By Tom Hoopes
How are you doing? I asked cheerily when Father Benedict Groeschel came on the phone.
"Awful," came the familiar Jersey City accent, "just awful." The voice was wispy and thin, giving the message credibility.
Father Groeschel is an honest man, and after 50 years of being a priest, he's also an old man. But our conversation was lively, lengthy and peppered with the wit and wisdom that has made him what he is.
"He's part Mother Teresa, part Fulton Sheen," New York Times columnist Ross Douthat told me. "He's the kind of figure who would have landed on the cover of Time Magazine in a different era in American history. But we're lucky to have had him in ours instead."
On Oct. 18, a special celebration is set to mark Father Groeschel's 50th anniversary as a priest. The celebration will be held at the Holy Family Church in Nutley, N.J. Celebrants are to include Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's nuncio to the United Nations, and Newark, N.J., Archbishop John J. Myers. His actual anniversary date was June 20, but it was overshadowed by the opening of the Year for Priests the day before.
Or, maybe, "overshadowed" isn't the right word. To many, he is a priest par excellence.
He is a preacher. "Tens of thousands of people have benefited from his writing and through his media communication," Archbishop Myers said. Many know him through his 30 books. Many through his more than 100 audio and video series. Many more through his weekly EWTN television program, "Sunday Night Live."
He is a teacher. He has taught at New York's St. Joseph Seminary, Fordham University, Iona College and Maryknoll Seminary. And he still teaches a yearly course at the Institute of Psychological Sciences.
He is a counselor. He founded the St. Francis Home in Brooklyn for runaways and young people. His approach impressed Cardinal Terence Cooke so much that he put Father Groeschel in charge of a spiritual-formation program for New York priests, work he has carried out for 35 years since. His Good Counsel Homes for pregnant women started in a spiritual direction session with Christopher Bell, who would become its executive director.
He is also a walking miracle.
"I've been hit by a car and had a stroke, but I'm still going," he said. "I am very grateful for every day."
Organizers of the event are glad he's "still going."
"Here's how important Father Groeschel is," said Austin Ruse of C-FAM, a pro-life U.N. lobby. "I remember him getting hit by a car and nearly dying with nearly the same sense of impact that I remember 9/11. Of course, he would scoff at this. But he is so important to the Church and to the pro-life movement, that the thought of losing him instills in me and others a kind of panic. We owe him so much."
Father Groeschel does scoff at the acclaim.
"I totally dislike the whole thing. I never wanted to have any celebration of my 50th. I don't believe in these things," he said. "Ordained priests should celebrate their anniversary by putting a rope around their neck and ashes on their heads and asking God forgiveness for their sins."
The organizers were able to get his approval, however, by using the event to raise money for Good Counsel Homes for homeless pregnant women and children, which was praised last year in the Wall Street Journal as a model for the country.
But ask him about his many accomplishments and Father Groeschel will likely change the subject to one of his new favorite topics: the trip he expects to take soon, to purgatory.
"I'm very aware of my shortcomings," said Father Groeschel, whose book on purgatory, "After This Life," will be released next month. "I'm getting ready to go to purgatory. I know what I'm going to be doing in purgatory. I will be reading The New York Times and drinking bubblegum soda and eating Twinkies."
He points to a beautiful passage about purgatory in Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi ("Saved by Hope"), but adds, "I'm looking forward to purgatory. I'm from Jersey City and it's just like purgatory. I'll be right at home."
His parents were Peter and Marjule Groeschel. Father Groeschel takes immense pride in them, and though he won't tout his own accomplishments, he touts theirs."My mother used to buy vegetables from Frank Sinatra," he said. "My dad was the chief field engineer at Turner Construction. He built Madison Square Garden and the United Nations building."
Little Peter Groeschel -- he took the religious name Benedict in the novitiate -- knew his calling from a young age.
"I knew I was going to be a priest when I was 7 years old," Father Groeschel said. "I know the day and the hour" of the call. "I didn't want to be a priest. I wanted to be a fireman. I was praying in church and I was told, 'You are going to be a priest.'"
