Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete

Lorenzo the Magnificent

On the occasion of the upcoming US presidential elections, Giorgio Vittadini reminisced about the late Lorenzo Albacete and his experience with American spirituality and cultural life.
Giorgio Vittadini

So many people interviewed by chance on the streets of America feel themselves far removed from both of the candidates for the White House. Their reasons are diverse, but such a widespread disapproval has, it seems to me, a common foundation: both Clinton and Trump represent the betrayal of the American Dream. From its origin, the American Dream was not merely a project of material enrichment and hegemony over the world, but a desire for greater freedom, opportunity for all, self-expression and the search for self; for the capacity to create and to build. We are helped to go deeper into this topic by the recent publication of a few speeches by Lorenzo Albacete, a brilliant and atypical protagonist of the Church and of the American cultural scene for 40 years (Realta e ragione [Reality and Reason], ed. Marietti), whom Luigi Giussani, in the early 90’s, “asked to help the communities (of Communion and Liberation) in the United States to better understand the American religious experience and its effects on that which, in fact, had become the dominant culture of the world.”

This little volume shows well how, for Lorenzo, the radical separation between a public life, dominated by materialism, hedonism, and consumerism, and eventually nihilism, and a religious experience, more or less individualistic and spiritualistic, lived by sects that are self-referential and closed to novelty, created a society that is violent, classist, and fragmented; one in which few succeed and the many who are defeated live a great existential confusion. Lorenzo was a fine theologian (in this volume you find a close engagement with the most existentially-relevant points of contemporary culture), but his response to the crisis of the American Dream is not in theology or in a nostalgic reaffirmation of moral values and principles.

His response, we can say, takes place on two levels. First, which is personal; that which came from his human presence. And second is that which comes from the development of his thought.

Lorenzo was an unsettling man: through his irony, through his profundity, through his immense affective potential, but also through his capacity to find every circumstance, even the most banal, decisive for his life. With him, in the same conversation, one passed “from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the personal to the metaphysical”, as his friend, director Helen Whitney once said.

A man full of desire who cried when he heard a song like “The Impossible Dream” (“To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/And to run where/The brave dare not go/To right the unrightable wrong/And to love pure and chaste from afar/To try when your arms are too weary/To reach the unreachable star…”), and who, in a conversation on the topic “Why follow Christ?”, instead of making theological statements, responded by singing a piece from the musical The Man of la Mancia in which Sancho Panza recounts why he followed Don Quixote: “Because I like him! Do whatever you want to me, but I like him!”

For me, his search for meaning, for the truth, seemed always just beginning but always at its peak. I was repeatedly struck by the fact that for him the details of reality were not a pretext to confirm what he already knew. Realty was the stage on which something new could happen, something interesting, which in some way could even make him change his mind. He was stimulated and fascinated by the diversity of opinions: a true free spirit. In a word, Lorenzo showed us that the response to a utopia, to a promise that has not been kept, like we see with the American Dream, is a new life—for him life lived in relationship with Christ—given to man in an encounter. It was not a question of a moral or intellectual construct.

And he did it—this is the second level—developing his own original thought, demonstrating how everything that could be associated with the American Dream (scientific research—before becoming a priest, he was a physicist at NASA—, the struggle for progress, economic development, the desire for a multi-ethnic and peaceful State, for freedom) was not a contradiction, but a useful place where the experience of what was truly human could grow.

Instead of defending the boundaries of a Catholicism closed up in a fortress, made up of home-school, pro-life, and patronal feasts, Albacete spoke of the value of a possible future of a profound dialogue between a secular culture disappointed with itself and a Catholicism freed from its self-referential schemes in order to become a path for the growth of every “I.”

He once said at a meeting of Crossroads Cultural Center, which he helped found: “Culture is defined by how we look at and how we experience reality. The true choice is between a culture that is closed to reality in all of its dimensions and aspects, and one that is open, at this level, the level of encounter between our experience and our culture.”

The fact of living Christianity as a new event without ideological preconditions allowed him to have a relationship with everyone, with compassion and sincere dialogue.

There is an episode in the book that reveals this. Called in as an expert on “Church things” and particularly on the pontificate of John Paul II, he began to collaborate with American newspapers and television stations. One day an editor of the New York Times said to him: “We have many friends who are priests and who agree with us on almost everything. The result is that what they have to say is not very interesting. On the other hand, those who do not agree with us do not want to be our friends. You are here because you do not agree with us on many things, but it is obvious that you like us and you consider us your friends.”

For Albacete, there were no circumstances that were unfriendly to the faith; only circumstances in which the one who believes in Christ is called to look for and to recognize Him, even under that which apparently denies Him.

The contribution that faith can make to this world—and this, in synthesis, is the value of the exceptional testimony of Albacete—is the maturation of the human personality, certainly not the ideological byproduct of a Church reduced to the defender of a world that doesn’t exist any more; a Church we certainly do not miss.

Previously published in Il Sussidiario, September 30, 2016