The Relevance of the Stars
Updated: May 21
Friday Book Pick: The Relevance of the Stars:
Christ, Culture and Destiny by Lorenzo Albacete, edited by Lisa Lickona and Gregory Wolf
Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete moved to New York in 1997. I moved to New York in 1998. It is regretful that I never had the opportunity to meet this legend of a priest. He was a guest professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, NY, where our friars study for the priesthood. He was famous for chain-smoking in class and answering his cell phone when the Pope called him in the middle of a lecture.
Msgr. Albacete (1941-2014) was a proud native son of Puerto Rico. He came to the
United States to study aeronautical engineering at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., at age 17. Before the priesthood presented itself as his life’s vocation, it was the world of science that had captivated him. After earning his master’s degree in space science and applied physics, he worked in aerospace research at the U.S. Naval Ordnance Laboratory before his life’s path took a decisive turn.
Raised as a Catholic in a Catholic home in a Catholic country, and retaining his faith as he grew into adulthood, Albacete was caught up in the question of how his faith connected to his everyday life as a research scientist. It was an excursion to Bogota, Colombia, to see Pope Paul VI in 1968 that propelled Lorenzo Albacete’s life on a new trajectory. In a spontaneous and strategic effort to try to get close to the Holy Father, the young physicist joined a pilgrim group of clergy. He disguised himself in clerical attire in order to blend in, hoping to get closer to the Holy Father. When his plan worked and he found himself face to face with the Supreme Pontiff, Albacete confessed to him that he was not actually a priest, to which the Pope responded, “Why don’t you become one?” Six years later Albacete would be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
His prophetic meeting with Paul VI would not be the end of his papal encounters. While serving as a theological advisor to Cardinal William Baum, Albacete had the opportunity to meet and befriend Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. The mutual friendship spanned Pope John Paul II’s long papacy and brought Albacete into friendship with Pope Benedict XVI as well. While
the influence of John Paul II on Albacete was immense (and if you do pick up The Relevance of the Stars: Christ, Culture and Destiny, you will see his influence in every essay), it was meeting Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the Italian founder of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation (CL), that became the decisive encounter of his life. It was in CL that he would find his “home.” Msgr. Giussani invited Albacete to help foster and form CL in the United States. Through his leadership the movement took off in the States, and Albacete found his “home” within the Body of Christ.
This fascinating priest seems to have had an uncommon capacity in the intellectual arena, but he in no way fit into to the stereotype of the brainy, awkward recluse who struggles to relate to humanity—either his own or another’s! No, this chain-smoking priest was flesh and blood and seems to have been as gifted in the matters of the heart as he was in matters of the mind.
Even so, Msgr. Albacete wouldn’t be the memorable character that he is were it not for his uncommon gift for communication. Lorenzo Albacete was a master at communicating
deep and complex ideas in an extremely engaging way. This brilliant man sought the transcendent with his feet planted on this terra firma and could talk about the experience, and this is, I think, what made him attractive and interesting.
The Relevance of the Stars is a compilation of essays and talks given by Msgr. Albacete on a wide scope of topics given to a variety of audiences. His topics include: Faith in America, Politics, Modernity, The Convergence of Faith and Life, and the New Evangelization. The original audiences for these essays are as varied as the Church herself. Often, Albacete is addressing the members of the movement Communion and Liberation, sometimes a wider audience, especially when writing for The New Yorker or the New York Times. At times groups of professionals such as lawyers, those who work in finance, or the academic world are his target. The book also contains an essay addressed to youth.
With such a wide variety of topics and audiences you may wonder what are the uniting themes—if any. The themes that run like a steady current though this powerful river of ideas are, The Religious Sense, Freedom, the Universal Desire for the Infinite, the New Evangelization, and Jesus Christ as the Living Center of History. The stars of heaven provide a symbolic picture of that which unites all people—our desire for eternity. There is not a human being anywhere on this vast earth who does not desire life and life to the full. Whether Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Christian, Atheist, or “none of the above,” in the core of our hearts we desire the transcendent…we want to go beyond the stars.
In Pope Francis’ recent pilgrimage to Iraq, he too used the image of the stars. On March 6th on the plains of Ur, where Abraham heard the call of God and set out on his pilgrimage of faith, Pope Francis recalled that it was the stars in the sky that served as the symbol of God’s promise to Abraham of innumerable descendants—us. Pope Francis reminded those present at the interfaith meeting, “Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our father Abraham by doing what he did: we look up to heaven as we journey on earth.” The Holy Father continued, “Thousands of years later, as we look up to the same sky, those same stars appear. They illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together. Heaven imparts the message of unity: the Almighty above invites us never to separate ourselves from our neighbors…”
Lorenzo Albacete passed from this life on October 24, 2014. His last words were “You see, Jesus always comes. He wants to be with us.”
As Msgr. Albacete knew in life and now knows fully, if we gaze upon the stars in search of the One Who made them, the One Who numbers them and calls them by name, we will not be disappointed.
-Mother Clare, CFR