Remembering Lorenzo

by Michael Sean Winters

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It was the spring of 1993, Good Friday to be exact. I had known Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete for only a few months. That night, Lorenzo and his beloved brother Manuel, and a third person whom I do not recall, came into Kramerbooks & Afterwords for dinner. They were seated at table 40, right near the stairs that lead down to the prep kitchen. I can remember it as if it was yesterday. The waitress took their order and I stood by her as she wrote it down. When all three of them ordered lamb chops, I interjected. “You can’t have lamb chops – it’s Good Friday.” Without missing a beat, Lorenzo said, “Oh, Mike, [he was the only person who ever called me “Mike”], we had an ancestor who died fighting in the Crusades and have a dispensation in perpetuity.” I knew I was in the presence of someone whose understanding of our faith was very, very different from the Irish-American Catholicism in which I had been raised.

Another time, Lorenzo and I were discussing my lack of fidelity to the sixth and ninth commandments. To say that my life was disordered at the time in such matters - intrinsically or extrinsically I shall leave for the theologians to determine – would be an accurate statement. And, he said to me, “Look, when St. Augustine tells us that even the conjugal act, open to the procreation of children, even that is not free from the shadow of the sin of concupiscence, he is really telling us something very liberating.” Ponder that. I have never stopped pondering it and, as regular readers will note, that insight has guided much of my thoughts about the recent Synod.

It was the mid-90s. I was not present at this event so the story may have come to include some legendary elements, but that is no crime. It was the National Prayer Breakfast, that strange admixture of Church & State that occurs every year at the Hilton Hotel. Lorenzo had been asked to say the opening prayer. At the time, he was the pastor of the nearby church Our Lady Queen of the Americas. The emcee was a Protestant pastor who was not familiar with ecclesiastical titles in the Roman Church. He introduced Lorenzo as, “Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, the Queen of the Americas.” Lorenzo turned to President Clinton who was sitting next to him and said, “I have been promoted.” 

It was a few years or so after the attacks of 9/11, Lorenzo is engaged in a debate in New York City about torture. Someone representing the Bush Administration makes the case that, of course, torture should be used in prosecuting the war on terror. Rick Hertzberg, from the New Yorker, at whose wedding Lorenzo was the presider, made the case that torture could never, ever be employed, it did not work and even if it did, it was a violation of humane ethics. The moderator turned to Lorenzo to state the Catholic position, and put the question thus: Let us stipulate that torture can be effective. Let us say that the authorities have in custody a man who has planted an atomic bomb in midtown Manhattan and that by torturing him, they will find out the location of the bomb in time to defuse it. Would it be morally acceptable to torture the man to get that information, saving millions of lives?” Lorenzo, noting that he was not empowered to speak for the Church in any official capacity said, “I think the Catholic response would be – of course you torture him and save those lives, but then you must go to confession.”

Lorenzo Albacete was the most original human being I have ever met. I could add story after story to these four to make the point, but each of them affected me profoundly, teaching me a different way of following the Master, a way that was at once more radical and less strident, obsessed only with the persistent and important questions of discipleship: What does it mean to love this person standing in front of me, and what does this love entail and what does it demand? What does it mean to call oneself a Christian? Why do I hope? Unlike so many apologists for the Catholic faith, who pretend that they have all the answers, Lorenzo had all the questions.  

His originality, it became clear early on, was not merely, or even mainly, the result of his abundant natural gifts, his intelligence, his humor, his capacity for friendship. No, Lorenzo’s originality was born of an intense, foundational, brutally honest and therefore intellectual risky, commitment to the proposition that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, everything, absolutely everything, was changed  - and Lorenzo most of all, or so it seemed to me. During his brief tenure as the President of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, he had a large and beautiful painting of the Holy Family in his home. When he showed it to me, he called attention to the very chubby infant Jesus. “Look,” he said, “Fat just like me!”

