NEW YORK — “St. Vincent de Paul said: If you love the poor, your life will be filled with sunlight, and you will not be frightened at the hour of death,” Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel, a founder of the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, once wrote. “I wish to witness that this is true.”
Those words encapsulated the remarkable priestly ministry of Father Groeschel. He lived and worked in a small converted garage, even as he maintained a tireless pace as a popular preacher, counselor and author who expressed himself with the accent and edgy humor of a New Jersey native.
Now, following his death at the age of 81 on Oct. 3, the vigil of the feast of his patron, St. Francis, those same words sustain his community and the many souls he touched in his rich and fruitful life.
“He had a heart for the poor. While he was brilliant, wrote 46 books and was on television, his love for the poor kept him rooted,” Father Glenn Sudano, a co-founder of the Franciscan Friars, told the Register, expressing both sadness at his friend’s death and “gratitude for his life.”
“If there is anything he would want to go with him to heaven, it is that he served Jesus in the poor.”
Father Groeschel died after an extended illness. He had worked primarily in the New York area, serving as the first superior of the Friars of the Renewal after their founding in 1987 and also as the longtime director of the Office for Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York, among other duties.
He also was the author of many popular books, including Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development and Arise From Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense.
Iconic Presence on EWTN
But he drew greatest national and international attention through his work with the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), hosting a live weekly show beginning in the 1980s and often appearing on the network.
Michael Warsaw, the chairman and chief executive officer of EWTN, expressed sadness at the news of Father Groeschel’s death, remarking on the decisive role he played as a presence on the network and as a supporter during the rocky early days of EWTN.
“Like Mother Angelica herself, Father Benedict was an iconic presence on EWTN. His gray beard and Franciscan habit were known to network viewers around the world, and he had a profound impact on the lives of countless individuals who knew him only through his television and radio presence,” said Warsaw, who is also the Register’s publisher.
“In many of the most difficult days in the history of EWTN, Father Benedict was a strong and vocal supporter of Mother Angelica.”
Doug Keck, EWTN’s president and chief operating officer, worked with Father Groeschel for many years and attested to the priest’s influence. “He contributed the deep wisdom of Catholic spirituality and the ability, similar to Mother Angelica, to reach people where they were hurting,” Keck told the Register.
“Our audience loved him. He had the likability factor. But he was a man on a mission: He stood up for the truth of the faith when others didn’t, but he taught the truth in love.”
EWTN’s chaplain, Father Joseph Mary Wolfe of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, who first met Father Groeschel more than 25 years ago, said the priest served as a model for his own vocation and was “a father to our community at the beginning of our community’s life.”
“When he began visiting EWTN in the 1980s, I was usually his chauffeur, and it was a workout to keep up with him, even in his 70s,” Father Wolfe told the Register.
“He would do his series and then visit or counsel people. He didn’t sleep much; he spent himself for others. He was and remains a model for me of sacrificial generosity.”
Drawn to the Priestly Life
Born in Jersey City, N.J., in 1933, the future Franciscan priest attended Catholic elementary and high school before he entered the province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order in Huntington, Ind., in 1951. He was ordained in 1959.
In one of his many humorous stories told in books and public forums, he recalled the first time he was drawn to the priestly life and to service of the poor.
As a young child, he said he saw a nun bringing food every day to a poor widow. He followed the nun and looked in the window to see a woman who looked like a witch in a fairy tale. Frightened, he ran away to church, but he realized that he wanted to do the same.
After ordination, Father Groeschel’s first priestly assignment was to serve as the interim Catholic chaplain at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. His service to troubled children placed in the residential program led him to pursue graduate studies in psychology. But he sought to combine his chosen discipline with a distinctively Christian compassion for those in need.
In 1967, he opened St. Francis House in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn as a new residential program designed to help adolescent boys prepare for a successful adult life. He was inspired to do so when two boys from Children’s Village had no place to live. After struggling to find a suitable location, he found the right building on his birthday.
Joseph Campo, the longtime director of St. Francis, recalled the priest’s great love for the boys in the program and said that he “naturally saw the good in people,” and they responded to that.
In 1970, he received his doctorate in psychology at Columbia University and would teach pastoral psychology for almost 40 years at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.
Trinity Retreat House
In 1973, Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York appointed him the founding director of Trinity Retreat house in Larchmont, N.Y. At the facility on the shores of Long Island Sound, he provided a respite for priests and religious.
There, Father Groeschel counseled priests thinking about leaving their vocation and others struggling with addiction or depression.
Trinity Retreat became a hub for a range of Catholic leaders and groups who sought the priest’s counsel.
Sister of Life Mother Agnes Mary Donovan remembers visiting Trinity at the invitation of Father Groeschel, two months after the Sisters of Life was founded in 1991.
“He took us on a hike on the shore of Long Island Sound. When we got to the end of the trail, he pulled me over, and said, ‘Sister, this will be a difficult undertaking, but I will be there for you,’” Mother Agnes told the Register.
“It turned out that, whether it was 10pm or 4am, I could call Father to find help for a sister in distress or a troubling situation — apostolically or for the community. He always answered the phone and followed up.”
Looking back, the superior general of the Sisters of Life said the priest played a decisive role in the survival and success of her order, which has thrived over the past two decades, drawing many vocations to advance its apostolate.
“It was in no small part thanks to his wisdom that we are still here,” she said. “The friars are very close to us. We are often serving the same people, and they will provide for sacramental needs of women we are serving or those who come on our retreats. They are a vital part of our ministry.”
