In an age in which true fathers are scarce, and immature and confused men with no understanding of how to live virtuous adult lives dominate our public landscape, the life of Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel serves as a lamp and a light to our path.
Unlike many today Fr. Groeschel, who was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1933, grew up with a father who was a presence in his life despite the long hours he worked to support his family. “I was a very fortunate boy in that I had a father worth emulating,” Fr. Groeschel recalls.
But Edward Joseph Groeschel was more than a presence in his son’s life. Through his life, he showed his son how to be a man of faith while teaching him “what it means to be dedicated, what it means to know what your true duty is, and to do it.”
Fr. Groeschel recalls his boyhood in the first chapter of A Friar’s Tale: Remembering Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR (Our Sunday Visitor) by John Collins. The book is an unusual biography because it also includes a memoir that Fr. Groeschel started but did not complete before his death in October 2014.
To create the book, Collins edited the roughly 100 pages that Fr. Groeschel completed and then did the research and writing that was needed to complete the biography of the monk and priest.
Collins forms chapters by seamlessly interweaving Fr. Groeschel’s memoir with his own writing. The result is an engaging portrait of the renowned Franciscan spiritual director and psychologist that also serves as a guide to living a fully formed Christian life.
The chapters about Fr. Groeschel’s early life and his time as a seminarian show us how a man receives and answers the call of a vocation. The chapters about his life after ordination show us how a vocation is lived out fully.
We truly see Fr. Groeschel as his father’s son after his ordination. Although slated to study abroad, Fr. Groeschel’s first assignment as a Capuchin monk was changed at the last minute by his superior, a change Fr. Groeschel interpreted as a rebuke. He did not complain; instead, he accepted his assignment as Catholic chaplain at Children’s Village, an ecumenical home for some 300 boys in the suburbs of New York City.
Fr. Groeschel says he found a real home at Children’s Village. He found a home, it seems, because he was given the opportunity to put to use all of his abilities in serving as a spiritual father to the outcast boys at the village.
The story of his years at Children’s Village reveal how capable he was at identifying and then finding ways to fulfill the needs of others.
One of Fr. Groeschel’s primary goals at the home was to teach the boys about the liturgy. He recognized that boys tend to learn best when they are engaged in an activity, so he decided to teach them to serve at the Mass. Many, he says, learned their roles well and became devoted to the Mass, which gave him “great happiness.”
Fr. Groeschel began offering a daily Mass to further reach the Catholic boys at the home. He spent, he says, many weeks alone at Mass on weekdays. Yet he did not stop offering the Mass. Over time, one or two boys began to attend Mass regularly. Later, twenty to thirty boys would attend.
Some of the boys at the home were so deprived that they could not go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas because their parents were too poor to feed them. To ensure that they could spend time with their families, Fr. Groeschel started a food drive that eventually served more than five hundred families.
His time at the village opened up another need. Two boys were about to turn eighteen, the age at which they would leave the home. With no one outside the home to help them, they would have nowhere to live and would be completely on their own.
Fr. Groeschel came up with the idea of finding a place for the young men to live. This immediate need gave way to a long term vision. Instead of renting a place for the boys, he raised money to buy a run down Polish men’s social club and transformed it into St. Francis House in Brooklyn, New York, to give them and many others a place to live.
Discarded and outcast boys rarely grow up to become well-adjusted men who dutifully can raise boys of their own and teach them how to be men. In our age of broken families and fatherless boys, few men these days seem to transition fully from childhood to mature adulthood. Fr. Groeschel understood how to reach boys; his work as a spiritual father to the boys at Children’s Village and St. Francis House gave many the possibility of living productive lives as mature, adult men.
A Friar’s Tale covers all aspects of Fr. Groeschel’s life and the dedication to true duty he learned from his father is evident at every stage. The book recounts how he studied psychology while at the village and eventually earned a doctorate; he answered the call of Terence Cardinal Cooke to create Trinity Retreat and to become a guide to priests of the diocese of New York; helped found a new religious community, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal; and became a highly regarded retreat master and host of a show on EWTN.
At least three of his books on psychology and the spiritual life — Arise from Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development, and Stumbling Blocks, Stepping Stones: Spiritual Answers to Psychological Questions — are essential works for spiritual directors, pastoral counselors, psychologists, and counselors who understand the necessity of assisting the whole Christian person, as well as for those seeking to live fully integrated lives as Christians.
A Friar’s Tale also tells how Fr. Groeschel almost died after being struck by a car; weathered the controversy over remarks he made about the sex abuse scandal in the Church in an interview; and suffered many health problems. As his health declined in his last years, Collins writes, he had to adjust. Collins recalls how one day he said to him, “Fiat voluntus tua….Thy will be done. It’s easy to say, but it’s not easy to mean….I think I may mean it these days ….”
Humble and holy, even in his most difficult days, Fr. Groeschel has left an extraordinary legacy of Christian faithfulness and service. Like his father, he was a man who knew his duty and did it. And like his father, he is a man worth emulating.