In the words of his close friend, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, “Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Garcia Marquez together did not have enough imagination and genius to invent Father Lorenzo Albacete Cintrón.”
Born in 1941, Lorenzo Albacete was a proud native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. One of two sons, young Lorenzo grew up in a culture where Catholicism “was like the air one breathed,” as he told an audience years later. “We had processions with the blessed sacrament on Corpus Christi through streets in the old city that were known to be centers of prostitution, only to have the windows of those houses open and the ladies throw flowers to the blessed sacrament as it passed by. Talk about another understanding of morality!”
He found a different situation when he came to Washington, D.C. to study aeronautical engineering at Catholic University. “It was the first time I came across a Catholicism that I had never experienced before,” he said. “It was... one that underlined its identity, not in a proud, happy way, but in a defensive way.”
After receiving his master’s degree in space science and applied physics, Lorenzo carried out aerospace research at the US Naval Ordnance Laboratory for several years. In spite of the religious indifference of his colleagues, he enjoyed working among fellow scientists with their curiosity, creativity, and rigorous attachment to reality. Nevertheless, Albacete began to personally experience a growing and troubling split between his faith in Jesus Christ and his everyday life. Thus began an intellectual search for a way to heal this division.
During a 1968 papal visit to Bogota, Colombia, Albacete’s life took a sudden and dramatic turn. The young physicist joined a group of clergy on a whim, dressing in clerical attire in order to get closer to Pope Paul VI. Upon meeting the pontiff, Lorenzo confessed that he was not a priest. “Why don’t you become one?” the unfazed Pope Paul replied. Six years later, with the permission of Washington’s archbishop, Lorenzo was ordained in San Juan, Puerto Rico by Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez for the DC archdiocese.
One of the focuses of Fr. Lorenzo’s early ministry was serving the Hispanic community. This strengthened his growing conviction that the future of the Catholic Church in the United States greatly depended on its outreach to Hispanics. Albacete would go on to serve the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a key advisor on Hispanic matters and remained an important advocate for Spanish-speaking believers throughout his life.
It was while serving as a theological advisor to Cardinal William Baum that Albacete was asked to host a visiting Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla. The two hit it off and after his visit Wojtyla continued to send Albacete correspondence. When they were later reunited, the newly elected Pope John Paul II wryly told his friend, “Lorenzo, maybe now you will answer my letters!” Through his friendship with John Paul II, Albacete would also come to know and provide counsel to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was later elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
When Albacete went to Rome in 1981 for advanced theological studies, his work focused on John Paul II’s thought, including a dissertation that dealt with the pope’s theological anthropology. He received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1983. After his return to the States, Albacete helped establish the Washington, D.C. campus of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, where he taught for nine years. As a professor, Albacete was famous for his chain-smoking, his boisterous sense of humor, and for frequently interrupting class as he took cell phone calls from the Pope or a bishop.
It was through his work at the institute that Albacete first met Angelo Scola, a fellow priest who was then the rector of the Pontifical Lateran University. “He was the freest man I had ever met,” Albacete would say. In Scola, he found someone who seemed to have overcome the division between faith and life that Albacete himself had resolved only “in an intellectual way.”
How had Scola discovered this unity? wondered Albacete. Bishop Scola credited Luigi Giussani, his former teacher and the founder of the international Communion and Liberation (CL) movement. Eventually Scola arranged a meeting between the two men. The encounter would prove decisive for Albacete’s life and for the future of CL. “I had found a home,” Albacete recounted. “Never was I recruited, but… being with these people and living life with them and doing gestures with them, this theological synthesis I had created had become a life. (It was) the passage from an abstract discourse to an actual life.” At Giussani’s request, Albacete guided the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation in the US and proved essential to the movement’s growth.
“God’s loving providence engineered this wonderful match,” his friend Cardinal O’Malley would later say. Meeting Giussani and his followers seemed to unleash a new sense of energy and joy in Albacete’s life. It also gave him a renewed zest for engaging with the kinds of people he had met while working as a scientist—those who may have felt distant from any kind of religious expression, but who energetically pursued the search for truth, beauty, and justice.
Shortly after moving to New York in 1997, Albacete met a handful of secular media personalities. The friendships that arose in this circle led to Albacete’s 1998 cover story for The New Yorker, along with numerous columns for The New York Times, Slate and The New Republic. He also began a continuing collaboration with Helen Whitney, a producer of documentaries for PBS. After the production of one Frontline episode about Pope John Paul II, Albacete attended an event at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, California, where he was surrounded by critics and journalists curious about his views on the Pope, modernity, the problem of suffering, etc. This incident gave rise to the book God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity, published by Crossroad in 2002.
Over the years, Albacete was also a frequent guest on network news programs, particularly during papal conclaves or when a controversy arose regarding the Church. In addition, he wrote hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines, and online journals that covered everything from religion and science to pop culture and politics. In 2007, Monsignor Albacete joined the newly formed Crossroads Cultural Center as the chairman of its advisory board. His frequent presentations at the center's events, along with his appearances at the New York Encounter, an annual Catholic cultural festival in Manhattan, were marked my Albacete's trademark humor and his penetrating insights into the challenges and opportunities that the modern world posed to people of faith.
It was due to his reputation as a columnist that Albacete was invited in 2008 to “debate” Christopher Hitchens on the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” Just a few years later, following Hitchens’ death from cancer, Albacete wrote: “When I met Hitchens and observed him making the rounds of the invited guests before the debate, I immediately realized that I was the wrong person to debate him, not because of his intelligence, knowledge and charm, but because he was a man with such a wounded heart that he was just a minute away from encountering Christ. What he needed was grace, and that was something I could not give him, being myself in need of it every moment of my life. I realized that all I could do was to show him we were together on the same path because I did not believe in the god he attacked, and thus encourage him to be faithful to the wound in his heart and love the freedom which comes from the Truth."
Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete Cintrón died on October 24, 2014. His final spoken words were, “You see, Jesus always comes. He wants to be with us.” The Albacete stories that his friends continue to relate to each other could easily fill several volumes. As this site grows, we hope to share many of them here.