Gray-robed friar hailed as self-giving guide to the exalted and the lowly
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When thousands of people lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Franciscan Friar Benedict Groeschel had some words of counsel. We want to ask “Why” in the wake of such a tragedy, he said, but the more important question is “What? What is God asking us to do now?”
That way of thinking found an echo at the end of Father Groeschel’s funeral Mass Friday, when the current head of the religious community he and a few other Capuchin Franciscans started reflected on the life and legacy of the beloved television preacher.
“What will our prayers, our work together, our service be like tomorrow, after this man is interred?” Father John Paul Ouellette asked, in the presence of a couple of thousand people who traveled to Newark, N.J., to honor the memory of a man many of them considered one of the most important spiritual thinkers in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. “What does this mean for our life and our charism and our service to the Church that he’s given and passed on to us, and how do we take what Father Benedict and our founders have given to us so that we’re at the service to the Church and the people of God?”
Father Ouellette said he found the answer to his question in the week since Father Groeschel’s Oct. 3 death at the age of 81. “These past few days, there’s been a theme I’ve picked up from Pope Francis in the [apostolic exhortation] ‘The Joy of the Gospel:’ every priest, every religious, every lay person must learn the art of accompaniment. Father Benedict and Pope Francis are both extremely vibrant models of this art of accompaniment. Of the many stories of the many people who have come today, Father Benedict has accompanied every one of us in a very particular and practical way, knowing not only our faces but most of the time our names as well. This is our call as we move forward tomorrow. Father Benedict was not afraid to enter the heart of the person he was encountering at the present moment.”
That assessment of the man, who was born Peter Groeschel in Jersey City, N.J., in 1933, was confirmed by other speakers at the funeral and in interviews before and after the two-hour liturgy. The very presence of the hundreds of people, from the upper echelons of the Church’s hierarchy—including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop emeritus of New York, and Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark—to a multitude of priests, professed religious and seminarians—many of whom belong to Father Groeschel’s community of the Franciscans of the Renewal—to simple Christians striving to live a good life while struggling to make ends meet, was a testament to the impact he had on a broad range of people. Much of that impact came through his preaching, television appearances and writing, but much also took place in one-on-sessions with people struggling with life’s many challenges.
And that took place as late as a few weeks ago, when he was facing his own mortality.
“Father Benedict never stopped being a priest,” said Brother Angelus Montgomery, describing his life at the Little Sisters of the Poor St. Joseph’s Nursing Home in Totowa, N.J., where Father Groeschel lived for the past two years and where he died on the eve of the Feast of St. Francis. “He knew all the men and women at the nursing home. He’d have a brother pull him out of the chapel at the end of Mass every day and greet everybody coming out.”
Brother Montgomery said that since a 2004 accident that almost took Father Groeschel’s life and a series of strokes since then led to both physical and mental suffering, compounded by the onset of dementia in recent years. “I think he suffered with courage, and I think the other residents [at the nursing home] and the [Little Sisters of the Poor] and our [Franciscan] brothers and sisters witnessed that. He never complained. That itself was a witness to the others to what they were all doing there. Father Benedict was witnessing to them and encouraging them.”
Much of the homily delivered by Father Groeschel’s longtime colleague, Father Andrew Apostoli, dwelt on happier times in the elder friar’s life. After initially choking up while beginning to speak of his brother in religious life and apologizing, “This is going to be a tough homily,” Father Apostoli launched into a series of anecdotes that painted a picture of a street-savvy sage who turned heads in places like Columbia University as he strolled across the quad looking like, in his own words, “something out of the Canterbury Tales.”
Many in attendance had their own favorite Groeschelisms, including Sharon Walker, who recalls being at a talk the friar gave to a gathering of somewhat well-to-do women. “He was speaking about the poor and he said that he’d noticed an ad in the paper for a fur coat that cost about $10,000,” Walker recalled. “He leaned into the microphone and told them, ‘Ladies, buy this coat and you’ll be wearing it in purgatory for a thousand years.’”
Walker said the line opened the women up and made them ready to hear more.
Indeed, Father Groeschel’s “schtick,” replete with a Jersey accent and a repertoire of anecdotes about wise-cracking Jewish neighbors from his youth or Pakistani cabdrivers from his travels around New York, was meant to draw people in. The essence of the man, however, could have been summed up in the Gospel of the day, as Father Apostoli indicated: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will remain just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
“That little kernel of wheat inside has to give of itself so that other grains of wheat may come to life,” Father Apostoli said, with a simple, open coffin bearing his confrere’s body lying in the center aisle. “I think those who knew Father Benedict would say that he chose to be the grain of wheat that fell to the ground. He died with Christ so that he may live with Christ. Like that grain of wheat that would give of itself from within, he brought life to so many many people.”
“He had a way about him that, whenever you were in his presence, you felt like you were the only one that existed for him,” said a man who worked at Trinity Retreat House in Larchmont, N.Y., Father Groeschel’s base of operations for many years. “He had an incredible knowledge of history and geography and other subjects, so he would always ask you where you were from, and when you answered, he could say, ‘Oh, I was there. Do you know this street?…’” said the man, who wished to remain anonymous. “So he had a way of making connections with you and always made people feel important.”
Elizabeth Frappier, who traveled from Virginia for the funeral with her husband, Jonathan, and 2-month old daughter, Gabrielle, recalled her days of assisting the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the South Bronx. “Father Benedict was always in and out, inspiring laughter and stronger faith in working for the poor,” she said. “He could come in and say a joke and get everyone back on board with whatever we were doing, whether it was passing out turkeys [at Thanksgiving] or working in Harlem or the Bronx or wherever we were.”
Joan Andrews Bell, who has served much time in jail for her pro-life activism, was present at the funeral with her husband, Chris Bell, who founded the pro-life apostolate Good Counsel Homes along with Father Groeschel.
“One thing that meant the most of me is that he was supportive of our family—we’ve got eight children—very supportive and enthusiastic about that, which blessed me deeply, and was always welcoming of the kids. He always asked, ‘Are they coming? Are they coming?’ and would want us to bring them places where most people wouldn’t bring kids,” Andrews Bell said. “And he always encouraged a pro-life presence at the killing centers, to be there for the babies, to be present as Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament, we will be His presence at the abortion mill.”
For his part, Archbishop Myers hinted that what many in attendance surely had in mind, that Father Benedict Groeschel may some day be formaly called a saint.
“Father Benedict was born and bred in the Archdiocese of Newark, but his influence spread far beyond,” the archbishop said. “We will continue to pray for him and, one would suspect, to him.”
John Burger is news editor of Aleteia’s English edition.