Was bumping into the Franciscan reformer an accident, or was it meant to be?
In 1997, the same year I came into the Church, I was hired as the administrator at a Catholic retreat center on the East Coast. The center had a longstanding and well-earned reputation as a hotbed of heterodox theology and a haven for well-known dissenters from the authentic magisterial teaching of the Church. The place was owned and operated by a small, dying order of priests. A succession of administrators had come and gone, each one worse than the last. They included my predecessor, a woman who often boasted of having celebrated Masses and heard confessions while in a religious order overseas.
When the religious order decided to seek out an experienced layman to get the center back in the black, they turned over the search to a priest on staff. This priest—call him Father T—was something of a pariah in his community. Faithful to Church teaching, Father T had been exiled to the retreat center a few years earlier for, among other things, conducting a Corpus Christi procession while serving as a campus minister at a Catholic college. At my first interview, Father T verified my own orthodox views, then explained that he hoped to work with me to turn the place around. But first I had to interview with the Superior General of the order. My job was to keep my mouth shut about theology, focus on my business experience, and get hired. It worked.
My first day on the job, I decided to take a detailed look around the campus, which covered about 12 acres and included six buildings. I had just come out a building where my predecessor, now serving as “spiritual director,” was leading a group of women through a pagan ritual that involved depositing their “negative energies” into a pot of seawater. As I quickly turned a corner I almost leveled a short, slope-shouldered man wearing a black beret and a beat-up cardigan over a gray Franciscan habit. I recognized him immediately as Father Benedict Groeschel.
I had heard Father Benedict speak twice that year, once at an apologetics conference and another time at Brown University, and was at that time reading his book, “Healing the Original Wound: Reflections on the Full Meaning of Salvation.” My long journey into the Church had been largely unmediated except for the writings of the Church Fathers, the works of theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman, and books by contemporary authors, among whom Father Benedict stood in the first rank.
After apologizing for nearly killing him, I introduced myself and asked how he had come to be there. He confirmed that he hadn’t visited the place in decades, but was finishing his latest book and had needed a place to drop out for a few days. I briefly described the plan that Father T and I had cooked up and asked whether he could spare some time for me during his visit. “I suspect that’s the real reason I’m here,” he replied, and over the next few days we spent long hours discussing the state of the Church, especially in America, and how Father T and I should proceed.
“We have to take back the Church one institution at a time,” Father Benedict said, “even one building, or one office at a time.” He warned against using power as a blunt instrument. He instructed that we would have to pray constantly for success, keep our own lives and intentions holy, love those we were contending with, rigorously document instances of heterodox preaching or practice, master the subtle pressure-points of public reaction and episcopal oversight. In short, we would have to be as gentle as lambs, but as cunning as foxes.
He also essentially recommended a rebranding of the retreat center, and offered himself as a symbol of that rebranding. “I will commit to giving retreats here twice a year,” he said. “People know me, and if I’m here they’ll know something has changed.”
Then, deploying his trademark Jersey City humor, he added “and the old crowd will know, too.”
Father Benedict was true to his word. For the next decade and a half he came regularly to speak, often twice a year. When we began an annual conference on sacred art and architecture, Father Benedict agreed to be one of our keynote speakers. He recommended the retreat center to his brothers in the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and their lay associates. He vouched for me at EWTN, which led to two appearances on that network. Along the way, we changed the name of the place, revamped the annual program, and scrubbed both the visiting and permanent staff.
The fortunes of the retreat center slowly began to turn. We attracted a larger lay community, became self-sufficient, and saw our reputation shift from backward-looking outpost to robust institution. Eventually, we were able to detach the center from the religious order that had founded it and turn ownership over to an independent, largely lay board that operated under the oversight of local bishops. The ministry thrives today, thanks in part to the words and witness of Father Benedict Groeschel.
I left the retreat center in early 2002 and started my own business. I saw Father Benedict a few times after that, but never in circumstances where we could spend any appreciable time together. He wasn’t perfect—he may have misspoke when assessing the clerical sexual abuse crisis, for example—but he was an indefatigable preacher, a friend of the poor, a daily reader of Augustine, a lover of Jesus, a true son of the Church, and an indispensable mentor to tens of thousands, including me.
When I heard about Father Benedict’s death, my mind didn’t wander to any of this. Instead, I recalled how he opened his talk the very first time I saw him, at that apologetics conference. He said that he had just come from the chapel, where he prayed before the Blessed Sacrament and asked for the courage to defend Christ. There was an uncomfortable pause and then he slammed his fist down on the lectern and shouted, “WHAT RUBBISH! WHAT ARROGANCE! We don’t defend Christ! Christ defends us!”
That apostolic zeal, that fire for the truth is Father Benedict’s greatest legacy. And those who were touched by that fire, personally or at a distance, have been blessed indeed.
Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.