Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, friend of John Paul II and a leading Catholic theologian and national director of the lay ecclesial movement "Communion and Liberation," will deliver the first lecture sponsored by the John Paul II Center for Theology & Environmental Studies. Albacete will speak on the importance of Pope John Paul II's environmental legacy on November 7 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Maine.
A priest and trained physicist, Albacete is a columnist for The New York Times. He holds a degree in Space Science and Applied Physics, as well as a master's degree in Sacred Theology from The Catholic University of America. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome. He has taught at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., and at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. From 1996 to 1997, he served as President of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. He is a columnist for the Italian weekly Tempi, has written for The New Yorker, and has been Advisor on Hispanic Affairs to the U.S. National Council of Catholic Bishops. Monsignor Albacete resides in Yonkers, N.Y.
The lecture is the first of the annual Karol Wojtyla Distinguished Lecture series sponsored by the John Paul II Center.
The new John Paul II Center for Theology & Environ-mental Studies on campus began essentially in the hills of central Pennsylvania, where theology professor Connie Lasher grew up fishing with her grandfather, roaming around the woods, riding horses and camping.
Those years spent happily outdoors merged with her family's unquestioning embrace of the connection between the environment and spirituality. Now 35 years later, her passion for nature has created a center that explores the interface between theology and environmental studies. In doing so, it profoundly honors the legacy of Pope John Paul II, an outdoorsman who loved hiking and skiing in the Alps, saw the wonder in creation and professed the urgency of environmental responsibility.
The John Paul II Center at Saint Joseph's College is unique because it is devoted explicitly to the late Pope. "People don't realize how much he wrote about the environment and how important it was to him," Lasher says. His 26-year papacy, which began at the height of the environmental movement in the 1970s, created a distinct environmental legacy. Little has been done with it, however, according to Lasher.
"John Paul engaged the question of the human relationship to nature," says Lasher. "His legacy and teachings represent a comprehensive, Catholic theology of ecological identity, and my research is dedicated to articulating that legacy," she adds.
Ecological identity, a concept borrowed from the field of environmental studies, refers to the ways in which humans understand themselves in relation to nature- such as intellectually, economically and spiritually.
Before Lasher became a theologian, she trained in experiential education and was a senior instructor and course director at Maine's Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, which uses wilderness as a classroom for self-discovery and character formation. "You learn lessons about life and yourself. You learn about self-discipline, compassion and perseverance," Lasher says.
John Paul also saw nature as important for character formation, she says. "As an avid outdoors-man, he knew that mountains change people."
An actor, poet and playwright - as well as a heroic resister of Nazis and, later, Soviets - John Paul's teachings revolved around the theme of Christian humanism, which refers to the Church's commitment to the dignity and meaning of the human person.
The John Paul II Center at Saint Joseph's will nurture interdisciplinary dialogue and curriculum in developing a Catholic understanding of ecological identity.
"We're defining the focus broadly, in the sense that writers, poets and artists are just as important as ethics, science and policy," says Lasher. Other environmentally oriented centers across the country tend to look at just one aspect, such as environmental ethics, she states.
Dr. Daniel Sheridan, Vice President for Academic Affairs, expects the John Paul II Center to become nation-ally and internationally renowned for its promotion of "Christ-centered humanism." The Center also reflects the Sisters of Mercy tradition of environmental stewardship, he notes. "The College is especially fortunate to have a scholar of the caliber of Dr. Lasher as the director of the Center," says Sheridan.
In unpacking John Paul's legacy, the Center will sponsor major lectures, conferences and symposia. It will develop new undergraduate and graduate courses and eventually hopes to sponsor research sabbaticals, internships and artist-in-residence programs.
Theology professor Connie Lasher, who has a background in environmental studies, started the John Paul II Center.
When Lasher went to Outward Bound, she planned to stay indefinitely, but in 1987, a severe back injury brought that to a halt. "I went from being essentially a professional athlete to not being able to sit," she says.
Lasher decided to pursue a master's degree in environmental studies. Her master's degree focused on how religious values form environmental attitudes, which drew her to theology; eventually she earned her master's degree in that field, as well. At around the same time, she converted to Catholicism.
Although she originally planned to continue on for her doctorate in environmental studies, she had fallen in love with theology. "Theology felt like a natural language to me," she says. When Boston College awarded her a full fellowship to earn her doctorate, she went forward and then began to teach at Saint Joseph's while finishing her dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar's contribution to the theology of Catholic ecological identity.
After the thesis was complete, she set about launching the John Paul II Center, an idea she has nurtured for eight years.
"Very few theologians come out of environmental studies, which emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach," she notes. "This work represents the continuity of who I am and what I am committed to."
As she translates 46 years of her life into this center, she is still sitting next to her grandfather, listening to birds, roaming the hills of Pennsylvania. Even as John Paul roamed the Alps.