ASCETIC AUTHOR, SPEAKER, SPIRITUAL GUIDE HELPED BLESSED MOTHER TERESA OF CALCUTTA

Father Benedict Groeschel, 81

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THE internationally known and loved author and speaker Father Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, died at 11 on Friday evening, on the eve of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, after a long illness, despite which he continued to appear on EWTN inspiring thousands the world over–including Filipino viewers of Mother Angelica’s TV network–to take their Catholic faith seriously.

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My wife and I met him a number of times when he visited to give talks at Our Lady of Sorrows parish church in New Jersey.

Below is the obituary released by his religious order.

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Famed author, speaker, psychologist, and spiritual director, Father Benedict Joseph (Robert Peter) Groeschel, CFR, 81, died at St. Joseph’s Home for the elderly in Totowa, New Jersey on October 3, 2014, after a long illness. The eldest of six children, Father Groeschel was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on July 23, 1933, to the late Edward Joseph Groeschel and Marjule Smith Groeschel and attended Catholic schools in both Jersey City and Caldwell, New Jersey.

Ten days after his 1951 graduation from Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair, New Jersey, he entered the novitiate of the Capuchin Franciscan Friars in Huntington, Indiana. Adopting the name Benedict Joseph in honor of St. Benedict Joseph Labré, he pronounced his first vows as a Capuchin in 1952 and his final vows in 1954. On June 20, 1959 he was ordained to the priesthood.

His first priestly assignment, that of interim Catholic Chaplain at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a residential facility for troubled children, was a post he expected to occupy only for a few months. However, he stayed at Children’s Village for 14 years, working with hundreds of troubled youths, quite a few of whom remained his friends for decades. He often described his years at Children’s Village as “the happiest time of my life,” and in many ways that period set the tone for the rest of his life, prompting him to begin graduate study in psychology to better serve the children in his care.

After earning a master’s degree from Iona College in 1964 and a doctorate from Teacher’s College, Columbia University in 1970, he began lifelong work as a counselor who always endeavored to unite effective psychological methods with true Christian compassion and a vibrant spirituality.

In 1973 at the request of Terence Cardinal Cooke, Father Groeschel became the founding director of Trinity Retreat in Larchmont, New York, a retreat house primarily for Catholic clergy and religious. During his forty years there, he became known throughout the Catholic world for the depth of the spiritual and psychological direction he offered, as well as for the extent of his caring for all who came to him for help.

During this period colleagues and friends urged him to try his hand as a writer, and so he began work on a manuscript that he called Spiritual Passages. Published by Crossroads in 1983, Spiritual Passages is still in print and has been read by people the world over. Known for his inexhaustible energy, Father Groeschel continued writing throughout the rest of his life, becoming popular among Catholic and non-Catholic readers alike. In all he published 46 books, most of which remain in print. At the time of his death he was working on a memoir to be published by Our Sunday Visitor and entitled The Life of a Struggling Soul. He also wrote a large number of articles, which have appeared in various periodicals, including First Things and Priest Magazine.

Despite his many commitments, in 1974 Father Groeschel took over the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York, at the request of Cardinal Cooke. In that capacity he organized widely attended classes, conferences, events, and symposia aimed at deepening the spiritual lives of Catholics, lay, clergy, and religious throughout the archdiocese and beyond.

In constant demand as a retreat master and a speaker, Father Groeschel, always in his Franciscan habit, traveled the globe for years, bringing the Gospel message to anyone willing to listen. His unique blend of prayerfulness, penetrating insight, scholarship, and gentle humor was as irresistible as the spellbinding power of his preaching was undeniable. He became for many a badly needed voice of orthodoxy, as well as of common sense in a world that seemed beset by shrill contradictory voices and uncertainty. His monthly “afternoons of recollection,” New York, drew large crowds for decades.

Many people credit those afternoons of prayer, liturgy, and inspiring preaching with reviving their faith and teaching them how to live a truly Christian life in an aggressively secular world. Despite his unfailing devotion to Catholic doctrine, he was deeply committed to ecumenism, speaking in both Protestant churches and synagogues and counting among his good friends ministers of several denominations as well as rabbis.

An invitation to conduct a retreat for the Missionaries of Charity in India was the beginning of Father Groeschel’s long relationship with that community and his deep friendship with its founder, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and in the early 1970s he was instrumental in helping her establish her first convent in New York.