His family was utterly supportive of his decision.
"I'm looking at a snapshot on my desk of my first Mass," Father Groeschel told me. "They were very happy."
What would they say to him 50 years later? "They would say, 'Take it easy. You're working too hard.'" Not that they followed their own advice. "We were a whole family of obsessive compulsive neurotics," he said.
For Father Groeschel, the men who most exemplify the priesthood are Venerable Solanus Casey and Cardinal Cooke.
He called Father Casey "a man who moved among the angels."
"He worked miracles," said Father Groeschel. "He could talk to wild animals. I watched him put a big swarm of bees back in the hive. Everyone was getting bit and running, and Solanus, with his bare hands, took handfuls of bees and put them back. I was watching this!"
Cardinal Cooke was "a holy, humble, dedicated, good man."
In 1984, New York's Cardinal John O'Connor appointed Father Groeschel promoter of the cause of canonization of Cardinal Cooke.
Ordained the year Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, Father Groeschel has seen the Church in its most tumultuous periods in centuries. I asked him about the changes he has seen -- and what he expects the future will bring.
"I think it's St. Francis de Sales who said you should not hate your own times, so I desired not to hate my own times," he said. But "I detested the '70s and '80s with a profound detestation," particularly "the collapse of religious life."
"Now, very interesting, and observable in older teenagers and young adults, say up to about 35 -- there is a stronger religious conviction, a greater sense of moral responsibility," he said.
"The ones who go to some of the Catholic colleges are better Catholics than the ones who run the place," he said. "There is a movement toward a more serious commitment of faith and morality than there was in the '70s and '80s."
What of his own future? That prompted more talk on purgatory.
"I didn't really lead a holy life. I don't have any sense of self-congratulation," he told me.
"On Judgment Day, they're going to ask us why we didn't do better with all the graces of the priesthood we were given. Just think -- all those graces, and we don't do it any better. When I finally get there, I'm going to say to St. Peter, 'Well, I tried.'"
After visiting the Facebook page for Father Groeschel's 50th anniversary and reading the testimonials to his witness and work, I read that encyclical passage he recommended.
"As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them, too, the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well" (No. 48).
Maybe Father Groeschel doesn't need to worry after all.
They are often known as "Father Benedict Groeschel's order," but the priest himself always insists that he wasn't a founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
Furthermore, he hopes the congregation won't last -- that is to say, he always intended the friars to become Capuchins.
Father Groeschel began his priesthood as a Capuchin -- and even served as a delegate to the general chapter of the Capuchins in 1974. Then, in 1987, he was among the earliest members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
Father Groeschel clearly loves his community. Their youth work is impressive. They are a constant presence at youth rallies, Eucharistic revivals and World Youth Day.
But he also clearly longs for his Capuchin roots.
"We started out as Capuchins and things kind of changed in the '80s and '90s, and we thought it was necessary to start a renewal," he said. "The Vatican and the general agreed with us, but some of the American provincials kept us from doing that, so we went out on our own."
Eventually, he hopes the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal become Capuchins, but he is proud of what they have accomplished.
"Surprisingly, we have grown very quickly in 20 years," he said. "We started with seven men, and we are 135 now with about 30 sisters. We're in the missions, we're in Europe, and this country. The community does very well. It's very young. The principle focus is to care for the homeless and very poor."
As of 2008, the community serves in New York City, Albuquerque, N.M., Fort Worth, Texas, London, Limerick, Ireland, and Comayagua, Honduras. The friars opened a new friary in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, last year.
Father Groeschel asks that any 50th anniversary gifts be made to Good Counsel Homes, an agency he co-founded in 1985 that helps homeless pregnant women and single mothers. To contact Good Counsel Homes, visit goodcounselhomes.org or call (201) 795-0637.
In addition, Our Sunday Visitor is honoring Father Groeschel's many contributions to the faith by doubling the net royalty on all of his OSV titles through Nov. 30. The proceeds will go to Good Counsel Homes. Visit www.osv.com and click on the Books link for more information.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.