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At New York Encounter: A monk turned bishop shares the roadmap of his spiritual journey

February 22, 2023 Catholic News Agency 2
Monsignor Erik Varden (right), a Cistercian monk who is also the bishop of Trondheim, Norway, fielded questions about his book “The Shattering of Loneliness” from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, at this year’s New York Encounter on Feb. 17–19, 2023. / Credit: New York Encounter

New York City, N.Y., Feb 22, 2023 / 12:47 pm (CNA).

“Come in yearners, come in yearners, this way, yearners!” said a young volunteer welcoming visitors to the New York Encounter, a three-day public cultural event held in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City last weekend.

Her playful use of the word “yearner” was a reference to the title of a panel discussion that was about to begin, “Why Do I Have This Yearning?” featuring a conversation with two Catholic novelists, Chris Beha and Ron Hansen.

“Yearning” was a watchword for much of the New York Encounter, an annual weekend-long series of panels and exhibitions on topics of the day that is hosted by members of Communion and Liberation, the Catholic movement started by Father Luigi Giussani in Milan, Italy. His influential theological work, “The Religious Sense,” starts with the proposition that human beings have within them an innate longing — or yearning — for God.

A highlight of this year’s event was a conversation between a Catholic monk and a top papal diplomat that explored the desires of the human heart and its fulfillment in Christ.

Monsignor Erik Varden, a Cistercian monk who is also the bishop of Trondheim, Norway, fielded questions about his book “The Shattering of Loneliness” from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States.

“When you read this book, you are accompanied by your monk who helps you precisely to discover your own reality, your own life,” said Pierre in recommending Varden’s book.

The discussion that followed traced the path of Varden’s spiritual journey, touching on the signposts that are there for everyone embarking on a search of his or her own.

Varden, 48, explained how he came to believe in God, beginning with his first realization of the existence of evil and suffering. After hearing his father relate having seen the lash marks on the back of an old man who had survived torture and imprisonment during World War II, he said, he began to see the world in a new light.

“Even as a child, I felt a strong desire to try and understand what this was about. Is there a way of making sense of something which is senseless — which suffering is, which pain is? And in that respect, I think it’s true to say that my journey of searching began at that point,” Varden said.

That journey eventually led him to the monastery, where, Varden said, the sudden absence of technology and general lack of stimuli forces one to see more clearly.

“You start realizing the importance of actually taking care about what you consume in terms of stimulus and imagery, because it stays there. You also begin to encounter your own poverty as a human being, and the mystery of suffering, of pain or violence, and the fact that it’s not just that the world isn’t as it should be — that I am not as I should be. And this drama is being played out in me,” he said.

Varden explained that his awareness of suffering and evil was followed by the discovery of something “extraordinary” — “the depth of kindness that you can meet in people, their hospitality and generosity, and nonjudgmental openness and the desire to help.”

The real “aha moment” for Varden came in the form of music, he said.

“Then, in addition, for me personally, there was the discovery of a supernatural dimension to this whole conflict, if you like, that happened for me through an encounter with music. It was through listening to the Second Symphony of Mahler, the Resurrection Symphony, that something quite mysteriously was as if a door was opened in me. And I realized that there was in me a level of sensibility and a vulnerability that I hadn’t been aware of. And I had that certainty that I carried in me something that was greater than me, that was somehow a presence.”

He explained that he then began to seek out that presence he longed for, “through reading, attempting to pray, through beginning to read the Scriptures, and eventually, through encountering a praying community.”

Addressing the meaning of longing, Varden echoed a theme heard at the weekend’s Encounter.

“The desire for comfort, the desire to be known, to be seen, to be loved, the desire for infinity, that we carry in ourselves. All those stupendous aspirations are, in fact, true aspirations that correspond to a real object that by grace is within reach, and that reaches out to us — that’s the great mystery,” Varden said.

In his conversation with Pierre, Varden introduced a figure who features prominently in his book: Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian monk and mystic canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1903. The holy man, who lived much of his life as a hermit, according to an account in the book, once suddenly appeared as a blaze of light in the course of a conversation with a visitor. It was a miracle of sorts that forever changed the one who witnessed the phenomenon.

“And Seraphim says to us, well, we’re not all called to that degree of singular and excessive experience because that’s the result of a very special call. But we’re all called to enter into the life of Christ as our own Christ so that we can pronounce that line from St. Paul, not just as a pious sentiment: ‘that it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’” 

Varden explained that when we “enter into the life of Christ” people notice, just as if we had suddenly appeared in a miraculous blaze of light.

“And that presence of Christ will be perceptible as peace. Towards the end of his life, again Seraphim said, ‘If you acquire the spirit of peace — and remember, St. Paul says, Christ is our peace, thousands around you will find salvation — you will, in all your inadequacy, by the grace of God, be a pointer to Christ’s gift and Christ’s promise,” the bishop of Trondheim said.

Other panel discussions and presentations over the weekend covered subjects as diverse as “influencers, cryptocurrencies, and the metaverse,” inflation, the war in Ukraine, and the James Webb Telescope, following St. Paul’s suggestion, the event’s website says, to “test everything and retain what is good.”

For more information about the New York Encounter, a free annual event that is open to the public, visit its website


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New York Encounter kicks off this weekend: Here’s what you need to know

February 16, 2023 Catholic News Agency 2
The them of this year’s New York Encounter — “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. / New York Encounter

New York City, N.Y., Feb 16, 2023 / 12:45 pm (CNA).

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.

“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’

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.