"Big Four" Highlights


A Good Friar

My memories of Father Benedict, friend and mentor

By Brian Caulfield
Editor, Fathers for Good

With Father Benedict Groeschel, it was always personal. He kept the poor close to his heart, preached from experience, said what he thought, and always left you laughing and thinking. For him, St. Francis was living and breathing in his community, and Christ was present in whomever he was talking to. I was blessed to know him and his Franciscan friars well.

“Caulfield,” he called in his mock gruff voice during a homily. “Come here!”

I was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of New York at the time, serving Mass on the feast day of Padre Pio, the Capuchin who could read hearts and suffered the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. Thousands were at the Mass and I had expected a few minutes of rest during the homily, but Father Benedict called me to the pulpit for a little street theater.

Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., hosting his Sunday show on EWTN.

“Do you know what Padre Pio would do to people who tried to sneak a peek at his wounds?” he asked. Not sure if I should answer, I simply shook my head. Father Benedict held up the Mass program and smacked me lightly on the head, shouting, “Diabolo!” I literally did not know what hit me. Later, I figured out that Father Benedict was saying that Padre Pio wanted his stigmata to remain hidden so that he would be seen as a figure of Christ rather than an object of curiosity.

I look back now and know that I was touched (or hit) by a saint.

For three years I was in seminary with his Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, the young, dynamic community he and a handful of other Capuchins founded to live authentic poverty among the people of the South Bronx. They wore grey habits, walked with worn sandals, rode the subways to pray at abortion clinics, kept their doors open to welcome the poor, and were the healthiest and happiest men I’ve ever known.

One evening, I was invited to supper at the friary and ate a simple meal with the friars. A lifelong New Yorker, I was not put off by the dark figures lurking in the South Bronx streets or the gunshot sounds which they said were car engines backfiring. But one thing I didn’t expect – a power drill in the alleyway outside the friary buzzing like a car repair shop. Oh, they explained, one of the brothers used to be a mechanic and was fixing an old donated car.

We all took a class in spirituality and psychology with Father Benedict, who had a degree from Columbia University. Through his deep understanding of the human heart, mind and soul, and his irrepressible Jersey City shtick, he led us into the heart of Christ.

“You ever want to get someone’s attention?” he said. “Try walking through Columbia’s campus looking like a character from The Canterbury Tales.” Ever gracious, he told us that he met some of the most gracious people among the faculty and students at this wholly secular school.

“You wanna make God laugh?” he repeated often. “Tell him your plans!”

With awe he recalled for us the late night, when he was a Capuchin novice and saw Brother Solanus Casey in the chapel in ecstasy, a few feet off the ground, before the Blessed Sacrament. Miracles don’t make the Catholic faith, he said, but they do support it.

“I am over 60 years old with a bum heart and these old eyes have seen more than enough of this world,” he said during another class. “Guys, if you see me dying, don’t call Sister Briege McKenna. Just let me go!” Sister Briege was an Irish nun with a healing ministry for priests.

He read my spiritual autobiography, the only assignment for the class, which for me ran 12 pages. I was a seminarian in his 30s with lots of doubts who only wanted to find the will of God and do it. He gave me an “A” and wrote simply, “Give God time, and listen.” I think he suspected then what I would discover when I left the seminary a year later. I was not called to the priesthood. We remained friends and I wrote about him many times as a Catholic journalist in the years that followed.

Father Benedict passed away, peacefully, on one of the holiest days of the Franciscan calendar: October 3, the Transitus, the eve of the feast of St. Francis, when friars remember their holy founder being taken by Christ from this life to the next. How absolutely appropriate that Father Benedict died on First Friday, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that he loved, and hours before First Saturday, devoted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to whom he had a childlike devotion.

Let me end in the way that he started every class and public talk: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world. Amen.”