Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Remembering Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, Mentor and Friend

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete's funeral was celebrated yesterday in New York.

Sadly, I'm in no condition to travel. But thanks to a memorial page on Facebook, I've been able to participate in something like a "virtual wake" with testimonies and pictures and videos from all over the country.

I have read so many moving stories over the past four days. People have recalled the first time they met Lorenzo Albacete and the impact he had upon their lives. They have all remarked upon his love for life, his freedom, his joy, and of course his unparalleled sense of humor. For many, he was instrumental in their encounter with Christ through the charism of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, wherein he had found his spiritual home.

For me it was wonderful over the past twenty years to see his own profound personal charism enlarged and made so abundantly fruitful by being inserted within the charism of CL. It freed him to be a hundred times more himself (if that's possible to imagine) by lifting the profound melancholy burden of what had been his somewhat lonely sensibility and brilliance... or rather, transforming it more and more into an intense compassion.

As I look back over the years, I can't identify the "moment" when I first met this remarkable, unforgettable man. It's all blended into my original encounter thirty five years ago with the whole crazy, big hearted, tireless, exuberant, uncompromisingly Catholic crowd that founded Christendom College.

Lorenzo must have dropped in at some point in those days, or at least he was talked about and loved like an uncle in the family. At that time (the late seventies and early eighties) "the family" was a circle that moved through Washington, DC and the newly established Arlington diocese all the way out to this very Front Royal where I find myself today.
Albacete with Cardinal O'Malley: old friends

This past January, the annual New York Encounter featured a beautiful little "thing" (I don't exactly know what to call it. Lorenzo called it "the two bums"). Basically, it was an excuse for two old friends to shoot the breeze and share memories with the rest of us (I wasn't there, but I watched the video): Lorenzo Albacete and Sean O'Malley, friends for forty-five years.

It was a friendship that formed around the Hispanic Catholic Center in Washington, DC, and it had a place within the larger circle of offbeat Catholics in the city.

"Offbeat" is an understatement.

Lorenzo had cut his own teeth writing and editing for what he recently referred to as "the controversial but irresistible magazine called Triumph." This is a good characterization of a magazine, and a bunch of Catholic writers and social critics, who were outside of every box in that era (and this era too).

It's easy to dismiss Triumph as a little nutty, because, well... they were a little nutty.

Sometimes they were a LOT nutty!

But the Triumph bunch took the conviction that Jesus really is "King" (radically, as in Jesus is the concrete reason for everything), followed it through to even the most outrageous conclusions for politics and society, and tried to put it into practice (with their Summer Institutes in Spain, for example). There was an intuition at the center of it all, a mysterious grace, but it was so easy to forget it and be diverted from it by the upheaval of the times. Christ became rarefied in ideas, some brilliant and prescient, others distracted, confused, or preposterous. It was also too easy to turn Christ's lordship over all things into a moralistic program to be implemented by human efforts. (Nevertheless, years later, after he had joined CL, he said to me with a twinkle in his eye, but not enough to be entirely joking, "Ah, Triumph! Everything they predicted has come true!")

Needless to say, the magazine offended everyone on the American political spectrum, and rather relished doing it (too much, I think). But the wild, irresistible zeal of the Triumph circle was poured out in various ways, and matured into priestly vocations, educational institutions (like Christendom College), and dedication to works of mercy (especially among the Hispanic population).

It cannot be denied that Lorenzo and other young people in the late 1960's got a taste from them of a proposal for a life centered on the Incarnation and a passion for Christ living in the Church.

Cardinal O'Malley, who presided at his funeral yesterday, is one of a group of Lorenzo's oldest friends. There are others from that group, some of whom still have a hand in the workings of Christendom College, who remember him and have many hilarious stories from those early years. They are praying for him now.

I reflect on these old friendships of his not only to do justice to those who will always hold him dear, but also because I know these people. I know these friendships and how they came out of a context that was deeply formative of Albacete's faith, character, and vocation. One of the environments that emerged from this context still forms my daily life, even as I also approach 25 years as a member of Communion and Liberation.

