Reunited again: Fr Benedict with his friend Blessed Teresa of Calcutta
Last Friday night, the feast of the Transitus of St Francis, Fr Benedict Groeschel, founder of the Congregation of the Franciscans of Renewal, writer, speaker and EWTN regular, died at the age of 81. Fr Benedict had been ill for some time, and had recently had a serious fall. His death leaves me with mixed emotions: great sadness at the loss of one whose presence and wisdom were a joy, and yet happiness that this holy man has gone to his eternal reward and, I personally believe, has entered the glory of the Saints.
As you know Fr Benedict was an extraordinary man. He inspired devotion and awe in those who admired him. I was once asked by a professor in seminary who I would regard as an influence in preaching, I spoke of Fr Benedict to which the professor responded: "He is a most dangerous man!" Indeed he was: he preached the Gospel with such clarity, fidelity and courage he was a consummate evangeliser, and many saw him as a threat. He was. I think he is up there with the Venerable Fulton Sheen, forming minds, hearts and souls in the ways of the Gospel. It is for that reason that I will miss him, but thank the Lord we have so many books, videos and CDs to console us.
Fr Benedict was a great preacher, a comedian, a pragmatic pastoral minister, a devout religious. Those who knew him will also know that he was a man of great humility: he did not take himself seriously. His New Jersey/New York background lent him a personality that complimented his faith, grounding it in reality. He met difficulties with a shrug and reiterated that God was in charge, all would be well. He was not afraid of death, indeed he was ready for it - he used to say that he would often practice a pitiful voice to wail for mercy when he came before the throne of God. I have no doubt that he did not need to do so. I am sure the Lord smiled when this servant came before him, and I believe he heard the words: "Well done, good and faithful servant; come and enter into your Master's happiness".
Fr Benedict had a deep love for those in his care: his spiritual children be they in his order or otherwise, those he ministered to as priest and preacher, and for the poor. He spent a large part of his life working with priests and seminarians, working in the seminary in Dunwoodie and in New York Archdiocese's Trinity Retreat at Larchmont on Long Island Sound. It was in that retreat house that he carried his most sensitive work as priest and psychologist: ministering to broken priests.
Fr Benedict fostered a paternal love for these priests, men worn out by the ministry, men fallen on hard times, addicted to alcohol or other vices, and then the most despised of all: priests who had abused. In a Church where the ministry of priests is taken for granted and many are forgotten, left to their work, not cared for, Fr Benedict was one who reached out to them to rebuild and restore what had crumbled through years of neglect, fatigue and loneliness. He said that often when burnt-out priests arrived to speak to him, or those who were considering leaving the ministry, the first question he asked them was: "When did you stop praying?" Inevitably all of them had abandoned prayer, and Fr Benedict's first piece of advice was to begin praying again. No priest can live without prayer, no priest can work without prayer, no priest can be a priest without prayer.
I am convinced that Fr Benedict is a Saint, I believe he is now in heaven: that is my personal opinion and I do not dare to speak for the Church. I do hope that five years from now, when the canonical waiting period is up, his Cause for beatification and canonisation will be opened. I have already started to pray to him. I had met him a number of times, and among those meetings I remember with great fondness spending a day with him at Trinity Retreat - it was a wonderful day. He gave up his time to spend that day with an Irish seminarian, to talk, advise and guide. That he would consider that meeting important in what was a busy life struck me and taught me that a priest must always have time for those who come to him regardless of how important or unimportant we might think such meetings. I can now thank him for this and the many other lessons he taught me in meetings, in talks, in books, on TV and on CDs.
As we sympathise with the CFRs on the death of their founder and father, and commend him to God, let us also thank the Lord for his life, his ministry and the many hours of preaching in which he opened the Gospel for us, reminding us of the joy and laughter that is to be found in our relationship with Christ.
Pray for us, Fr Benedict; watch over us. Thank you for your example and your work. May the Lord grant us the joy of one day (soon) of seeing you raised to the altars. Santo Subito!