Monday, January 16, 2012

New York Notes

I am back on dry land after a three-day voyage. Katie and I spent most of the holiday weekend at the New York Encounter, a cultural expo put on by Communion and Liberation (CL) at the Manhattan Center on West 34th Street, near Penn Station.

I also participated in a “diaconia” of “responsibles” from CL “Schools of Community” in North America, attended by about 150 people. Both venues heard Fr. Julián Carrón (left), president of CL worldwide.

Here are a few personal impressions of the weekend:

1. We are led—I have been in CL for four years, while Father Carrón has headed it for seven, or since the death of founder Msgr. Luigi Giussani in 2005; so I am only supposing here, but I have to imagine that picking up the reins from the charismatic “Don Giuss” was challenging. In some ways, I imagine, Carrón must have faced a task like that of Cardinal Ratzinger replacing the uber-charismatic John Paul II.

It seems to me that Carrón has succeeded after the same fashion as Pope Benedict—which is to say, systematically yet forcefully. Taking the Spanish-born priest simply as a man, I would characterize him as a very passionate intellectual. The whole room jumped Saturday morning when he slammed the head table with his palm for sudden emphasis!

It is no surprise to me that Carrón assiduously follows Benedict and invites those of us in CL to do the same.

2. Our leader has a plan—There is a sort of inside joke in CL that we never finish a book, but in my four years with the Movement, we have worked methodically through the three volumes of Is It Possible to Live This Way? and then, within the past twelve months, The Religious Sense—all written by Giussani. These readings have been accented by Carrón’s periodic written commentaries on them.

A primary purpose of both the diaconia and the New York Encounter was to introduce the next book to be read by Schools of Community worldwide, At the Origin of the Christian Claim. This is volume two in a trilogy that begins with The Religious Sense and concludes with Why the Church? In other words, there is a program here that we are being invited to follow by a thoughtful leader, whose gaze, when you meet him in person, is extraordinarily benign.

3. We are on a journey together—At the diaconia, for three hours Saturday morning, Father Carrón led an “assembly,” a sort of town-hall meeting where individuals speak about their experience and he responds. With Carrón at the head table was US national responsible Chris Bacich. What struck me about the assembly was that Carrón seemed to respond with most interest to the humblest testimonies. One man spoke of his own fear that his faith may be unfounded. Instead of jumping on this as the sign of a failing, Carrón began by admitting that, yes, we all feel this fear sometimes—that in fact this fear, these doubts, and some of our darkest moments are necessary to put us in contact with our humanity, our need, our “religious sense.”

The entire weekend was a shared journey toward greater understanding—from Saturday morning’s assembly to a formal book presentation on At the Origin of the Christian Claim that took place Sunday afternoon in the public forum of the New York Encounter.

4. I am being changed—I had not planned to speak at the assembly, but from the moment it began and Carrón laid out the themes, I began formulating a testimony in my mind. I attribute this partly to my own egotism: I wanted to speak, I seldom pass up an opportunity. But it was also a sign to me that the work we have been doing in the past year has opened me and changed me. I would say that it has deepened my faith, but that’s not quite right. Instead it has deepened my wish to deepen my faith, while encouraging me to open myself more fully to the reality in which I live, by stripping away my preconceptions, even those about faith, so that I might stand on firmer ground in myself.

While I was not called on to speak, I felt grateful for the opportunity to contemplate a series of personal events in the past year, events that came to a different result than they might have without the work of our School of Community.

5. CL offers a complex, surprising, and sometimes confusing mix of Catholic faith and culture. While I spent most of my time at the diaconia and could not attend many of the public events at the New York Encounter, Katie and I did attend Sunday morning’s Mass in the Manhattan Center. The celebrant was Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin—backed by a dozen priests affiliated with the Movement, as concelebrants. Imagine the stereotype of an Irish priest, with that lovely lilting brogue, topped off by a short white miter. That was Archbishop Martin, whose quietly classic delivery stood in sharp contrast to the musical accompaniment chosen for the Mass.

The Kyrie, the Gloria, and all the other sung parts of the Mass were performed by the Deanna Witkowski jazz trio—Ms. Witkowski at the piano and mic, backed by a drummer and a bassist. First, a prejudice: I don’t like it when a celebrant, having prepared the gifts for the Mass, has to stand and wait more than a few seconds for the music to subside. At this moment and at several others, while the music bopped on past its appointed hour, I was not certain whether I was in a church or a jazz club. The Archbishop stood his ground admirably, but the overall effect was disconcerting.

6. In the end, CL is a friendship that grows. I saw many familiar, friendly faces over the weekend, and I saw the friendship that is CL extended to my wife, who had never attended a regional or national event before. In particular, Elvira Parravicini MD, a leading neonatologist, was extraordinarily generous with her time, exploring common ground between Katie and herself.

I was heartened by new friendships, too, especially with a couple of people who surprised me with comments about this blog. A man from Miami was particularly encouraging, stating that the judgments I persist in making, especially about books and films, are valuable. He particularly noted two pieces I had written about the film Biutiful, this one and this one.

I agreed with him in this respect: Little that passes for cultural criticism in the lay press makes room for anything beyond the human. Meanwhile, so-called Catholic criticism is often highly moralistic, refusing even to look at films like Biutiful, which are, well, beautiful. Enrico recognized that in writing book, film, and cultural posts here, I am trying to find a middle ground—to judge events in our world from within the faith but without moralistic self-righteousness.

Admittedly, this is hard ground to hold, but with the encouragement of Enrico and others, I will keep trying.

(Note: Saturday morning in New York, I also wrote this, which, caveat lector, is as much about yoga as it is about Christ.)


  1. Great to hear your perspective, W. And it was also nice this weekend to meet your young wife. ; )

  2. You have no idea how young! Good to see you too, sorry it was so brief.

  3. Hi, Webster,

    I am disappointed to hear of your own disappointment with the music on Sunday. The issue you speak of- the music going beyond its appointed hour- is, in point of fact, an organizational issue: all of the music was approved in advance, with knowledge of its length. The offertory piece could not have been chopped short, as it was a through-composed piece with text (the piece about Mary Magdalene). I worked extremely hard to coordinate as much as I could with the organizers and certainly did not select music or perform it as if the venue was a jazz club.

    I trust that you'll give my music another chance- you can experience more of my work at



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