Inspiration in a Time of Confusion
In 1974, Cardinal Cooke asked him to direct the Office of Spiritual Development for the archdiocese, and he attended to a range of education forums, including weekly afternoons of recollection, which were designed to revive and inspire the faith of Catholics in a time of confusion and uncertainty.
During the turbulent years in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, Father Groeschel was troubled by some of the policies and practices of his Capuchin province and disturbed by what he viewed as a piecemeal approach to the faith that lacked a deeper prophetic witness.
The example of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta inspired his spiritual path, stirring a deep desire to be closer to the poor. And as he saw young women flock to her order, he concluded that young Catholics were yearning to embrace a life of distinctive, sacrificial witness to Christ’s love for the poor.
“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,” noted the official obituary by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
In March 1987, he met with seven other Capuchin Franciscan friars, and, with their agreement, asked Cardinal John O’Connor for permission to establish the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and the New York archbishop approved that request. Later, Father Groeschel was elected the order’s first community servant.
Father Sudano was part of the small group of Capuchins who began the renewal in spring of 1987, and he still can recall the first time he heard Father Groeschel preach in the 1970s.
“Storms were brewing, and the Barque of Peter was taking a lot of water. He would speak candidly about the need for renewal in the Church and for personal renewal, but with a tremendous humility, focus and verve,” recalled Father Sudano. “It was the Catholic faith in its fullness; there was nothing provincial or marginal in his approach.”
A Radical Witness
Father Andrew Apostoli, another of the co-founders, recalled that Father Groeschel “had courage and deep concern for the Franciscan way of life.”
In the mid-1980s, Father Apostoli said, Father Groeschel saw religious communities “weakening because they had lost their way in the spiritual journey by adapting many secular ways and values.” He knew that “when we began the community he would be criticized, but he still went forward with what he truly believed God was calling him to.”
Father Sudano said the eight Capuchins who ultimately founded the Friars of the Renewal had not intended to leave the Capuchins.
“Our desire was to be a reform group within the order. After three years of fraternal dialogue, it became evident that the province didn’t know what to do with us.”
As the group considered their next step, Father Groeschel pointed to “a small group of third-order Franciscans living in the South Bronx in a radical way,” recalled Father Sudano. “He told me, ‘We should do something like that.’”
Today, there are 115 brothers and priests in the Friars of the Renewal and 31 sisters of the Community of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal.
“We have 15 friaries. There are two houses in England, two in Ireland, two in Central America and seven in the U.S., in New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas,” said Father Sudano.
The friars are quite active in the New York area, especially the South Bronx, where they work extensively with the poor in various ways, running two homeless shelters for men, one for men actively working for healing and recovery; a food pantry; a neighborhood youth outreach started by Father Groeschel to help youth learn their Catholic faith; a free medical clinic; weekly lunch in Harlem; and, in Yonkers, an outreach to the Latino community.
The friars also conduct prayer vigils at abortion businesses and sponsor evenings of music, prayer and fellowship for young adults.
Sister Lucille Cutrone, who serves as superior of the Community of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, told the Register that her community could not have been formed “without the gifts of Father Benedict’s vision. His heart was very much like St. Francis: He loved God; he loved the Church; he loved religious life, and he loved the poor.”
Said Sister Lucille, “I’ll never forget one of our first Christmas celebrations at our shelter in the South Bronx. We were very few then, just a few friars and sisters and the homeless men. Father Benedict was singing Christmas carols with them and joyfully handing out the most beautiful gifts to the men who were so deeply moved.
“They didn’t expect to receive anything, and there was Father Benedict, making them feel like they were the most important people in the world. And they were.”
Near-Fatal Car Accident
On Jan. 11, 2004, Father Groeschel was hit by a car, in a near-fatal accident that shattered his left arm and put him in a coma for days. The accident left him in a permanently weakened condition, but after an extended recovery, he returned to his work.
Campo from St. Francis House remembers visiting his friend in the hospital after the accident.
“He couldn’t speak much, but I was holding his hand and talking to him. He could see I was crying. When it was time to leave, I looked at him. He turned and looked at me and managed to say, ‘Joe, coraggio, — courage in English,” said Campo.
“He is the one we thought was dying, and he told me to have courage. And you know what, I did after that.”
In 2012, Father Groeschel retired from public life, following a minor stroke, and he was welcomed by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Totowa, N.J.
In September of that year, Father Groeschel stepped down as host of EWTN’s Sunday Night Prime, after he made statements in the Register suggesting that a minor is “the seducer” in “a lot” of sexual-abuse cases and that many abusers on their first offense should not go to jail “because their intention was not committing a crime.”
He subsequently apologized for the comments, as did his religious community, the Register and EWTN, who stressed that the priest’s physical health and mental clarity were both declining, noting that these comments did not reflect his life’s work.
Father Groeschel’s death on Oct. 3 came in the wake of a recent fall that affected the same arm that had been shattered after he was hit by the car.
His physicians believed he was too weak for surgery and sent him home.
Following St. Francis
Father Groeschel’s death occurred as his community celebrated the vigil of the feast of St. Francis, founder of the Franciscans, whose feast day is Oct. 4.
Father Apostoli noted that Father Groeschel died late in the evening of Oct. 3, the same date St. Francis died during vespers.
“I see it as a blessing that he died on the feast of St. Francis, to whom he was so dedicated,” he said. “After all, through his leadership and under his guidance, a new Franciscan family came into existence — the Community of the Friars of the Renewal.”
Details for Father Groeschel’s wake and funeral will be forthcoming.
“He poured himself out for others no matter what the cost — and sometimes the cost to him was very great,” said the Community of the Friars of the Renewal in a statement.
“To have known him was to have been helped by him and even loved by him.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.