My memory of Fr. Benedict Groeschel goes back to 1964, when he was the Catholic chaplain at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York where my wife and I lived for a year right after I was appointed Religion Editor of Newsweek. Friends told us we should attend his masses there if we wanted to hear good preaching. The children, orphans all, loved him, of course. But what I remember are the times when Benedict would clear the altar of its Catholic liturgical artifacts and preach the Protestant service as well whenever the Protestant chaplain was unable to do it himself. When our new house was finished, Benedict spent a day helping us move our furniture.
At that time, Benedict was an activist with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the interfaith peace and justice group headquartered across the river in Nyack. In 1964 Benedict was instrumental in providing a used car for Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, the three young civil rights workers beaten and murdered in Philadelphia, Miss.the most notorious crime committed during the Sixties’ voting rights drive across the deep south.
Some winter mornings as I rushed through Grand Central Station I would come across Benedict steering a wheelchair through the commuter-hour crowd. Seated in it was the elderly Fr. George Ford, retired pastor of Corpus Christi Church, the parish that had long served the Catholic students attending Columbia University (Thomas Merton wrote about his experiences theree) and an outpost of liturgical renewal and literate Catholicism in the turgid New York Catholicism of Cardinal Spellman.
I vividly recall that when Harvey Cox’s The Secular City became the tone-shaping religion book of the mid-sixties, Benedict was the only person of my acquaintance who found its joyful abandonment of the sacred neither true nor desirable. And sure enough, three years later, Cox himself was celebrating the return of the sacred.
Benedict wrote numerous books, mostly on spirituality. But his real gift was for preaching. I heard him preach a number of times during the Lenten season and he had that wonderful ability to both penetrate and amplify Biblical texts. I thought his pulpit skills far superior to those of Billy Graham.
In later years I liked to rib Benedict for living the posh life at Trinity Retreat Center, a former estate in Larchmont on a dramatic jut of oceanside land. In fact, his own digs were two crowded rooms carved out of a former garage where he slept and wrote. His real home, I always felt, was in one or another of the houses he maintained for at-risk youths in the Bronx. These were his kids, an older and more troubled bunch than those he had catechized in Children’s Village. I will never forget the night he interrupted one of our chatty phone conversations to take a call from one of those homes. When he called back, it was to tell me that the young man who phoned had just shot himself dead while Benedict was still trying to talk him out of it.
The Bronx was just the sort of place that Benedict thought Capuchin friars ought to be seen and heardwhich was probably the main reason he formed the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. His break with the Capuchins was painful and some of his former colleagues never really forgave him for it.
Inevitably, the young men who joined Benedict in his new venture were more conservative than he was. The reason I’ve always felt was that they lacked the rootedness in the Church that was available to Catholics of our generation and thus needed to maintain boundaries that Benedict felt free to ignore. Benedict’s own later theological conservatism owed less to any kind of ideology, I think, than to his allergic reaction to what he saw as a lack of intellectual robustness and spiritual seriousness in the seminaries where he taught. Also, like Richard Neuhaus, he was profoundly affected by Roe v. Wade and the subsequent drift of American culture and morality.
Even so, I also thought that Benedict was terribly miscast as a figure in the EWTN stable. So, I think, did he. About six years ago he called to ask if he could interview me for his EWTN radio show, then called back apologetically to say the interview was off because I’d failed to pass the network’s process for screening out the unorthodox.
The last time I saw Benedict was in 2012 when I invited him to speak at a lecture series I ran out of our parish in Westchester County. It quickly became clear that his terrible accident in Florida had gradually enfeebled his mind as well as his body. He nodded off before dinner at our house, and after his lecture, he sat helpless as a clutch of Legionaries of Christ came up to kneel before him. Benedict had a healthy ego but the vigorous priest I had known would never have tolerated such homage. By then, though, his reputation as a sage had outstripped his physical ability to wave it off. But this man of so many accomplishments did say something to me that night which I will always remember. “I think,” he confided, “my fourteen years at Children’s Village were the happiest days of my life.”
Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek, was for thirty-eight years the magazine’s religion editor.