Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian, physicist, author and a leader of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, died Friday in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., after a long illness. He was 73.
Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley is scheduled to celebrate a funeral Mass for the priest Tuesday at St. Mary's Church in New York.
The native of Puerto Rico, who was educated in Washington and Rome and was briefly president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, held advanced degrees in space science and applied physics as well as in sacred theology. He was sought out as a speaker and writer on the intersection of faith and science as well as a range of theological and social topics.
Albacete, who also was a columnist and frequent lecturer, had been a friend of St. John Paul II ever since the priest escorted then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, around New York City in 1976. He told an interviewer in 2000 that the friendship helped him understand the beauty of the Incarnation.
"Just as Karol became pope without changing from the man I knew, God becomes man without disfiguring the man,'' he told the Catholic Herald in Milwaukee.
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Albacete had been one of the leaders of the Communion and Liberation movement in the United States, serving until recently as its national director, and an offshoot, Crossroads Cultural Center, which focuses on the relationship between religion and culture. Albacete was its chairman at the time of his death.
"With his tireless work, he witnessed to us how faith can become 'intelligence of reality,' with his ability to recognize and embrace anyone without ambiguity, but for love of the truth that is present in every person," said Fr. Julian Carron, the Spanish priest who is president of Communion and Liberation.
With his suffering, Albacete "reminded us that there is no circumstance, not even the most difficult and toilsome, that can prevent the 'I' from having a daily dialogue with the Mystery," Carron said in a statement Friday. "Let us all pray together and personally that we may strive to live like he witnessed, so that we can inherit his legacy of how to follow the movement within the church."
Earlier this year, Albacete shared a stage in New York with O'Malley, at which he observed that Pope Francis encourages people to "leave the center and go to the periphery once in a while and see what's going on. By periphery, the pope means the inner city."
A few years earlier, Albacete shared another stage with the late Christopher Hitchens, an author, columnist and outspoken atheist, for a discussion about whether science makes belief in God obsolete.
At that event, Albacete said he had often defended his faith in scientific circles, and could affirm it daily, in part because it is the source of honesty.
When Hitchens dismissed religion as unscientific and unprovable, Albacete drew the distinction between religion and faith. He said religion is an attitude toward life and is of human origin.
"Faith identifies this mystery with a concrete reality of this world and that's where its claim has to be sustained," he said.
He explained that verifying the claim is "like trying to explain to your uncomprehending family why you are falling in love with so-and-so." And why you can't help doing so even if you understand their objections, he added.
Albacete, born Jan. 7, 1941, held a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, as well as a master's in theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington. He was a co-founder and instructor at the John Paul II Institute in Washington and also taught at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York, and was an adviser on Hispanic affairs to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
His columns appeared in the Italian daily Il Sussidiario, The New York Times and New Yorker magazine.