By Abby Gruen/New York Times
SEVEN men stood singing a medieval hymn in a moonlit chapel here on a recent Sunday night. The Rev. Benedict J. Groeschel, disabled since a near fatal bus accident three years ago, sat with his cane by his side, and led the group in prayer. “Watch over me during this night,” he read.
The men had gathered at the Trinity Retreat House, operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York as a place for clergy to study and pray. Father Groeschel, a 73-year-old friar who wears a gray habit, has been praying in this simple chapel for 33 years. When he was younger he would sometimes pray all night here.
“I wanted to live in the South Bronx with the poor,” said Father Groeschel, who teaches pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, “but I couldn’t say no when Cardinal Cooke asked me to head the Office of Spiritual Development here.”
Father Groeschel lives in a converted garage next to the retreat house, in a cell-like bedroom that looks out on the Long Island Sound. Beneath his long white beard and kind demeanor is a wise-cracking, street-smart Jersey boy who is unafraid of ruffling feathers. He preaches orthodox Catholicism in the retreats he leads around the world, on his popular show on the Catholic cable network, and in the three dozen religious books he has written — forums in which he is well known for outspoken attacks on hypocrisy, bureaucratic complacency and the news media.
In his book “From Scandal to Hope,” about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, he calls the coverage in The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle anti-Catholic and unfair. He questions why Catholic priests were singled out over clergy of other denominations who may have committed sexual improprieties and says that many of the allegations were ambiguous or unsubstantiated. “Seldom in the history of journalism have I seen such virulent attacks on any institution that is supposed to receive fair treatment in the press,” he writes.
Father Groeschel was particularly incensed by criticism leveled at Pope John Paul II, whose strict faith inspired Father Groeschel and seven colleagues to break away from the Capuchin order of friars and form a new religious order in 1987. The order, the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Renewal, now has 135 members, who dedicate their lives to serving the poor. “Love the poor and your life will be filled with sunlight and you will not be afraid in the hour of your death” is one of Father Groeschel’s favorite quotations from St. Vincent de Paul.
The Trinity Retreat House was in the news last August when the archdiocese decided to place priests there who had been accused of sexual abuse. The plan was scuttled when nearby residents complained. After the one priest who was sent to the retreat house left, Father Groeschel held a holiday open house for his neighbors in this wealthy waterfront enclave, many of whom had never met him before.
Father Groeschel first came to Westchester in 1960 to be chaplain at the Children’s Village, a home for troubled boys, in Dobbs Ferry. He immediately became involved in an ecumenical group working to support civil rights. “Probably the most beautiful and moving thing I’ve been involved in was the civil rights movement,” he said. “It was the most interesting and creative period of my life.”
Father Groeschel and a rabbi in Croton-on-Hudson had raised the money to buy the blue station wagon that Michael Schwerner was driving when he, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were kidnapped and later killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964.
Father Groeschel remembers going to a civil rights march with his friend Nate Schwerner, Michael’s father, before the young men were found and Mr. Schwerner’s saying to him, “I think they are dead.”
During his 14 years at the Children’s Village, Father Groeschel got his Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University and became a therapist. He also taught at Fordham and worked at Manhattanville College.
“He had humility even as a young priest,” said Valerie Moore O’Keeffe, 64, the Mamaroneck town supervisor, who met Father Groeschel when she was a freshman at Manhattanville. “When people went to confession to him, he didn’t give stock answers out of a moral theology book. He was respectful of the story they were telling him.”
On a recent Saturday, Father Groeschel spoke about current social and political issues, including abortion, at the annual Divine Mercy Conference of the archdiocese, attended by more than a thousand people at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains.
Since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, fighting abortion is a top priority for Father Groeschel, who has made it a point of praying outside abortion clinics when he can. He was arrested in 1995 for praying in the driveway of the Women’s Medical Pavilion, a Dobbs Ferry clinic that offered abortions, where demonstrators on both sides of the abortion issue protested weekly for decades until it was closed in 2002.
The church’s views on issues like abortion and homosexuality put Father Groeschel on the opposite side of the political spectrum from many who support his work for social justice.
“I used to be a liberal, if liberal means concern for the other guy,” Father Groeschel said. “Now I consider myself a conservative-liberal-traditional-radical-confused person.”
His old friend Mrs. O’Keeffe doesn’t see any contradiction.
“If you knew the man all along, you just see a human being developing from one place to another,” she said. “His basic simplicity, intelligence and love of people has never changed. He’s still clothing the poor and feeding the hungry.”
If you are actively discerning a vocation to the Priesthood, Diaconate, Consecrated Life, or Marriage and you are looking for information to help in your discernment, BE SURE TO CHECK the section at the bottom of the right sidebar for the "labels" on all posts. By clicking on one of these labels it will take you to a page with all posts containing that subject. You will also find many links for suggested reading near the bottom of the right sidebar. Best wishes and be assured of my daily prayers for your discernment.