Discussion highlights legacy of Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete

CHICAGO -- A virtual panel discussion took place on Nov. 18 promoting a new book, "The Relevance of the Stars: Christ, Culture, and Destiny," a collection of essays and talks by the late physicist and theologian Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, who was one of the leaders of Communion and Liberation in the U.S.

Sponsored by the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University Chicago, the event featured the book's editors, Lisa Lickona and Gregory Wolfe, as well as Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley. They each shared memories and anecdotes of the monsignor, recalling his humor, his friendships, and his intellectual acumen. They also talked about the many topics covered in the book, ranging from problems of identity and ideology to the relationship between faith and science.

"The Relevance of the Stars" came out in February of this year, published by Slant Books. Wolfe said that putting the book together was difficult because, despite being a highly sought-after personality and a contributor to such publications as The New York Times, Msgr. Albacete had no interest in promoting himself during his lifetime. People had to pursue him to get his work published. His only other book, "God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity" was published in 2002.

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1941, Lorenzo Albacete came to the United States to attend the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a degree in space science and applied physics. Cardinal O'Malley met him in the late 1960s while studying at the nearby Capuchin College and ministering to the local Hispanic community.

The cardinal described Msgr. Albacete as "deeply compassionate" and the most nonjudgmental person he had ever known. He said that disposition allowed the monsignor to enter into "deep and profound" dialogue with people and caused them to open their hearts to him.

"He knew how to express the truths of the faith in a fascinating way that allowed people to look again with new eyes at what the Church was teaching," Cardinal O'Malley said.

Msgr. Albacete was ordained to the priesthood in 1974. He went to Rome for his graduate studies and earned his doctorate in John Paul II's theological anthropology. Upon his return to the U.S., he was instrumental in founding the John Paul II Institute, where Lickona was a student in several of his classes.

Msgr. Albacete's life changed in the 1990s when he met Father Luigi Giussani, the founder of the lay movement Communion and Liberation.

"The encounter with Giussani answered questions that Msgr. Albacete had had since his early days, questions about faith and culture, how to live the faith in the world today," Lickona said.

In 2000, Father Giussani asked Msgr. Albacete to help lead Communion and Liberation in the U.S. The monsignor traveled across the country giving talks, retreats, and presentations to fledgling CL communities.

Wolfe said that Msgr. Albacete helped to translate the Italian rhetorical style of CL into American idiom.

"If Msgr. Albacete's vision of the faith really spreads, it will, I think, bring about a great wave of renewal," Wolfe said.

A recurring theme throughout the discussion was Msgr. Albacete's capacity for friendship.

As a theologian, he was an advisor to popes, cardinals, and archbishops, but he was also "a man of the people," Wolfe said.

In light of Pope Francis' recent call for a synod, Cardinal O'Malley addressed the concept of synodality, which he defined as "being on a path with others in dialogue and prayer to discern God's will for our future." He said this was the kind of life and vision that Msgr. Albacete possessed.

"He was not afraid to take on difficult issues and talk about them, but it was never done in a spirit of culture wars or attacking people or trying to best people, but rather to discover the truth together and to rejoice in doing that together," Cardinal O'Malley said.

Lickona spoke about the risk that Msgr. Albacete took to be truthful and vulnerable, attentive to the heart's emotions and the human experience of reality.

"He had a capacity to live his humanity in front of other people, and whether they were religious or not, it was attractive. It was disarming. It made you feel free to be who you were, to live your humanity. And that's really what gets you on the path to Christ," Lickona said.

She described one occasion when Msgr. Albacete was invited to a party with many media elites, where they watched a documentary about a man with a terminal illness. Afterwards, the other guests expressed amazement and admiration for the man's courage, but when they asked Msgr. Albacete for his opinion, he spoke the truth of his heart: he was sad because the man was dead and he would never get to meet him.

"We're tempted, when we're religious people, to give religious answers, and yet what is really required is to go to the bottom of our hearts. Because there is this desire for God. It's inside of us, and it's something that we can trust," Lickona said.

Wolfe cited Msgr. Albacete's words about dualism and explained his recognition of the Incarnation as "the ultimate model for us."

"It's the perfect balance of these aspects of the human person, the flesh and the spirit, justice and mercy, heaven and earth. And part of the reason that we live in a world of culture wars and dualism is that we tend to separate these things," Wolfe said.

Wolfe and Lickona both spoke about Msgr. Albacete's understanding that Christianity is not primarily about rules but about an encounter with Christ.

Wolfe said that Father Giussani helped Msgr. Albacete to articulate his critique of "moralism," measuring goodness by the ability to follow rules. The monsignor understood that morality comes from "a living relationship with another," trying to do right by someone and honor the relationship with them.

"If that encounter is not foremost in my mind, then I'm not going to be interested in behaving rightly," Wolfe said.

Lickona said that the book's title "The Relevance of the Stars" comes from a story about Msgr. Albacete. When he was out walking one night, he passed by a young couple kissing in a car. He went up to them and asked what their current activity had to do with the stars. Lickona said this exemplified his understanding that in every human experience, there is wonder and a desire for the infinite.

"To live in wonder of all these experiences, that was monsignor to a T. You couldn't be around him and not have your eyes be opened to something new," Lickona said.