Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete: The Unkempt Man, the Brilliant Priest

I first met Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete on Capitol Hill. I was the Press Secretary for Congressman Bill Archer and he was the featured talent in a Knights of Columbus initiative to teach hill staffers about the Bible.

He sat with us in an empty House committee chamber eating a sandwich that dribbled down his chin and onto his jacket, while sharing incredibly deep and original thoughts about God.

Everyone who knew him has their Msgr. Albacete stories, and they all tend to dwell on those two aspects of his personality: the uncouth man and the brilliant priest.

As Robert Royal put it, he was a “certifiable eccentric and a proven genius.”

Albacete was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1941 and was a physicist by training. He later became a priest and theologian by the time I met him was soon to become chaplain of the Communion and Liberation movement in the United States.

I knew about Msgr. Albacete from my wife, April, who was one of his students at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

He did vaudevillian imitations of the “masters of suspicion” — Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud — to make the point that these great “fearless” thinkers conveniently ignored what they couldn’t explain away.

He also liked to smoke. Class would begin with a student fetching his coffee and proceed over a cigarette. Or two. Or three.

On the Facebook memorial page for him, a man remembers attending a Communion and Liberation retreat at a Protestant retreat camp that had four very strict rules: No Smoking, No Drinking, No Cussing, and No Chewing Gum. Msgr. Albacete broke two of them within a matter of moments by smoking and reacting with salty alarm to the rules.

The mother of all Msgr. Albacete stories is the one about Pope John Paul II.

Msgr. Albacete was working for the archdiocese in 1976 when a Polish bishop — Karol Wojtyla — came to Washington, D.C. The good priest was assigned to be his driver. They hit it off, speaking deeply about philosophy, and Bishop Wojtyla sent letters periodically, recommending various books.

“And I thought, ‘Oh boy, it’s this guy again,’ and just forgot about it,” Albacete is quoted saying.

But in 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, and soon after, he met Msgr. Albacete at an audience.

The way I heard it, the saint grabbed the priest by the lapels, laughing, and said: “Ah, Father Albacete ... perhaps now you will answer my letters!”

The devil-may-care attitude of Msgr. Albacete was not a sign of insincerity, but a mark of his absolute conviction of the truth of Christ, which allowed him to live with untroubled hope.

Jonathan Ghaly of Denver said on the Facebook memorial page that meeting Msgr. Albacete saved his faith. “This guy wasn’t concerned with convincing me of anything or hearing himself speak,” he said. He was a free man who accepted the freedom of others.

Father Vincent Nagle, on the same page, said Msgr. Albacete saved his vocation. “I looked to him constantly to learn that lighthearted irony that he showed when faced with the disproportion between the sublime nature of his priestly vocation and the sad limits of his humanity,” he wrote. “It made him smile and weep at the same time.”

I heard about his death on Oct. 24 from Salvatore Snaiderbaur, a friend from Benedictine College who is now a leader of Communion and Liberation in New York.

“Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete returned to the Father,” he wrote. “Msgr Lorenzo Albacete lived his final days, through pain and suffering, the way he lived all of his life, in complete abandonment to Christ and His body, the Church, with unconditional gratitude.”

Msgr. Albacete told the friends who surrounded him: “I lived a beautiful life. I always followed Christ. I will live as long as Christ wants me to live.”

He did. And we can all learn from him to seek the freedom to say those words ourselves.