Father Groeschel was a preacher, the co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the author of numerous books. He was probably best known as the fiery host of a long-running television show on EWTN.
Less well known outside of New York City is that he was also an old-fashioned street-priest (with advanced degrees in psychology). With his fellow friars, he was a civil rights activist and served the poor, the homeless, the addicts and the hungry on the city streets.
I got to meet him personally when he came to Pittsburgh a few years back. When I say he was a New York City kind of guy, I mean that he was bigger than whatever room he was occupying at the moment. Large and loud.
Five seconds after he met you, he was talking to you as if he knew you way back when. And your parents. He always had a joke that wasn’t just for you since everyone within earshot of him was going to hear it. And that would be a lot of ears.
The day he came to Pittsburgh, we took him to “Froggy’s” for dinner before his talk. Froggy’s was an early version of a sports bar and grill. In the old days, journalists and athletes would gather there late nights. It’s closed and gathering dust now.
It still had a crowd of a drink-or-two-before-going-home workers when Father Groeschel walked through the doors. And Froggy himself was there at his corner table, surveying all the action. He got his name for a voice that sounded just like the kid with the same name in the old “Our Gang” comedies.
I don’t think Froggy ever saw action like Father Groeschel. He barely had a moment for his traveling companions. Instead he was at every table, glad-handing like a politician. In just a few moments, it was like everyone knew him, liked him, and was delighted he was there. Froggy included.
I realized only later the subtle evangelization that was going on. He was presenting the priesthood — and a joyous faith — to a bunch of people that might not have given either much thought. He was offering friendship. The friendship you can find in Jesus. Anyway, we finally dragged him from Froggy’s to the seminary where he gave his talk. He had an announced and advertised theme. He never mentioned it. And everybody loved him.
It wasn’t easy for Father Groeschel over the years. He was in a terrible car accident. He also suffered a series of strokes.
Both the accident and the strokes may have caused him to give an unfortunate interview in 2012 where he appeared to excuse some clerical abuse by stating that the young victims themselves had probably seduced the priests.
It was an argument that came from angry love of the Church and the priesthood. But it was also dead wrong in blaming the victim and excusing the abuser as Father Groeschel later explained in apologizing.
“A priest,” he said, “who abuses a minor is always wrong and always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be.”
That was two years ago. He died on the eve of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. He was 81.
After his car accident, he told The New York Times: “They said I would never live. I lived. They said I would never think. I think. They said I would never walk. I walked. They said I would never dance, but I never danced anyway.”
That’s the Father Groeschel we should remember. A New York City kind of guy. And a good and holy priest.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.