The writer, a long-time friend of Benedict Groeschel, reflects on the life and recent passing of the well-known friar, who died October 3.
The bell rang slowly. Not a great cathedral bell, but a small, rather clanging one. The pear tree and the pomegranate tree in the center of the cloistered courtyard were heavy with fruit. Wild asters and late season roses bloomed along tiled paths; lush fig leaves warmed on trellises on the red sandstone walls of the friary. The blue-gray slate of the roof tiles matched the blue-gray of the autumn sky. A sparrow chirruped. Bearded friars, gray-robed and cowled, intoned an ancient hymn. It could have been Assisi eight centuries ago. It wasn’t. It was Newark, New Jersey, October 2014. Father Benedict Groeschel, a founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, was being laid to rest.
Father Benedict was born Robert Peter Groeschel on July 23, 1933, in Jersey City, New Jersey. (He loved to tell us he didn’t need to go to purgatory – he grew up in Jersey City!) The eldest of six children, he attended Catholic schools, graduating in 1951. Ten days later, he entered the novitiate of the Capuchin Franciscan Friars in Huntington, Indiana. There, adopting the name Benedict Joseph, in honor of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, he pronounced final vows in 1955. He continued with theological studies and was ordained to the priesthood in 1959.
The first assignment for the young priest was Catholic chaplain for Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a home for troubled youth. This lasted fourteen years and was, as Father Benedict often told me, the happiest time of his life. It was also a defining time, as he felt urged to begin graduate study in psychology to better serve the children in his care. After earning a master’s degree in 1964 and a doctorate in 1970, Father Benedict was well prepared to care for the souls entrusted to him.
In 1973 Cardinal Cooke of New York asked Father Benedict to leave Children’s Village and become the founding director of Trinity Retreat in Larchmont, New York, a position he held for the next forty years. He once told me how hard this was for him – to leave the care of children and the poor, and later his community of brothers, and live in one of the wealthiest suburbs of New York City. He simply could not bring himself to live in the palatial mansion on the North Shore of Long Island Sound, so he took up lodgings in the estate’s boathouse, sleeping on a cot in a tiny cell-like room and setting up an office over the water, at the far end of the boathouse.
It was from here that Father Benedict’s gifts – a prayerful, compassionate heart, a brilliant mind, an eloquent voice, and priceless humor – reached out and touched countless people around the globe. He authored forty-six books, became a regular on Catholic television and radio, held retreats, and spoke throughout the country and abroad. He also helped found homes and shelters for unwed mothers and troubled young men, assisted Mother Teresa as she established her homes in New York City, and continually sought ways to serve the poor.
In 1987, seeking to follow the way of St. Francis of Assisi more radically, Benedict and seven other friars left the Capuchins and established the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. He told me, only days before he died, that this separation, though necessary, was one of the most painful experiences of his life; it took him years to find healing. In 1988 a similar order was established for women, called the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. There are now 115 brothers and 35 sisters in these two vibrant orders.
Books could, and probably will be written about Father Benedict. But to the thousands who knew and loved him, Benedict never seemed a famous person. He was always a brother – warm, humorous, and loving – who cared only for the moment and for whomever he was with.
The effects of this personal love and care for each person he met were evident at Father Benedict’s funeral mass at the Sacred Heart Basilica in Newark on October 10. Hundreds, even thousands, came – sisters and brothers from many different orders, priests from all over the country, and hundreds of ordinary people – all because of the love they felt for Father Benedict. Watching them slowly file past his open coffin and then partake of the Eucharist, I sensed the atmosphere of reverence and worship. This, I felt, was a fitting way to honor a beloved friend – by praising God. Nothing would have made Father Benedict happier.
His body was then taken to the friary for burial. As his plain pine coffin lay under the pear and pomegranate trees in the courtyard, surrounded by his brothers and sisters, I was reminded again of St. Francis, who also died on October 3 – 788 years to the day before Father Benedict. As his body was tenderly laid beneath the simple wooden altar in the plain stone grotto under the chapel, I thanked God for another great life completed, and a new, even richer life begun. Father Benedict had returned home.