An Invitation to the Party: My Time with Lorenzo Albacete
by Lisa Lickona
From those who raise us, we learn, for good or for ill, a way of looking at reality. Is reality good for me or is it dangerous? Are other people there to help me or are they enemies I have to fight off? Is the world a place that I can live in and come to love, or is it a battleground, a place where I have to make a final stand? All of us enter adulthood with the answers to these questions somewhat set by those who have raised us.
And then we start to learn from others. What our parents have given us is reconsidered in the presence of our teachers and mentors. The best of these expand our view, helping us refine what we have been given in our earliest days. They subtly shift our gaze, helping us go deeper into what we already know in such a way that we are slowly but gently awakened to our prejudices and given a wider view, a broader horizon.
I can say, with joy and gratitude, that Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete was one of my mentors, and for a brief and very charmed time in my life, as I studied theology at the Pope John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C. in my early twenties, my way of seeing reality was permanently and dramatically changed by him. He gave me an infinite horizon.
In a recent conversation, I found myself struggling to describe Monsignor to a friend. I rattled off a list of attributes. He was wickedly funny. He had this Puerto Rican warmth. He exuded the wisdom of one who has suffered. He was keenly intelligent. He knew Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI personally and wrote about them both with a compassion and depth of understanding that few share.
It was all true. And it all fell flat to my ears. There seemed little I could say to capture the dimensions of Monsignor. Others who knew him will no doubt concur: in him were the makings of three or four men. He was richly endowed with personality. But he was also poor, very poor. Indeed, Lorenzo Albacete was a man who was rich precisely because he was poor.
Anyone who saw him enter the classroom immediately sensed it. He arrived with cigarette stains on his fingers and flakes of powdered sugar on his black lapel, and it always took a good fifteen to twenty minutes for the class to begin in earnest, with Monsignor all the time making self-effacing jokes. Over time, the disorder of his life became slowly apparent to us students. He had a mother who was dying under the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor. He had a brother with personal issues that made him dependent on Monsignor. He was brilliant but disorganized: he was not a “good” academic.
But nevertheless, he was there, and eventually class did start. And then something truly amazing happened. We were drawn into another place with him, a place both human and divine—divine because it was so human. And this happened because of who he was. He knew his emptiness before God, and he did not seek to fill it. He let Someone else do that.
Humility is the virtue that enables the growth of true friendship, that makes a space for others where ego would otherwise be. And anyone who met Lorenzo Albacete quickly came to the sense that here was a man with an almost unparalleled capacity for friendship. Rather than overwhelming others with the largeness of his personality, Monsignor invited them into his space. People who would never imagine they could be close to a theologian, a celibate man, a Catholic priest, found themselves suddenly captivated by him, drawn in, laughing at his jokes despite themselves. They were hooked even before they knew what was happening.
But hooked on what? Monsignor, were he here, might say it was the Mystery. That was his main offering. He was fond of talking of “the Mystical Party.” Was it a “party” like a political party, a collection of like-minded persons, a bond of those who discover their long-lost brotherhood? Yes, for certain. For Monsignor, that bond was the connection with the man Jesus Christ--a person, he would remind us over and over, not an idea. The adherents of the Mystical Party were “friends of Jesus.”
But the Mystical Party was also something else. It was a real party. Monsignor was inviting us to a celebration that he himself lived. He relished good food; he chain-smoked cigarettes; he avidly collected designer pens. He loved good literature and junk TV shows. He once told someone that he could not envision a heaven without pizza.
Yes, he was inviting us to a party, the best party there is, where everything that is essentially human is taken up in the divine. The eternal feast. And this party was open to anyone with the desire to be there, Christian or not. Anyone could be his friend—and so many were. I, in my shy, girlish, nerdy-theological-student way, was too.
And now, many years later, our friendship has been unexpectedly renewed in the opportunity I have been given to co-edit with Gregory Wolfe a collection of Monsignor's writings, The Relevance of the Stars. It has been another charmed moment, one that I am delighted to share with others.
I can say, with a grateful heart, that this book is an invitation to a friendship with Lorenzo Albacete. Every essay is a way into his space. My hope is that it will draw new friends into the Mystical Party.
I look forward to meeting you there some day.❖
Editor's note: A video exhibit on the life and legacy of Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, including never-before-seen archival footage, will be featured in the 2021 New York Encounter, February 12-14. The exhibit can be viewed beginning on the evening of February 12 at the Encounter’s website. Interactive Zoom meetings with friends and fans of Monsignor Albacete will take place throughout the weekend. For more information or to register, visit the website.