We are living in a culture that impedes us from falling in love, from being rooted forever in the beautiful goodness and beautiful truth of things. We are sentimental creatures that lack bonds of affection. If the Catholic Church is to going respond to this culture, she cannot simply propose new laws, policies, or changes of behavior, but must communicate the faith without sacrificing its depth and mystery. She must propose a common life where one can enjoy the meaning of life and the whole world, where one can bear another’s burdens, and where one can learn to become more human. It is for this reason that we should be thankful to Lisa Lickona and Gregory Wolfe, the editors of The Relevance of the Stars, for collecting this selection of Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete’s essays in one place. The book captures the rich theological vision of this cultured former physicist turned priest who was full of wonder and loved everything that was truly human. He was very well read, quoting contemporary authors like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy endlessly, and could make you laugh out loud with his witty jokes in one moment, then cry a minute later, all the while smoking a cigarette (or two). Albacete shared his faith by sharing his life with others. And their lives became more interesting and beautiful because of the common life they shared with him.
What struck people about Albacete was his freedom. He was fully himself with everyone. But where did his freedom come from? How did he find the ground that allowed him to become fully himself? His freedom came from being rooted in Christ, which is to say, being a son of the Church. Concretely speaking, it rested in his being able to recognize and accept being a son of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of the international ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation. Before meeting Giussani, Albacete loved theology, science, literature and poetry, but could never figure out how to integrate his interests with his concrete daily life and he continuously found himself to be broken. It was not until he met Giussani that he discovered that Christianity is truly an event, an encounter where one discovers the human presence of God in the Church now. At that moment he gave up his predetermined ideas of what a good Christian looked like and decided instead to follow the inexorable presence of God in Giussani and in his charism.
He knew that what was at stake was his salvation. Or, in his own words, “what is at stake is my ass. The future of my ass.”
Little by little, he saw his life becoming more integrated. He found a place that could make his fragmented life more whole, giving meaning to everything in his life, including his flaws, weaknesses, and theological ideas. Being rooted in Giussani’s charism, he discovered that the Church is the only place where grace and the human heart can coexist without one eliminating the other. He became more fully himself, freer because his life was truer. Contrary to the modern view, Albacete discovered that only by lovingly binding himself to another, with full awareness of his childlike dependency, that he was free. He was a bit angry that it had taken him a long time to discover this precious truth, but he had this set his anger aside and obey what was happening in his life. He knew that what was at stake was his salvation. Or, in his own words, “what is at stake is my ass. The future of my ass.”
The Relevance of the Stars gets its name from one of Albacete’s favorite stories about Giussani. One starry night, Giussani was riding his bike in his cassock when, along his way, he saw a young couple making out. The couple saw him and stopped what they were doing. He stopped in front of them and asked, “If you were not doing anything wrong, why did you stop?” He continued to go his own way and the young couple were about to start kissing again. At that moment, Giussani, looking at the stars, said, “The most beautiful idea I have ever had in my entire life came to me.” He turned around and went back to them and asked, “What you are doing right now, what does it have to do with the stars?” He said that at that moment he understood the dignity of the human person and what morality was. He concluded, “There cannot be any human moment that is empty! Every instant is like a particular within a grand design. We perform no true gesture unless it is within a universal design. Morality is action undertaken in service to the whole.” Every real action, for Giussani, is one that is related to “the stars,” which is to say, to everything else in the world and to its origin and destiny. Thus, to love a person, a job, anything, is also to love everything, that is to say, the meaning and depth of each thing as it relates to the meaning and depth of everything else in the world. In short, for Giussani, morality is a matter of being in love with everything, and with God, its origin and destiny. In his pastoral care for the many young people he came into contact with, Giussani did not simply tell them to change their behavior but showed them a contemplative path to follow so that they could understand themselves and their relationship to the stars. Anything less than the whole and its relation to the infinite was not enough for Giussani. It is not a coincidence, then, that Albacete’s book, The Relevance of the Stars, seems to be about everything. He continues the path of Giussani, translating his vision to an American context, and giving the Church in America a contemplative path she can follow. One can find in these pages reflections on experience, freedom, affectivity, modernity, suffering, the philosophy of language, science, politics, marriage, work, economics, and on and on. With his credible and fearless faith, Albacete confronted everything. But his genius consisted in never losing the connection that every single thing has to the whole, to the stars. This love for the whole allows him to go to the root of every problem. The following are only three examples of how he does this.