Almost heaven, Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains, Shenandoah river....
I belong to the movement of the Servant of God Luigi Giussani. I also live in Front Royal, Virginia, as an emeritus professor of Christendom College, an institution that I helped to build (not only metaphorically but even physically, with hammers and nails). Now I'm helping my wife build another educational institution down the road.

The "Catholic tribe" of the Shenandoah Valley and the CL movement seem like two distinct "realms" that don't intersect, not only because they don't understand each other, but also because no one has the time to shuttle between the two. Each is a phenomenon with its own peculiar history, and nothing would be more artificial than for me to try to force one to "fit" the other, or to try to extricate myself from one for the sake of the other. I don't have to do either, because they are already united. They are really, truly united in Christ, in the Church. They are also united in me. I don't know what this means, other than it being a great reminder of my need to beg Christ for grace and mercy every day. And that is not a pious cop out. That is what I do... what Eileen and I both do together.

I am irenic by temperament and now disabled by circumstances, but I do not think that a lack of boldness or strength is the reason why I haven't caused a provocative ruckus all around. I am convinced that attempts of this kind would be violent. Rather, it is something I am called to suffer. And although I often fail and forget about it all, I am grateful for this call -- because it is a suffering for unity within the Church, among the members of Christ's body.

So why do I bring this up here? Because this is one of the reasons why Lorenzo was so dear to me: he understood the tension that I live. He understood it from within, and he challenged me to live all of its factors, to resist the temptation to reduce or escape from anything. He did this, ironically, by taking me seriously in my life, my work, and its challenges. He gave no grand discourses about this "problem." Rather, he accompanied me, simply, when we had discussions, or on the phone, in making decisions about my lectures, publications, and even taking trips (back when I was able to do that kind of thing).

He also helped guide me through another environment that we both knew well: the realm of academic theology.

Lorenzo and I really became friends during his years at the John Paul II Institute. I was already a graduate student at the Dominican House of Studies, at a time when lay theology students were unusual. The Institute invaded the public space of the Dominican House and set up a coffee lounge. I began to hang around with the other lay students who came. I even cross registered for some courses, thanks to which I had the amazing experience of having Lorenzo as a teacher. His combination of genius, awe inspiring expressiveness, and epic humor have not been exaggerated.

He spoke about the Trinity with such beauty and depth. There were times when I left the classroom thinking my head was going to explode, or rather my entire finite being! 

He would bring his presentation to a very powerful and sublime moment, and then -- with a twinkle in his eye -- break off, deepen the tone of his resonant voice, and utter a thunderous joke that, like all his humor, expressed the truth while also getting us to laugh... at ourselves. He would cry out:

                           Veil your faces before the Mystery!

It was a joke. But we were discussing the Mystery, as He revealed Himself. So it was funny and also, I would have to say, beautiful.

One time we decided to bring tissues or head coverings to the classes until a moment like that came. And when it finally did, we all pulled them out and covered our faces. And Lorenzo laughed. His laugh was funny in itself, and infectious. He loved a joke that turned around on him; indeed, he was ready to turn the humor on himself if no one else offered to do it.

He saw humor as a form of play, the innocent play that needs no justification beyond itself because it is a fundamental aspect of being. In an infinite, transcendent, supereminent way, God plays. He is play.

But I can't reproduce the atmosphere of the classroom here. I can only say that Lorenzo could bring me to a point where I was worshiping the Lord and laughing to the point of tears, simultaneously.

It was like a foretaste of eternal life.

I remember watching the friendship unfold between Lorenzo and "Don Angelo" Scola. He would go on about how "I am scheming for Scola to become Pope so that I can be made a Cardinal and get a cushy job in the Vatican!" Don Angelo was still just a priest at the time.