We met almost by accident. My friend Anna Husarska, the Polish journalist, had been asked to do an article about Pope John Paul II for Vanity Fair. She was planning on conducting interviews in Poland and Rome, of course, but asked if there was anyone in Washington with whom she should talk. I told her that there was a man I knew only by reputation, a Msgr. Albacete, who was reportedly close to the pope. She arranged to meet him. I should note that Anna is not a Catholic nor a believer and she has in abundance all the necessary skepticism of a great journalist. She walked over to my house after the interview with Lorenzo and she was smitten. The following week I threw together a dinner party to meet Lorenzo and introduce him to some more friends. We all were smitten too. I had never met anyone like him. He was hilarious. He was brilliant. He inhaled literature. He had utter disdain for middle class sensibilities – the remnants of his breakfast and the ashes of several Marlboro cigarettes invariably adorned his clerical vest by 9 a.m.  He was the only person in the history of the papacy scheduled to have lunch with the pope (John Paul II) on Wednesday, call the day before and ask if the date could be pushed back to Thursday – and it was! (He had gone on Wednesday to meet Monsignor Luigi Giussani, a meeting with happy and blessed consequences for both men.) Lorenzo was perfectly, thoroughly orthodox and perfectly, thoroughly non-judgmental, indeed he grasped that the one demanded the other. And, to seal the deal, he was from that blessed island of Puerto Rico which I had long loved as well.

My indebtedness to him is multi-faceted. At the time we met, I was studying Church History but I had lost interest in the intellectual apostolate of the Church. I was far more interested in the Church of the 19th century than the Church of my own time. Lorenzo, a kind of theological Auntie Mame, opened intellectual doors I never knew existed. He was the first priest to make it clear to me that moralism gets in the way of true faith, and that we American Catholics were almost uniquely cursed with a moralistic understanding of our faith. He taught me that the teachings of the Church can truly liberate but only if they are first credible to the person seeking liberation, and that the authenticity of that liberation was itself the confirmation of the teachings of the Church: No one was more free than Lorenzo Albacete. His sympathy with the human condition betrayed the heart of an extraordinary pastor, someone to whom the “care of souls” could be entrusted, not exactly safely, but surely. The Lord leads us where we need to be, and I suppose I would have found my way back into the intellectual life of the Church and perhaps even to these pages at NCR in any event, but the way I was led back was through the friendship and the ministry (these were synonymous terms to him) of Lorenzo.   

Time and again, Lorenzo pointed me to the 22nd paragraph of Gaudium et Spes: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.” Here was the key insight of Vatican II. More than collegiality, more than the universal call to holiness, more than the decree on religious liberty, more than any of the topics and themes that had dominated post-conciliar discussion, here was the hermeneutical key. I believe we, as a Church, are only still beginning to get our heads and hearts around this text. If there is to be a springtime for the Church in the twenty-first century, it will have its roots in Gaudium et Spes 22 and, for me, Lorenzo tilled the soil.

This understanding of the centrality of the Incarnation came up in a discussion last January at the New York Encounter. Msgr. Albacete and Cardinal Sean O’Malley spoke for an hour to the audience. The video link is here. It is splendid as “the two bums” relate stories from their shared history, so rich in love and laughter and faith. But, if you do not have time to watch the whole thing, go to the 39th minute as +Sean discusses the Holy Father’s visit to Assisi last year, and especially the visit with the handicapped children, and how the Holy Father explained that these children are the wounds on the Body of Christ and we can worship Christ in them. Lorenzo jumps in and says, “But, this is not a metaphor…They are the real Christ. There is no other one. Otherwise, there has been a dis-incarnation.” [I won’t give it all away but continue to hear what he says about sentimentality!] For Lorenzo, the core doctrines of the Church are not a theological category, not a metaphor, not a sentiment but they are as real, facts actually, as the computer I am typing on at this very moment; indeed, the Church is as real, not in a sociological sense, but in a soteriological sense, as we dare to allow ourselves to admit. And, dare we should. The foundational beliefs of our Creed are not stale dogmatic formulas from centuries long past. They are outrageous claims about God and the supernatural, with equally stupendous implications for us, and Lorenzo never shied away from their outrageousness and, just so, had an uncanny knack for presenting them as decisive truth claims. Some have said in recent days that Lorenzo had a gift for explaining the faith, but this is precisely wrong. Lorenzo had a genius for overthrowing facile explanations and utilitarian justifications for the faith, and, instead, insisted on the mystery, on the role of the reasonable (not strictly “rational” in a Cartesian sense but who ever said Descartes gets to define what is rational!) desires in the human heart as pointing to, but not exhausting, that mystery, and, finally, the grace-filled decision to believe with all its ecclesial ramifications.

