The Way of Beauty God at the Ritz: A Tribute to Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete

Last week, the American Catholic Church lost one of its leading priest-theologians. Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a physicist, friend of liberals, skeptics, and atheists, and confidant of popes, died at the age of seventy-three from complications of Parkinson’s disease.  A short, rotund man with a towering mind and a deep bass voice, he became a regular guest of Charlie Rose, CNN, and National Public Radio.  This urbane priest made the faith attractive to his audiences beguiling them with his warmth, wit, charm, and common sense.

Who Was Lorenzo Albacete?

Lorenzo Albacete was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1941.  His father was fiercely anticlerical and opposed his son’s serving as an altar boy. At the Catholic University of America, the young man majored in physics and aerospace science and then, for seven years, worked at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory in Maryland. Planning to marry, he changed course and entered the seminary at CUA.  He earned a doctorate in sacred theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. After priestly ordination, he served in the archbishopric of Washington. His resume is long and varied.

When the young priest was assigned to be a guide for the visit of Karol Wojtyla, then the Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, the two became fast friends through their mutual interest in philosophy and the arts.  Years later, when Karol Wojtyla returned to Washington as Pope John Paul II, known, among other things, as a prolific letter writer, he fixed his twinkling eyes on the priest, notoriously delinquent as a correspondent, and remarked: “Lorenzo, maybe now you will answer my letters” (Paul Vitiello, “Lorenzo Albacete, Theologian and Confidant of Popes,” NY Times, Nov 4, 2014).

In 2008, he sparred with the late Christopher Hitchins, the staunch, acerbic atheist.  The topic was whether science makes belief in God obsolete. Monsignor Albacete raised Hitchens’ book and remarked: “I read your book.  You are an English wit. It’s great that they produce people like this,” adding, “and I love it.  I’m a Puerto Rican monsignor, for God’s sake.  My ancestors worshiped coconuts!” (Vitiello).  The overflowing crowd delighted in the repartee in which the priest diffused the anticipated tension and relaxed the atmosphere with his jovial and self-deprecating humor.

“At an event in New York, Hitchens remarked that Christianity, with its tenets about the afterlife, was worse than the North Korean dictatorship because ‘you can’t get out of it by dying.’ Monsignor Albacete, … compared the discovery of faith with another type of life-altering encounter.  ‘You can’t help it,’ he said.  ‘You’ve fallen in love.’” (Emily Langer, “Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, Catholic theologian, dies at 73,” The Washington Post, Nov 6, 2014). 

To the religious skeptic, he posed questions such as: ‘Can one be truly worldly today and still adhere to something of belief in the transcendent?  Or must one hang on to faith privately and not in a public way? Must religion prove itself?  What kind of proof does modern man and woman need to believe?’  Dogmas are signs, signposts of the reality of God; they are not the reality itself.  We are all on a path to this reality, to this great mystery.  And, and every day we wake up and decide to walk along that path living out the reality of the mystery of God.  Mystery here means not a problem to be solved but a truth to be lived anew each day’

‘When I find traces of truth, beauty, and love in human experience, I want more.  I want beauty and truth and love that never end.  These traces push us along the path to perfect beauty, truth, and love to the source of beauty, truth, and love. The most outrageous human experience in the world is love, and the moment you understand love, you’ve lost it.’ 

There is the ‘I’ that is brain function, the mind that can explain, analyze, and elucidate.  Then there is the ‘I’ in which brain function is inadequate.  The brain that can formulate things in an equation cannot come up with an equation that amounts to love. Love cannot be explained in terms of an equation’ (Robert Wright. Interview at Columbia University, 2011).

God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity

Monsignor Albacete’s response to the ‘why’ of religion was given in his popular book, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity. It presents what he himself had searched for as a layman and scientist: an answer to the link between faith and reason.

Some years ago, Hendrick Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker:  “Lorenso Albacete is one of a kind, and so is God at the Ritz. The book, like the monsignor, crackles with humor, warmth, and intellectual excitement.  Reading it is like having a stay-up-all-night, jump-out-of-your-chair, have-another-double-expresso marathon conversation with one of the world’s most swashbuckling talkers. Conversation, hell-this is a Papal bull session!”

The book mentions figures, living and dead, from Bill Cosby to Freud, to Thomas Aquinas.  It talks about science, sex, politics, religion, and most of all, suffering.

God at the Ritz will probably please those who travel the road that seemingly leads to nowhere.  It addresses questions posed by men and women who, though rational, live without the benefit (or the crutch) of religious faith. Monsignor consoles those who question the why of things, especially of suffering.  ‘Suffering is the great mystery of life.  It spares no man, woman, or child.  Human suffering points to the great mystery of Christ’s suffering.  And we ask why.  There can be only one answer to suffering, and Jesus gives it to humankind in the act of total self-giving.  He suffers for us.  He stands with us in our suffering.’  Monsignor suggests that the only human response to suffering is co-suffering where we ask ‘why’ together and we pray together:  “To co-suffer is to be willing … to risk our own faith by identifying with those who suffer in their question of God.”  We must “make a human connection with the one who suffers, and then cry out to God together” (101).   

“Religion,” he notes, “is either the reasonable quest for the satisfaction of all the original desires of the heart, or it is a dangerous, divisive, harmful waste of time” (154).

God at the Ritz may irritate some for its worldly approach to faith.  But this is the language most people understand. It is what they are willing to accept when nothing else makes sense to them.

Monsignor John Tracy Ellis (d 1992)

More in The Way of Beauty

In 1955, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, the dean of American church historians, made an urgent plea for the cultivation of intellectual excellence in our Catholic schools.  In a lengthy article in Thought, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” he insisted that “the inculcation of moral virtue never be permitted to overshadow the fact that the school at whatever level … must maintain a strong emphasis on the cultivation of intellectual excellence.” Faith, reason and the intellectual excellence fortify our students to withstand today’s challenge to religious faith. 

Monsignor Albacete’s faith shone with a distinct iridescence, sparkling with sophistication and savoir-faire as well as with firmness and tenacity. Through the years, his pastoral sense had developed a regard for human frailty approaching others in a non-judgmental way. Is it any wonder that he was a favorite of liberals, skeptics, and atheists?   Requiescat in pace. Amen.

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