When Angelo Scola was first made a bishop, Lorenzo was even more mirthful. But I don't think any of us had any idea of how "hair-raisingly close" the papacy would come to poor Don Angelo. Indeed, at age 71 it cannot be said that Cardinal Scola has yet succeeded in escaping the possibility. Cardinal Bergoglio, after all, had already picked out his room in the nursing home in Buenos Aires where he planned on spending a quiet retirement.

In Washington, Lorenzo taught a course that Scola had designed, called Theological Foundations of Interpersonal Communion. This was fun. He would arrive, disheveled, sometimes twenty or more minutes late, with a fistful of scribbled papers. Of course we waited for him, because no one wanted to miss the show.

When he finally arrived, he would stare at his papers on the desk and scratch his head and say, "I know absolutely NOTHING about this course; I've shamelessly plagiarized it all from Angelo Scola!" He claimed that he needed to have long conversations on the phone with Scola the night before class in order to have the slightest clue over the topic to be covered. Of course, he would then put down his notes and embark upon his usual brilliant, riveting, and hilarious exposition.

During all this time, he found himself moving from being a "friend of CL" to being a member of CL without knowing exactly when it happened. Angelo Scola had led him to Giussani, who asked him to "help" the movement in America. I remember one year we had a "Hospitality Room" for CL at the hotel where the Bishops' Conference was having its annual meeting. Lorenzo would go down during the evening reception, and come back a few minutes later arm in arm with a bishop or a cardinal (or two) and of course they were laughing as they entered the room. We met a lot of bishops that weekend. He had am amazing conviction that something was really happening in the still young and fragile Washington CL community.

Then there was the time I introduced my fiancee to him at a dinner gathering. The very first thing he said to Eileen was, "Oh, you must develop a devotion to St. Rita of Cascia. She is the patroness of women with very difficult husbands!" He delivered this in a completely deadpan voice, but I laughed, of course. Only long after, when Eileen had grown to love him too, did she tell me that when he said that she did not get it... at all.... She thought, "who is this strange, insulting man?" I do believe, however, that it became clear to her before the end of dinner.

At the very beginning of this enormous post, I mentioned what had sometimes struck me as the "lonely sensibility and brilliance" that weighed on Lorenzo for a long time, but that grew into a great compassion in his later years. I know that he was a man who suffered much, even though he claimed that the only suffering he ever had to endure was finding a parking space.

We knew how much he loved his family, how he looked after his mother in the illness of her final years, and how he cared for his disabled brother with such love and attention. Though he never told me, I would not be surprised to find that he himself had some measure of interior familiarity with that "dark night" which is not primarily mystical but rather the fruit of a large complex brain and a perceptive spirit, joined together in the human person who can't avoid experiencing the high grandeur and the deep misery of life.

He never told me anything about this, but whatever may be the case, I always felt that he looked upon me in my frailty with immense tenderness.

I could keep going here, but I think Lorenzo wants me to wrap up this gig and get this out before everyone gets tired of his "virtual wake" (after all, there's no food or drink at this thing).
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the soul of Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.
It's hard just to realize that he is no longer on this earth. No matter how great our faith, we still can't help missing the person. I'm a little surprised by my own grief, but Lorenzo refuses to allow me to "cheat" or evade that experience. I must embrace the whole reality: the sorrow, the hope, the confidence, the prayers, the memories, and the humor that pervades everything like the first light of the dawning resurrection -- which is the hope of us all.

Here are a few of his words about grieving and suffering:

Grief is the crying of the heart, and the human heart will resist being soothed by ideas and abstractions.... I am consoled by the Book of Job, which derides those who tried to explain Job's suffering to him. God does not seek to console him; He just shows up, and this is enough. It was not explanations Job wanted, but solidarity, compassion, love.
I do not want an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen. An explanation would reduce the pain and suffering to an inability to understand, a failure of intelligence so to speak. I can only accept a God who “co-suffers” with me. Such is the God of the Christian faith.