For me, it is not only the insights Lorenzo shared that have shaped my life, but so many of my friendships have grown out of my friendship with him. The Church is always her best when she is faithful to that friendship God showered upon us in sending His Son. So is humanity. The incarnational Church is the real Church, real in the love we share with one another, all of it rooted in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. It was because of Lorenzo, and the friendships in Christ that he led me to, that I cringe when I read someone write about “the institutional Church.” Such language reflects an impoverished, modern, un-Christian, understanding of the Church, and Lorenzo bestowed a richer understanding. Indeed, modernity understood its principal accomplishment to be the “turn to the subject,” but Lorenzo taught me that it was the Incarnation that brought about the ultimate turn to the subject, and the vital requirement that the turn be characterized by love, not objectification.

This belief in the reality of the Incarnation and its continuance in the Church is why Lorenzo was so deeply, and thoroughly, and enthusiastically committed to Pope Francis. “Isn’t it amazing,” he would say on the phone when we discussed the latest Papa Francesco surprise. Lorenzo was a one-man culture of encounter, his pastoral ministry was one of accompaniment not judgment, and he personified the joy of the Gospel, all before these three became leitmotifs of the papacy of Francis. He did not have the long personal friendship with Papa Bergoglio that he had with his two predecessors, but they were cut from the same cloth, spoke the same language and breathed the same radical commitment to the reality of what we profess. Both of them understood that far too often, moralism prevents people from encountering Christ and that it is the job of the pastor to sweep away each and every impediment to that encounter.

I am not a huge fan of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, but he did us eulogists for Lorenzo a favor when he penned this sentence: “The mere aspirant after a type of character only shows his hopeless inferiority when the natural orator or fighter or lover comes along.” Had he included “natural – or better supernatural – evangelist” in the list, we could apply those words to Lorenzo. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, of the striver, or the poser, or the hypocrite in him.

In the past two weeks, I have been praying for a miracle, that Lorenzo would be healed. But, I confess I felt greedy in offering that prayer. The miracle was Lorenzo himself and getting to walk with him. Still, I offered that prayer each day and throughout the day with a fervency that matched my dread at the prospect of his death. Life without him will be less joyful, less funny, less smart. But, while I feared his death, I no longer fear my own because of him – and because of Him whom Lorenzo re-introduced me to at a deeper level than I had ever thought possible before. That is a great grace. Friday, I put up a link to a wonderful essay Lorenzo wrote about grief. And, in the title I put: “Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete: Requiem Aeternam.” I wish to walk that back. I hope Lorenzo will be as spiritually active in heaven as he was on earth. He has not “gone to his eternal reward.” Lorenzo hated such commercial, transactional understandings of God’s grace. Better to say something that connotes the relationality and sacramentality of the Catholic faith, such as, “He has gone to join the Communion of the Saints.” Or, something metaphysical, such as “He has gone to his destiny.”  

Nonetheless, however one describes it, he has gone. All the notes and calls I got this weekend made reference to his wit and all of us who mourn his loss mourn especially the fact that we will never laugh as hard as we did with Lorenzo. Those of us who loved him, and who feel his loss like a deep, deep wound, we need him to wait for his eternal rest just a bit, because we still need him, his wit, his humor, his deep faith. We need him still to encourage us to listen to our hearts, remove any and all obstacles to the encounter with Jesus Christ, to never be satisfied with easy answers or stale formulas. We need his companionship still. That need is real, even if it points us beyond the horizon of human cognition, and it is beyond that horizon, in the great mystery, that we discern our sure hope in the Resurrection. The fact that this hope lies beyond our cognition tells us nothing about the truth of that hope. It is confirmed only by the conviction that life without God is intolerable slavery and that life with God leads to communion and liberation. Lorenzo taught me that.    

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