Father Benedict Groeschel, 81, dies

Combine the wisecracking style of a street-smart New Yorker with deeply rooted love for the things of God, and you got Father Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., one of the best known Catholic priests in the United States. Author, TV personality, educator, sought-after spiritual guide, Father Groeschel died Oct. 3, the vigil of the feast of St. Francis, after complications of an ongoing illness. He was 81.

“The Catholic Church and the Franciscan family lost a giant today,” the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal said in a statement. “This moment is one that finds the community … with mixed emotions, as we are deeply saddened by the loss of Father Benedict but also relieved that God has set him free from the physical and mental suffering he has experienced over the past decade.”

Father Groeschel’s humor was visible when, having written a book on purgatory called “After This Life,” he said in an Our Sunday Visitor interview, “I know what I’m going to be doing in purgatory. I will be reading The New York Times, drinking bubblegum soda, and eating Twinkies.”

As for the things of God, he told another interviewer, “I wish there were some way that I could convince everybody in the world that they should turn to Jesus Christ. They need him, they look for him, and they have a profound attraction to him when they have any opportunity to know him as he is.”

In a long and unusually eventful life, Father Groeschel did much more than most people to create that opportunity.

Find his calling

He was born Peter Groeschel in Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 23, 1933, the oldest of six children of Marjule and Edward Groeschel. After Catholic elementary and secondary school, he entered the Capuchin Franciscan order in 1951. Upon beginning his novitiate, he received the name Benedict Joseph. He was ordained a priest on June 20, 1959.

Father Groeschel was awarded a master’s degree in counseling from Iona College in 1964 and a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University in 1971. In 1960 he became chaplain of Children’s Village, a facility for emotionally disturbed children in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where he remained for 14 years.

In 1965 he joined the faculty of the New York archdiocesan seminary, St. Joseph’s, in Yonkers, New York, as professor of pastoral psychology, beginning a professional relationship that would continue virtually all the rest of his life. At various times he also taught at Fordham University, Iona College, Maryknoll Seminary, and, starting in 2000, at the Institute of Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia, where he gave an annual course on integrating religious values into counseling and therapy for people under stress.

Father Groeschel in 1967 founded St. Francis House in Brooklyn, a facility for young men from troubled backgrounds. His work there attracted the attention of Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York, who in 1974 asked him to begin a spiritual development program for priests and others at Trinity Retreat in Larchmont, New York.

Ten years later, Cardinal John O’Connor, Cardinal Cooke’s successor, named him promoter of the cause for canonization of the late cardinal, who died in 1983.

He also was co-founder with Christopher Bell of the Good Counsel Homes for homeless pregnant women and children. There are now four such institutions.

Passionate priest

A popular retreat master and speaker, he recorded over 100 audio and visual series, and was host of a weekly television show, “Sunday Night Live with Father Benedict Groeschel,” broadcast on the Eternal Word Television Network. It made the gaunt priest with his gray religious habit, wispy beard, and rasping voice a familiar presence in thousands of homes.

Father Benedict Groeschel is shown in this 2005 photo. OSV file

Father Groeschel was author of more than 30 books on religious and spiritual subjects — and sometimes also on polemical topics. In “From Scandal to Hope,” about the clergy sex abuse scandal, he accused The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle of anti-Catholicism in covering this painful episode. “Seldom in the history of journalism have I seen such virulent attacks on any institution than is supposed to receive fair treatment in the press,” he wrote.

For years active in the civil rights movement and later an anti-abortion activist as well, the priest in 1995 was arrested for praying in the driveway of a Dobbs Ferry clinic where abortions were performed. The clinic closed in 2002.

In 1974, he was named to the council of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Mary and served as a delegate to the order’s general chapter. In 1987, however, he and seven others left the Capuchins and began the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, dedicated, in his words, to “care for the homeless and very poor.”

Present in New York; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Fort Worth, Texas; London; Ireland; Honduras and Nicaragua, the group now has more than 135 members, and a separate women’s community numbers 30. Father Groeschel expressed hope that the Friars of the Renewal and the Capuchins would eventually merge.

Car crash

In January 2004 Father Groeschel experienced a life-changing accident when he was struck by a car outside the Orlando International Airport leaving him with head injuries and numerous broken bones. For over 20 minutes he had no measurable heartbeat, blood pressure, or pulse, and days later in the hospital intensive care unit he had a near-fatal heart attack. “I nearly died three times,” he said.

By October nevertheless he was sufficiently recovered to return to television, and soon he resumed his busy schedule, finding time also to coauthor a book called “There Are No Accidents: In All Things Trust in God.” “One of the things I learned from my illness,” he told the Ignatius Insight website, “is that over and over again we have to tell God that we really trust him. Trusting in God is not one action; it’s an ongoing way of life.”

In 2010, Father Groeschel suffered another stroke, and struggled with other various physical and emotional setbacks in the twilight of his life. Perhaps most publicized were his comments on sexual abuse published in a 2012 interview, which led him to retire from public life.

But “without denying the words published were wrong, it must be noted that these words do not typify his extraordinary life,” wrote Greg Erlandson, president of Our Sunday Visitor’s Publishing Division in a column at the time. “Born a Jersey kid, Father Groeschel never lost the Jersey attitude. He also never lost a generous heart and a capacity for hard work.”

“Before the final curtain falls, it would be unjust not to recognize all the great good he has done,” Erlandson added. “This good should not be forgotten.”

In its statement, the CFR said, “Our CFR Family and everyone who knew him received an enormous amount from Fr. Benedict — probably more than we were ever able to give back. It was not simply his wealth of wisdom and knowledge from which many benefited. It was his profound faith and equally profound love, two gifts that he never failed to share generously.”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. 

For those interested in books written by Fr. Groeschel please visit this page.