In 1987, striving to live more faithfully the Franciscan life, Father Groeschel left his religious order with seven other friars to form a new religious community, of which he became the first Servant (Superior). The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, based in the south Bronx and dedicated to the service to the poor, have grown from eight to 115 members, and in the same year a similar community for women, the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal was formed, which currently has 35 members. Although he was deeply proud of his new community and always believed that its foundation was a “work of God,” Father Groeschel often said that his separation from the Capuchins was the most difficult and painful day of his life. He never lost hope that a reunion might one day be possible.

Always eager to find new ways to spread the Gospel message, Father Groeschel took to the airways 30 years ago, appearing on EWTN television network, at the invitation of Mother Angelica. He became a regular on the network in various formats, the last of which was his Sunday Night Live show, which drew a large audience week after week, as people tuned in to listen to Father Groeschel interview guests from throughout the religious world or simply to hear him speak deeply and movingly about the faith that meant so much to him.

Father Groeschel’s compassion for the poor and those in any kind of trouble was legendary. And it was never a compassion that was limited to words or even to prayer. It always overflowed into deeds, and usually very energetic ones. For decades he distributed food to hundreds of people in the South Bronx who could not afford to buy their own. As the holidays approached, he would be especially determined to make sure that people who otherwise would have no Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter dinner would be given enough to have a small feast, with the help of a small army of volunteers.

In 1967, very aware that the needs of older adolescents could not be met by institutions such as Children’s Village, Father Groeschel founded Saint Francis House in the Green Point section of Brooklyn, which has guided generations of young men as they made the difficult transition from a chaotic adolescence to a stable and productive adulthood.

Moved by the plight of young woman who were pregnant, alone and who had no place to turn, he along with Chris Bell, founded Good Counsel Homes in 1985, to give such women not just a safe and supportive place to live, but help in the care of their children and the tools to begin to build a new and better life.

Deeply committed to education, Father Groeschel, taught pastoral psychology for nearly four decades at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He also taught at various times at Iona College, Fordham University, and the Maryknoll School of Theology.

On January 11, 2004 Father Groeschel suffered a near-fatal car accident, leaving him with a shattered left arm and a number of other permanent injuries. He was in a coma for ten days and his recovery took many months. Most people expected that he would be an invalid for the rest of his days on earth. Yet within a year he was at work again. He was somewhat bent over, and he walked slowly and with the aid of a cane from that point on. Yet his astonishing determination didn’t waver nor did his profound faith. “God still has some work for me to do,” he said, and in little more than two years, with remarkable resiliency, he returned to the same grueling schedule he had kept for years.

Over the past decade, despite his decline in health, Fr. Groeschel continued to serve the Church generously and with great fidelity. In 2012, after Fr. Groeschel experienced great difficulty in communicating, following a minor stroke and other health complications he officially retired from public life and was welcomed by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Totowa, NJ. There he realized the time had come to slow down and enter a new chapter of his priestly life. Daily visits of family and friends were the highlight of his days along with spending time in the chapel, concelebrating the Holy Mass and making his daily holy hour. To the very end, Fr. Groeschel exhibited his sincere care for others and great love for being a priest.

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1 Comment

  1. Indeed, the father’s life is well-lived. Without a doubt, his was a sacramental life. He chose a difficult one but God graces people if they opt for the narrow path. Although as the article declared, he practiced ecumenism, Father Groeschel was faithful to the Catholic doctrine. His life is lived in fidelity and generosity. It appears that this boundary provided for him not only guidance but freedom to be. Everyone is familiar with the saying that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” A combination of theology and psychology can go awry if not practiced within the confine of a certain structure. Knowledge for its own sake can lead anyone as someone said to a bridge to nowhere. He demonstrated that if done in the service of God and humanity all disciplines can facilitate change.

    Father Groeschel’s ministry centers around the needs of the individual. It is changing one person at a time. Bringing the insights of theology and psychology to bare, Father Groeschel strengthened the disciplines not only through lectures and seminars but by building homes for abused children and women. This seems to be a total contrast not only to what the religious community does but the society in the Philippines in general. Leaders, religious or otherwise follow a very predictable pattern to address an issue For instance, when corruption becomes pronounced, pervasive and aggressive, people create organizations to formulate a declaration of some sort. Vigorously and loudly, they yell and scream bloody murder. However, this surge of outrage fizzles out maybe in two months and never to surface again, especially when the media leave town and the crowd is nowhere to be found. I would have to argue that the leadership mirrors what the society is. If the people at the top is corrupt, it follows that there is an inherent and endemic corruption at the bottom. Live a sacramental life and you can convince the person standing next to you to make significant changes. Then society…