The church on earth lost a great spiritual leader this past Friday night, October 3. On the very same day that St. Francis of Assisi died back in 1226, a priest who lived and taught the Franciscan spirituality and in fact founded a new community based on that spirituality, was called home to the Lord. Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR, was an inspiration, teacher, and mentor to so many people of all faiths throughout the world. Many, including myself, would say he was a saint.
I was privileged to have known him personally since I was 16 years old. His office at Trinity Retreat House in Larchmont New York was just minutes from where I grew up in Port Chester. I spent countless hours sitting as a student in his classes during my seminary years, conversing with him privately as a spiritual director, mentor, and advisor for my work, traveling with him and doing media interviews together. I chose him to be the priest to assist me, at my ordination, to put on my priestly vestments for the first time. He strongly encouraged my work with Priests for Life.
I am sure that so many others who knew him well as I did have similar thoughts and feelings in these days. Countless memories rush to our minds, renewing the inspiration he gave us, but this time in a different context: we have a sharper sense of duty now to hand on his teachings and example to those who did not know him. Many times when someone dies, we say to others, “It’s too bad you didn’t get to know him.” But thanks to the dozens of books and countless interviews he left behind, instead, we can say on this occasion, “Please, do get to know him!”
Father Benedict knew and loved the lowly and the rejected. He took his name, Benedict Joseph, from St. Benedict Joseph Labre. Look him up, and you will get a sense of the spirit of Fr. Benedict. St. Benedict Joseph Labre is the patron of the homeless, of beggars, of rejects, of hobos and of the mentally ill. Father Benedict became a psychologist, because he loved and wanted to serve people like that. His profound insights into human nature enabled him to help not only the outcast on the streets of our cities, but countless priests in trouble and the bishops who had to take care of them.
One of the many stories Fr. Benedict told me was about one of the times he picked up Mother Teresa for one of her visits in New York. It was late at night, he was very tired, and when he thought it was time to say good night, she posed the question, “Father Benedict, why were you called by God?” Father said something to her like, “Mother, can’t we talk about this tomorrow?” Mother Teresa responded with the answer to her own question, “Father Benedict, you were called by the humility of God.” Isn’t that a consoling thought for all of us? We think we are not worthy of God’s call, and we are perfectly right. But it is by God’s humility that he calls us anyway! He wants to do great things through instruments like us!
Father Benedict followed that call, no matter what. Not only did he bring faith to those who did not have any, but he defended the faith right within the heart of the church against cowards who either want to distort it for their own purposes or are afraid to speak it to protect their own backs. He was a reformer.
I remember when he started his new community. It was during my days in seminary, and at the end of each class, he would take out his little calendar and talk to us about the changes in the class schedule we would have to make for the following week because of his travels. One day, he looked at the calendar, told us when the next class would be, and then quietly nodded his head and said, “By that day, there will have been some big changes in my life.” None of us knew what he meant.
He was referring to the start of his new community. But he ventured out to start that new community, not out of any sense of arrogance, judgment, or misguided independence. He did it out of a sense of duty to the young men already in community with him, who felt the call to something deeper. He said it would have been a sin for him not to respond to the grace of God working in their lives!
He was unashamed of the faith. One day, when walking through a rather wealthy section of town in his Franciscan habit, as he always was, a very distinguished lady looked at him and asked, “Are you for real?” He stopped, looked at her, and replied, “Yes, ma’am. Are you?”
One of my most memorable trips with him was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I was impressed at how, at literally every holy site to which we went, the priests, both Catholic and Orthodox, knew him and would come up to him with joyful and reverent greetings. He seemed to know everybody. Even when he and I were walking at one point together in the Judean desert, he turned and pointed up the side of a mountain. Way up, we saw a small hole in the rocky side of the mountain. “There,” he said, “a hermit lives there.” He even knew him.
Father Benedict Groeschel was a saint, and let me be among the first to publicly call for the introduction of his cause of canonization. But let me hasten to say that I know full well what he would tell us at this moment: “Pray for me, and never stop praying for me or having masses offered for me for the rest of your lives. We never know, when we get into purgatory, whom we’re going to meet, scolding us for having stopped praying for them!”
Perhaps Fr. Benedict had such a strong sense of the reality and need for purgatory because he delved so deeply into the woundedness of human nature. He was committed to bringing to that woundedness the liberating and healing power of Christ. This shaped the way he prayed before practically every talk and class he gave: “Holy Spirit, come and be with us. Guide and enlighten us. Help us to grow and to change.”
And in his chapel at the Trinity Retreat House in Larchmont, where he served for so many years, one of the images on the wall says it all. It is the tomb of Lazarus, with the inscription, “Unbind him, and let him go free!”
Fr. Benedict, we praise God that now you are more free than ever. We will not cease praying for you, and we will not cease spreading your teaching and example, to set countless others free as well!