Father Benedict Groeschel has spent a lifetime evangelizing, preaching, teaching, writing books and reforming religious life.
Recently celebrating 50 years as a priest, the Franciscan Friar of the Renewal shows little sign of slowing down, in spite of a serious car accident several years ago and a minor stroke earlier this year. He still appears live on EWTN each Sunday evening and is getting ready to release yet another book.
In a wide-ranging interview with Register correspondent Celeste Behe Oct. 25, Father Benedict, 76, discussed growing up, discovering his vocation and the highlights of his many years in religious life.
You celebrated your first Mass at your home parish of St. Aloysius in Caldwell, N.J. Today, 50 years later, you returned to St. Aloysius to celebrate Mass once again. What were your thoughts upon entering the church?
I went to live at St. Aloysius in 1933 with my family; I’m the oldest of six children. In that church, most of my brothers and sisters were baptized. We all made our confirmation there; I was ordained and said my first Mass there; my parents and my brother were buried from that church. It’s so beautiful to have one’s family united in a parish.
You and your family had strong ties to the parish.
In those days, the parish was the center of social life; it determined who you were. In Jersey City, where I grew up, if someone asked where you were from, you told him the name of your parish. Most of the time, the churches were called by their popular names, like St. Al’s or St. Pete’s or OLPH. And if you lived in Brooklyn, you weren’t from New York, you were from Sacred Heart. I was in New York working at Children’s Village, an agency for homeless and delinquent kids. There I met a fellow from Jersey City who was a Baptist. I asked him, “Where are you from?” He said, “St. Mary’s.” I said, “You, too?” That was his identity.
When did you feel that you had a vocation to the priesthood?
I knew that I was supposed to be a priest when I was 7 years old. I was somewhat disappointed because I wanted to be a fireman. Near our house in Jersey City was the firehouse with the beautiful engines and the firemen who would give the kids candy and nuts. We used to listen for an alarm so that we could watch the firemen sliding down the poles.
Then in second grade I had a wonderful teacher, Sister Theresa. She would go out every day to bring food to a poor old woman who lived in a tenement. One day I went up the fire escape and looked in the old lady’s window. Now, the only movie I had seen was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which you may recall has a very awful witch in it. So I looked in the window, and there was the witch, about six inches away from me. I jumped off the milk box that I’d been standing on and ran up the street into the Church of Our Lady of Victory, praying because I had seen a witch. While I was praying, something told me to be a priest. It was an extremely clear thought that did not come from myself. It was like the “something” that clicks in the mind of an inventor and suddenly the idea is there. So I came out of the church knowing that I would be a priest, but I didn’t tell anybody.
You speak fondly of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell who taught you in school. Did they encourage you in your vocation?
Sister Consolata, who taught me in the third grade, gave me a holy card and wrote on the back “ora pro me.” My dad said, “Why did she write it in Latin?” I asked Sister Consolata, and she said, “Because you’re going to be a priest.” So there it was: Sister blew my cover!
These very good sisters gave me a wonderful example of Christian life and faith. Sister Theresa had taken care of the poor woman, so I also wanted to take care of poor people. And what’s the most obvious thing to do but become a priest? So I started reading about being a friar. I decided to be a Capuchin friar, and for many years, I was chaplain of Children’s Village.
The Dominican Sisters were excellent teachers. I am heartbroken, just heartbroken that they are gone. Recently, I met three of my classmates. We talked about where to have dinner, and we decided to have it at the motherhouse. We had a picnic supper because no one lives at the motherhouse anymore. It’s very sad.
What did your family have to say when they learned that you were going to be a priest?
My family always knew that I would be a priest, and they had always supported me. But I still couldn’t help thinking, “Who wants to be a priest? I want to be a fireman!” And it didn’t help that the parish priest’s house looked more than a little foreboding.
You became a Capuchin in 1951, but in 1987 you and seven other Capuchins left to start the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. What led you to make that move?
We felt that the Capuchins needed to have a reform. Right now, the Capuchins are varied in different areas; in some places, we would be quite at peace with them. Generally, they are in the area of getting life back together. You see, the whole Church is moving toward a Catholicism that is more authentic, more observant, more enthusiastic, and theologically more orthodox. I profoundly disagreed with the rather laissez-faire, casual kind of liturgy and Catholicism. There are good people on that side, and I disagree with them and they disagree with me. But I have to tell you this: They’re all getting old. I have never found one person under the age of 32 who agrees with their position. Very interesting!
So you feel that young Catholics are moving towards a more traditional practice of the faith?
Well, I was at a Catholic college recently which is sort of edging toward becoming a secular school, and the students were totally against that. When I gave my talk there, the students were behind me 100%. Groups like the Cardinal Newman Society are changing the face of higher Catholic education, which right now is largely in disaster. I wrote the introduction to their Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, and I can say that there are authentically Catholic schools out there. Things are changing, and more and more colleges are finally getting themselves together.
What do you believe has been the impetus behind this renewal?
You cannot say; you can only blame the Holy Spirit. I have to tell you that the more traditional people did not win the battle; it was a standoff, but things nonetheless started to change. You find in this country that the mainstream Protestant churches are dying off; nobody goes to them. It’s the evangelical Protestant churches that are doing well. Also, many young Jews who had no actual religious training are becoming orthodox Jews. And even among young Catholics who are not particularly observant, there is at least an interest in the faith. God himself, through the Holy Spirit, is calling to souls, and I’m absolutely delighted with the changes that are taking place. The pendulum has swung.
How are these changes affecting the seminaries?
