonist and composer “Blue” Lou Marini (of Blues Brothers fame), songwriter and singer Vaneese Thomas headlined; they were backed up by a band who could play everything from blues to rock and roll. The lead guitar was played by a very young music student named Phil Faconti; at one point, he got so into a Beatles tune that he lifted his guitar to his mouth and played a few notes with his teeth, a la Hendrix. The program was MC’d by Joey Reynolds, host of the Joey Reynolds Show, and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—a legendary disc jockey, his show was the highest-rated rock and roll program of all time.
So the Encounter is what happens when a group of people who experience life as Christians and pursue widely diverging interests and proclivities put their heads (and time, and strength) together, and launch a cultural festival. The cultural festival takes place in a building called the Manhattan Center near Penn Station. It is inspired by the Rimini Meeting, co-sponsored by Crossroads Cultural Center, and born out of the charism of Communion and Liberation.
These last few lines approach a question that the reporters did not have time to ask: Why put together an Encounter in the first place?
The Encounter is possible only because of a series of smaller encounters, which take place in many places around the world. Someone somewhere at some point in time and space met Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, struck up a friendship, learned that she was writing a book about political vocation—The Forum and the Tower—and eventually asked her to give the keynote address of the NYE. The NYE does not count on the cultural cache of the Aspen Festival of Ideas or the money of the Venice Biennal, but even if it had both of those things, it would rely on the individual encounters between people and the actual, real-existing relationships that make exchange possible. “Encounter” is, through and through, part of the festival on every level.
But why do it? Angelo Sala, one of the founding members of both Crossroads Cultural Center and the New York Encounter, gave a speech in which he attempted to describe the reasons for doing what he does. The speech refers to Crossroads but—he tells us himself—it could be instantly applied to the NYE as well:
The main activity of Crossroads is the organization and promotion of public events on any topic that fascinates us. This was true at the beginning and it is still true today. It is a very important point for us: we choose our topics and speakers because of the way we’re struck by reality, not based on an ideology or a pre-determined agenda. When we started Crossroads, we had no intention of focusing on a predetermined subset of issues, people or ideas that fall under the “Catholic” label. On the contrary, for us, being a Catholic cultural center means precisely the opposite, that is, to be interested in everything, in the entire spectrum of reality. It means to have the ability – or at least the desire – to encounter people from all walks of life, and to look for and give value to everything that is true, good and worthy in various expressions of human life.
Here we can see, from another angle, how adequately the word “encounter” answers the TV reporter’s questions.
But more importantly, we can also see the beginnings of a new model—now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council—of Catholic cultural engagement.
Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University and is pursuing doctoral studies at Boston College.