‘Festival of Friendship’ seeks authentic encounter in a digital venue 

Denver Newsroom, Oct 21, 2020 / 12:16 am (CNA).- An annual cultural festival hosted by a Catholic group of artists and intellectuals is being held virtually this month, offering opportunities for encounter and discussion through art and creativity.

The Revolution of Tenderness – which draws its name from an exhortation of Pope Francis – is in the middle of hosting its eighth Festival of Friendship. The project brings together a myriad of people from different cultures and belief systems.

“The Festival of Friendship is an annual free cultural event that is open to the public; it features speakers and topics to do with every aspect of human ingenuity and creativity: from the arts and humanities, to sports, to science, to politics and economics, to education, to research, to any and all expressions of human culture,” said Suzanne Lewis, coordinator for Revolution of Tenderness.

“We place a special emphasis on dialogue; thus we invite speakers who belong to many different religions (or none), and we explore subjects of interest to Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” she told CNA.

The festival is modeled after the Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, an annual cultural festival held in Italy’s coastal town of Rimini. This event, which is also free, attracts over 800,000 visitors each year. Lewis was so moved by attending the Rimini meeting that she decided to replicate the experience in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Steubenville, Ohio.

“My collaborators and I have not made any attempts to innovate on the model I first witnessed in Rimini. In fact, all our efforts to do with the festival have been motivated by a desire to imitate the meeting as faithfully as possible while providing the fewest possible ‘translations’ for an American audience,” she said.

The first festival was established in 2012 and called The Pittsburgh Encounter. The nonprofit, Revolution of Tenderness, was then established in 2017. As the nonprofit developed, the organization has been able to further other initiatives, including literary workshops, conferences, and classes.

Normally, the Festival of Friendship is carried out one autumn week in Pittsburgh. In addition to Catholics from a variety of professions, it has also hosted jazz musicians, Buddhist monks, Islamic scholars, and medical professionals. About 500 people attended last year’s event.

This year, the event is being held in online sessions every Thursday through Sunday in October. It showcases music, poetry, cinematography, lectures, panel discussions, and keynote talks.

While the online format has drawn a smaller-than-typical audience, Lewis said it has been a very positive experience.

“We decided to spread our offerings over the course of a month, and to give our audience days off to rejuvenate before tuning in for the next event of the festival,” she said, adding that they have seen “several unexpected positive side effects from moving online.”

One benefit has been the “extraordinary opportunity to engage with artists, speakers, musicians, academics, and audience members from across the country and around the world.”

“While we long for the warm, human embrace and conviviality that our past, in-person festivals have become famous for, we’ve seen signs, already, that the online, multi-week format has been able to open the door for an even larger community of friends to discover together what it means to be ‘found’ and truly embraced, despite the limits of physical separation,” she said.

This Friday, the festival will host “To Live In A Sea Of Happiness” – a samba concert that seeks to convey discovery and hope. The music, born in the poverty of Brazil, is an expression of joy and hope performed through music and dance, according to organizers. It will be performed by Ney Vasconcelos, Antonio Gomes, and Marcelo Rocha.

That same day, the festival will also host “Every Separation is a Link: Being Found Behind Bars,” a discussion on how inmates are “found” in prison. It will include discussions with professionals such as Dr. Louis Mendoza, director of the Pen Project, a program that connects maximum-security inmates to Arizona State University students; and Ron Zeilinger, the founder of Dismas Ministry, a Catholic prison ministry based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Elisabeth Kramp is the editor-in-chief of Revolution of Tenderness’ biannual journal Convivium and was one of the performers at last week’s event, “From Whence Springs a Boundless Fruitfulness.” Kramp recited poems, along with several other authors including Ewa Chrusciel and Suzanne M. Wolfe.

“This year I made a recording of myself reading in my study,” she told CNA. “In giving a reading, I hope the language I use incites listeners' imaginations. Poetry is a way of knowing, and I'm all the richer when, through poetry, I see or sense the world in new ways. That's why I write it, and that's what I hope is transferred in a reading.”

She said the author and poets were able to place their own spin on interpreting the theme, “boundless fruitfulness.” For herself, she said fruitfulness inspired questions about the fruits of labor, fruits of the Holy Spirit, and the impact of language, especially as a literary artist.

“Language conveys so much of that fruit, the way that we strive to make beauty, the way that we patiently toil for words, not necessarily for books and publication, but for the sharing of ideas,” she said.

Kramp described her experience as an artist during the pandemic. Putting together an issue of Convivium, she was able to read a variety of submissions from artists across the world, including poems submitted from Nigeria, Wales, France, and Siberia.

“How strange that a small journal could connect me to so many in a time when I very occasionally left my home,” she reflected. “And the work on the journal knits my collaborators and I together in friendship – in spite of our being far flung across the U.S. This work has been a reminder that artistic collaboration fosters friendship, even though the overt goal is to produce the work of art.”

Lewis said efforts such as the Festival of Friendship are particularly important today, given the tension and division in society.

“In a time of increasing division and polarization, when dialogue often seems impossible among opposing camps (both inside and outside the Church), we bring diverse people together to look for what is true and useful and enduring in every discipline and topic imaginable,” she said. “We want to recover the art of authentic and convivial debate, and we want to share this gift with others.”

“Many in the Church spend enormous resources and time answering questions that no one is asking,” she continued.

“We need first to develop a capacity for listening, so that we might hear the questions, articulated and unspoken, that our fellow human beings, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, wrestle with, and then we need to do the work of discovering, within the daily realities and the fabric of ordinary life, how our own priceless inheritance answers those questions in very particular and unique ways.”


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