“To Renew Our First Love”
The evening marked the 10th Anniversary of the opening of Crossroads Cultural Center, which was born out of the desire, “to look with openness, curiosity, and critical judgment at every aspect of reality.”
What started in one, then two, and now eight cities across the United States, Crossroads had begun here, in New York City. It was only fitting then that the evening would be marked by a desire, as Rita Simmonds said in her opening remarks, “to renew our first love,” and to renew our gaze on the world through the affection for a man who was “the center, the heart and the mind, of Crossroads Cultural Center,” Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete.
Through the eyes of three of Msgr. Albacete’s close friends—journalist Michael Sean Winters, scientist Robert Pollack, and documentary film artist Helen Whitney—we would be reminded, again and again, of a way of looking at life born out of a deep tenderness for humanity and profound passion for God, who became man.
The evening began with a moment of alarming beauty in three pieces of music performed by pianist Christopher Vath and the violinist David Han Marks. Among the most stunning was a deeply moving rendition of Fratres by Arvo Pärt, which characterized for many the longing for just one more chat, one more joke, one more laugh from our dear friend, Lorenzo.
Michael Sean Winters kicked off the evening’s witnesses with a reflection on a friendship that began in in 1992 over a dinner in Washington, D.C. Winters invited Msgr. Albacete in order to celebrate the return of a mutual friend, Anna, from Sarajevo. “It goes without saying that he completely charmed us all. I too, like Anna, fell in love at first sight.”
In a letter that Winters received a few days later, he recalled recognizing a greater depth than he would have imagined at the dinner. “Lorenzo had suffered, been ostracized even, for his faithfulness to both his own heart and to the Gospel…I noted that he had displayed at dinner those personal attributes that appeal in cosmopolitan society, but suffering lacks all appeal in that realm. Here was not only charm, and intelligence, and wit, and a brilliant sense of humor; there was a mark of holiness and authentic humility.”
My brother, Lorenzo
Dr. Robert Pollack, Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, began the reflection on his friendship with Lorenzo by saying, “Lorenzo was not nice. Nice people do not offend. Nice people do not speak the truth unless it is convenient to them. Nice people know how to say 'no,' nicely. Not Lorenzo.” In fact, for Dr. Pollack, this lack of “niceness” is precisely what led to their friendship and to the recognition that “Lorenzo was a part of my family… We were brothers… the brother who carries a similar and distinct version of the mental world one has.”
As Dr. Pollack reflected on the mystery of this relationality through a profound meditation on DNA, he often found himself, like Michael Sean Winters, hearing Msgr. Albacete’s voice in his head as he wrangled with this or another thought. “Bob, don’t exaggerate! We’re both scientists, where are the facts!” It was another witness of the ubiquitous presence that the Monsignor continues to have in the life of his friends.
Pollack ended his reflection by reading the poem “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden “May I, composed like them/Of Eros and of dust,/Beleaguered by the same/Negation and despair,/Show an affirming flame,” and ending with a prayer that those present, and all who were friends with Lorenzo continue seek the “affirming flame” to which his life witnessed.
“From the sublime to the ridiculous…”
“Lorenzo reveled in complexity, in nuance, in shadow, in irreverence, and above all in contradiction. And he believed it was in these elements—and through these elements—what makes us all so intensely human.”
Helen Whitney, the famed documentarian, began her deeply affectionate reflection on Msgr. Albacete, who became the friend with whom she could share the depth of her spiritual questions, with the vivid memory of her first encounter. It happened almost 20 years ago after a very difficult period while Whitney worked on a Frontline documentary on Pope John Paul II. She was on the verge of pulling out when Michael Sean Winters suggested she speak to Msgr. Albacete first. “Three hours later we were still on the phone,” she remembered, “laughing, talking, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the personal to the metaphysical… by the end of the conversation I was back on the film and for the next three years I was on the search for Lorenzo’s John Paul II.”
He was not afraid of the difficulty of the mystery, and “he did not soften the blow that the claims of Christianity makes,” for us, recalled Whitney. One particular evening, she recalled sitting in her living room with some friends, her daughter and her friends, and the Monsignor as they watched the final interview of English writer Dennis Potter, just hours before he would die.
One of her friends turned to Msgr. Albacete looking for some sort of consolation, Whitney recalls that he could offer her none. He said, “I cannot offer you comfort because I myself need comfort. Yes, death is an outrage. Why? Because we will never know this remarkable man. He is gone. I want to sit quietly with this reality for a while and not soften it. Later on in the evening I can talk about my belief in the life to come, in the reality of resurrection, a stupendous claim, I know, but one I believe. Not now though.”
The night ended with a short tribute to Msgr. Albacete by Whitney: a compilation of his contributions to her films on John Paul II, September 11th, and Forgiveness. Over and over again, the audacious abandonment to the Mystery present in reality that characterized Msgr. Albacete’s life was on display. It was a brief and poignant example, in his own life, of the words that Msgr. Albacete spoke to Crossroads ten years ago at its founding, “An experience of the presence of Christ will make you passionately fascinated by what is real—by the little flower, by the cosmos, by the macrocosm, the microcosm, and all that weird stuff you study, even accounting at Merrill Lynch. If you know that, the path will lead you to Christ. Pursuing that path of your interest will lead you to Christ.”
“To Renew Our First Love”