Christ is contemporaneous with us. He is with us, here and now. That was his point. Forget this, and we lose everything.
Looking back, I see now that this insistence, which I found a little nit-picky at the time, represented well the heart of the man whose friendship and ministry would become so dear to me.
I met the Communion and Liberation movement around 2005, shortly after Fr Giussani’s death. To describe the blessing this was for my life and how it may have saved my humanity and my priesthood, is a story for another time. But one of its greatest benefits was allowing me to get to know Lorenzo.
Sometime in Fall 2006 I attended an event with some friends at the University of Chicago where Albacete gave a presentation of The Religious Sense. As we chatted after the talk, he said in his thick and wonderful Puerto Rican accent, and with that trademark playful twinkle in his clear eyes: “When are you going to invite me to Peoria? Back in the days of Myers, Rohlfs, I used to be a big shot there, you know. Now, apparently, I am nobody.”
“When do you want to come?” I asked.
“Any time,” he said. “You propose a date, and I will come.”
I was a little skeptical. I knew how busy and in-demand this man was. Here was the friend of Pope John Paul II and Fr Guissani; confidante of Cardinals, New Yorker and PBS; interviewing on Charlie Rose and debating Christopher Hitchens; author of God at the Ritz, telling me he was waiting for his invitation to come to Peoria, Illinois.
I called his bluff, and three weeks later, had him booked for a Peoria diocese priest retreat in Fall 2007.
The retreat itself was full of difficulties. After picking him up from the regional airport, followed by dinner at Bar Louie with some friends, we drove to Henry, Illinois, where, much to his dismay, the cell reception was spotty at best. This was a problem, as Lorenzo’s brother Manuel was mentally ill and relied on frequent calls with his brother (with whom he lived) for comfort and stability. So we used the house phone, not knowing that it was patched into the house next door where the couple who oversaw the center lived, and who did not appreciate the frequent calls at odd hours. That, along Lorenzo’s casual disregard for the no-smoking policy in his quarters, did little to endear him to the staff.
Then there was his content. A few priests at the retreat actually left early, scandalized by Lorenzo’s sometimes colorful language. This was a real tragedy. They missed what turned out to be perhaps the most moving and inspiring retreat given at that center in years, maybe decades. Thankfully, the great majority who stayed left grateful and deeply moved.
I will never forget the late nights of that retreat. Lorenzo held court, as it were, surrounded by a half dozen of us younger priests who sat enthralled and delighted by his outrageous stories recounting his visits with Fidel Castro, John Paul II, and any number of other luminaries of late twentieth century history. One priest friend pulled me aside saying, “You have to find a time to sit down with this wonderful man and record these conversations. The real history of the post-Vatican church in the U.S. is here!” Regretfully, such an opportunity never arose.
But my fondest memory came one afternoon between conferences when he made me take him out to the local mom-and-pop store for Marlboros. Afterward, he asked me to drive him to the nearby banks of the Illinois River. He really wanted this, saying his trip to central Illinois would not be complete without it. As we stood quietly by river’s edge, he said, “Just think. On the morning of the Resurrection, was there a ripple in these waters? Did the trees sway? Did the creation acknowledge the great victory of the Savior, even all this way across the world?” And he began to weep.
I have never been able to pass this stretch of the River the same way again; without my own eyes welling up.
He grew candid and philosophical that afternoon, sharing with me many difficulties and joys of his incredible and storied life. I count that blessed time among my most cherished moments. Lorenzo had a golden tongue, a penetrating theological intelligence, comedic brilliance, and an unmatched pastoral sensitivity. But that afternoon, what I saw - and came to value most in this great man - was his genius for friendship.
The late “oughts” were hard years for me. I was a pastor for the first time, I was doing double-duty as a high school chaplain, and I was pressing through an emotional and spiritual dry spell bordering on serious personal crisis. I was in the latter half of my thirties, the honeymoon of priesthood was over, and I was searching for the reasons of my hope. I can honestly say that, among the many helps God in His mercy gave me during that time, the friendship of Lorenzo Albacete was top of that list.
Our contact was infrequent, concentrated mostly into the annual Easter week priest retreats of Communion and Liberation. Those retreats were motherlodes of insight, infusions of grace and wisdom that would sustain me for the whole year. Lorenzo had an incredible gift for cutting through platitudes and cliches, forsaking tropes and facades and going straight for the heart.
Although he would scoff and scold me for saying it, he was a true mystic. His vision and insight into the mystery of the heart of Jesus, ground of all reality and all hope, was greater than any living person I've ever encountered. Being around him and listening to him was a fresh wind of hope, a breath of possibility making God seem attractive, exciting, present - “contemporaneous” - again.
His “synthesis” at the end of a retreat was like a Miles Davis solo. He would get int the zone and become a burning bush, a living revelation. Breathtaking content aside, it was sheer delight to see him in action then, a man totally dialed into God, leading us like excited children into the heart of his beloved “Mystery.”
Although he delighted in light-hearted zaniness and occasional vulgarity, I believe this was a mask to keep people from seeing just how conformed to Christ he really was. He detested every fake, saccharin, cloying artifice of would-be piety. He was the real deal. Observing him during an arid and discouraged season of life, I could project myself out through the coming years and see a vision of possibility, of what I could become, of who I might be.
Lorenzo showed me that it was possible to retain both a robust priesthood AND my humanity - that, properly understood, they were one and the same. In short, he witnessed personally for me what our mutual mentor Fr Giussani always insisted: “It is possible to live this way.”
R.I.P. Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete.