American Catholics old enough to remember Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his famous chalk talks on televisionsermonettes punctuated by occasional salvos against Communism, psychoanalysis and birth controlwill be stunned by how much more worldly, engaging and hip apologetics can be in the hands of a maestro like Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete.
Albacete has such a dazzling résumé that readers who have never heard of him or (like this reviewer) had never seen him until his recent appearances on PBS’s Frontline may well wonder how they missed him. After all, how many priestshow many people on the planethave degrees in space science and applied physics and theology, have served as a seminary professor, a university president, a columnist for both The New York Times and the Italian weekly Tempi, a New Yorker contributor and a church spokesmanwith effortlessly colloquial, stylish-jazzy English, his second language (Albacete is a native Puerto Rican), and a mastery of the contemporary cultural scene that ranges from Emmanuel Levinas to the David Letterman show, from Monty Python to Germaine Greer, whose experience with the agonizing condition of children in Africa made her gasp, If God exists, I hate him? Throw in Albacete’s natural warmth and casual charm, and it’s hard to figure out why he’s not a household name.
His book is a sheaf of 42 shortish ruminations on religion in today’s world. Its title comes from some stressful moments Albacete had in 1997 when he found himself at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., fielding tough, forthright questions from predictably secular television critics about a PBS show, for which he had been a major consultant, on his hero, John Paul II. Like St. Paul facing the curious-but-skeptical Athenians in Acts 17, Albacete was prompted to build, or at least sketch out, a few sustainable bridges between Christian tradition and inquisitive pagans.
Wherever possible, he takes a positive tack. The religious impulse, he writes, is born not of fear but of desire. For this reason, personal commitments, feelings, passions, emotions, and concerns are components of the religious experience because they are an inescapable and essential part of human desire. A scientist may feel that these non-rational elements should be kept wholly apart from the scientific enterprise, but the fact is that they are not.... So we are all of us, believers and nonbelievers, scientists and nonscientists, engaged in a fateful quest for the Reality [that] exists beyond all human efforts and articulations. The Mystery that all thoughtful persons can’t help seeking turns out to be a dialogue partner and none other than the Author of life.
Even (or especially) spontaneous human revulsion at suffering proves to be a path to God. By asking questions of Job, God joins, so to speak, Job’s questioning. In a way, God co-suffers with Job.... God’s response to our suffering, a suffering with us, respects our identity as individuals. One might expect Albacete to bring up the Crucifixion here, but he doesn’t; and in general he hints at, but does not flesh out, Christian themes, as if he were waiting for his readers to respond, like some members of Paul’s audience, We will hear you again about this.
Given the nature of faith, Albacete can only suggest, not prove. And many of his arguments, e.g., My experience tells me that what I am looking for is not identifiable with me. It is an Other, are quite suggestive. Still, one type of person he is not liable to persuade is the non-idealist who is content to cultivate his or her own garden and leave it at that. When Albacete insists in Augustinian fashion that our hearts desire infinite happiness, infinite satisfaction, or that death is an insult to our being made to live forever.... death is not natural to human beings, his case sounds inspiring, but it could also be dismissed with a Woody Allen shrug: It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Agree with him or not, Albacete is extraordinarily simpatico. Despite his basic conservatism, he has a liberal, and often humorous, openness to every aspect of life: sex, art, literature, pop culture, philosophy and, of course, science. He is also resolutely honest. No one who has heard him, whether on television or in the pages of this book, grimly analyzing the events of 9/11 as proof of religion’s power to do evil will soon forget it. But can he move beyond the ingratiating mini-essay to something heftier and more sustained? If not, he would certainly make a fabulous talk-show host: the Vatican’s answer to Charlie Roseand then some.