The first example is Albacete’s awareness of the American inability to confront tragedy properly. Whenever there is a tragedy, say, a school shooting or the countless numbers of abortions being performed around the country, the answer to the problem is always legal or policy-based. For example, when the tragedy of September 11th happened, the search for answers was reduced to questions about airport and national security, fighting a war against terror, and other foreign policies. This is not to say that policies or legal answers are not necessary. But Albacete sees cultural problems, especially tragedies, as first and foremost religious problems. Every human reality is connected to the religious sense and it is troubling that whenever tragedies occur, there is a failure to look at the depth of the problem. This fear of letting questions that arise in the face of tragedy penetrate into one’s experience leads to a disengagement from concrete experiences and concrete persons who suffer. It is important that when one experiences a tragic event, one allows the event to provoke questions in the human heart and that one is then loyal to those questions. Otherwise, one never gets a proper understanding of what has happened. For Albacete, tragedies ultimately have their origin in the mystery of original sin. And that is why moralism or simply a change of behavior or attitude are insufficient: there is an evil greater than what human capacity can bear or solve. It is only with a graced history, then, that one can respond adequately to the cultural problems we are facing. Albacete states, “And it is only by being moved by this grace, by this attraction, this wonder, this amazement, that we will build the City of God, the heavenly city in the midst of this very world—not with the power of anger, the violence of anger, but with the power, the attraction, of the mercy that has invaded our hearts, hearts otherwise tempted by, and capable of, the same violence as anybody else’s heart.”
The second example is Albacete’s repeated critique of American Protestantism. If the response to every tragedy, which is always rooted in original sin, is grace alone, then the root of the cultural and political problems in America is “a derailed religious sense that has not encountered the miracle of grace.” What he means by “a derailed religious sense” is that the weakness of American Protestantism is its separation of Christ from the Church. From a historical and theological point of view, Albacete sees America immersed in the Protestant vision of the world that “cannot counter modernity because, in its opposition between faith and reason, it must reject the idea of the religious sense. Indeed, in so many ways, the ideology of modernity is a child of Protestantism.” He continues in a strong critical tone, “The original Protestant framework . . . has nothing else with which to defend itself but a moralism founded on blind faith or sentimentality.” Albacete realizes that this weakness of Protestantism came from a distorted picture of the Christian faith that placed the Incarnation away from the center of life and the cosmos, becoming simply an intellectual and moral system without the necessity of human encounter with Christ in the Church. Any proper cultural analysis, then, especially of modernity in America, must necessarily be theological: it must start from the recognition of this fragmentation.
Our third example is a very interesting chapter on the relationship between faith and politics. Albacete sees politics as a manifestation of the religious sense, and this is why religious freedom is the most important requirement of any politics or government. But the solution to politics is the event of Jesus Christ. He even goes so far as to say that “the relation between faith and politics is a branch of Christology.” In fact, one of the greatest cultural contributions the Church has made is the concept of personhood. Yet, this concept did not come about because the Church was trying to give an answer to a political problem, but because the Church contemplated the identity of Christ. It is this contemplation of Christ that Albacete wants to retrieve, and this primacy of Christ necessarily leads to encountering Him in the Church because there can be no experience of Christ without the Church, the visible reality of communion with Christ. Politics, then, must mean working for the freedom that one has in the Church. This means that a concrete belonging to the Church is necessary for there to be any kind of real politics because only in the Church can we really understand what it means to be a people, what it means to share one’s life with others for the common good. It is for this reason that one must always fight for unity, grounded in the truth, in the Church. Bishops and priests in America today should especially heed this prophetic cry of Albacete:
And we oppose, no matter what—no matter what—anything that threatens the unity of the Church. Anything from any politician, any party, in domestic politics, or foreign policy, or whatever it is, anything that tries to create division within the Church, we must oppose, because unity and its compatibility with our freedom, this is the victory of Christ! Because if that disappears, then Christ is not victorious and we have no solution to the problem of faith and politics and the only solution to religion and politics is just an unsatisfactory compromise.
This call for unity seems to be naïve and impossible, especially when one sees divisions in both the country and in the Catholic Church today. But Albacete was not naïve. He knew the flaws of human beings, especially his own, and the impossibility of achieving unity with others by our own efforts. To the contrary, unity is a gift brought about by a superabundant grace. He did not think unity was impossible because he experienced unity himself. And not because he was intelligent nor because he had the best insights into humanity, but because he encountered a charism that allowed him to embrace and be engaged with everyone.
There is nothing more beautiful in life than encountering a particular love that allows one to love the whole, indeed have the whole. Albacete, in his childlike posture, surrendered himself to the charism of Giussani and this allowed him to have a fuller possession of the whole. He not only lived among friends, he also died surrounded by friends. A few days before his death, a young man visited him to thank him for everything that he had done for him. This young man had not seen Albacete in five years and was unsure whether he would even remember him because of the fragile state he was in. When the young man entered the room, Albacete was shocked, surprised that he would have seen this young man again, and his eyes widened as if he was seeing the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life. The last days of his life consisted of moments like this, seeing his friends—old and new, young and old—come back to meet him. He witnessed that Christ does not take away anything beautiful in life.
His last words to that young man were, “I have everything. We can have anything we want.” In front of death, what more can we ask for than this fullness of heart? It is precisely this hopeful gift that Christ gives to those who receive Him with humble joy.