Today there are much better young men coming out of excellent seminaries: St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., where I’ve been teaching for 45 years, St. Charles in Philadelphia, Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md., and a number of others. During the crazy ’70s and ’80s, there naturally were differences of opinion about the religious life and even about the observance of the Christian life. The seminaries were in a miserable state; they were awful. Some seminaries acquired such bad reputations that people would speak about those seminaries almost to the point of scandal. I’ve talked to a number of very fine priests who went to those seminaries, and they suffered all the way through. Interestingly enough, some of them came to the priesthood with a very strong faith because they fought against the seminary all along the way. But now, everywhere you go, seminaries are moving in the right direction.
How did the seminaries of 30 years ago fall into such a state?
People were naive. They thought that the Church was going to become much more casual, and that certain immoral sexual behaviors would come to be accepted. The whole situation is different now. I used to be Public Enemy No. 1 in a number of seminaries. I still have plenty of enemies, but at age 76, I don’t care, because I’m checking out of here anyway.
Do you feel that the prevalence of single-parent families has affected the number of vocations to the priesthood?
Interestingly enough, I know a number of very fine seminarians who are from families that have been divided by divorce. Many of the kids raised in broken families spend some time with each of their parents; they at least have “pieces” of the family around. But what about children without parents? Many of them have surrogate parents. In my own life, because I worked at a home for kids, every year I get Christmas cards signed “to the only father I ever had.” Some of these cards are from young men who had no idea who their fathers were. And so they would grow quite close to me. You know, years ago there was this ideal of the healthy, smiling Catholic family, which is not always what you can expect right now. I know many dedicated priests and friars who come from very difficult situations. Divine grace does things.
Can you tell me about people of other faiths who have been a part of your life?
Dr. Creighton was a very good friend of mine. He was a young Presbyterian minister of 25 when I was a kid of about 15. In the Presbyterian church, as in many other Protestant churches, they have communion once a month at the 11 a.m. service. In Dr. Creighton’s church, by the time he retired, communion was given every Sunday, both at the 9:30 and the 11 service. Dr. Creighton passed away recently, and I went to his funeral. The minister who spoke at his funeral told us that between the two services, the bread and wine that had been blessed was left on a table with two candles and covered with a white cloth. Aha! And much to my utter surprise, at the end of the service for Dr. Creighton, the minister led us in a prayer for his soul on his way to God. Now that is absolutely Catholic!
Another friend was Mr. Graff, the Jewish tailor in my old neighborhood. Right before I left for seminary, I went to visit him. I was standing there in my suit that didn’t quite fit, and Mr. Graff gave me this piece of advice: “Be a good boy.” I also remember the Baptist ladies in Harlem who would come around every Thursday to visit their “sweet Lord Jesus” in the Blessed Sacrament. And I say to myself, “We are all moving.”
What about people from your old parish?
I know two old women, both are Eucharistic ministers, and I knew them 40 years ago when their kids were in our school. It’s interesting; these women were prostitutes. That’s what happens to old prostitutes; they become Eucharistic ministers! But 40 years ago, they were doing what they could to earn a living. The poor souls knew that the Church didn’t approve of it, but they didn’t know why. Fortunately, God’s grace knows no limits. So now those two women are wearing large crosses around their necks.
Father, of the many books you’ve written, which do you think has touched the most readers?
My book Arise From Darkness, which is about suffering and chaos, sold about 100,000 copies. My recent book, Tears of God, goes beyond darkness to catastrophe. The death of an elderly person is not a catastrophe; it’s a loss; it’s a sorrow. The terminal illness of a child is a catastrophe. Even those in the medical profession call it a catastrophic illness. The stories in Tears of God are about several people who lived in my area. Members of one family were murdered during a break-in. Some other people were in terrible car accidents. Everybody has sorrow in his life, but only some people experience catastrophe. But it could happen to anybody.
I have a book coming out within the next few weeks called After This Life: What Catholics Believe About What Happens Next. It’s about what we call the “last things.” I write about death, heaven and purgatory, and very briefly on hell, because frankly, I don’t think that most of the people who read my books are on their way to hell. At least, I hope not!
How do you explain suffering to people who have experienced catastrophe?
Well, in Tears of God, I explain what catastrophe means in Christ’s life. The end of his life, humanly speaking, was a horrible catastrophe. He was tortured; he was betrayed; he was murdered. When Christ died on the cross, only one apostle was there, a boy, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Mary Magdalene. But also standing near the cross were the women who had followed Christ up from Galilee. We know nothing about these women, but they were the loyal witnesses. If I were a bishop, I’d open a church called “The Church of the Holy Women of Galilee.” You know, Italian painters depict the Last Judgment with Christ and the whole line of apostles, with the Blessed Virgin Mary in the middle, St. Mary Magdalene on one end and St. John on the other. I don’t believe we’ll see that on Judgment Day; I believe the Galilean women are going to be there in that lineup. Because they were doing what they were supposed to be doing; the apostles were out for lunch.
Have any of your friends or family experienced a loss of faith? How have you dealt with it?
I have a friend who is getting on in years and does not go to church at all. I told him, “I may live longer than you do. If you die, what should I do then?” He said that he would want to be cremated. I said, “I hope you won’t object to my offering several Masses for you.” He answered, “I would be so pleased.” I didn’t want to say “Do you have faith?” because that is a question that will get you into an argument. Instead, I asked, “Do you have hope?” He paused and said, “I don’t know,” and I said, “I will pray.”
You see, no one is going to say, “I
have no hope.” Now that is something to think about.
If you have family and friends who appear to have lost faith, say to them, “Do you have any hope?” Pray for them; pray for them very much. And remember that there is always hope.
Celeste Behe writes
from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.