Friar discusses his experience, ‘accomplishments’ in wide-ranging interview.
The National Catholic Register
27 August 2012
by JOHN BURGER 08/27/2012
It’s been 25 years since Father Benedict Groeschel and seven other friars broke away from their Capuchin communities and formed what would come to be known as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Their growth as a community of priests and brothers has been impressive — both in the numbers of young men joining them and the number of friaries they have begun in the New York metropolitan area, other states and other countries.
Wearing a gray habit fashioned after the Capuchin robe with cowl, the friars have become a common sight not only on the streets of poor neighborhoods from the Bronx to Honduras to inner-city London, but also at religious conferences and pro-life events.
Father Benedict, 78, who has been in religious life since he was a teenager, has also become a high-profile author and much-in-demand speaker throughout the world.
In recent years, in spite of a devastating car accident that almost took his life and a stroke, he continues to maintain a public presence on the weekly EWTN show Sunday Night Prime. He also stays active in counseling at Trinity Retreat House in the New York suburb of Larchmont, where he has lived in a converted garage for many years.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Register news editor John Burger visited Father Benedict in his cramped, book-lined office, which adjoins a tiny, simply arranged bedroom.
How are you spending your days? Are you a bit restricted because of your stroke?
Not at all. I’m supposed to be retired, but I’m working — very much. For many years, I worked 16-17 hours a day. Now I’m down to about 12-13.
Do you take Sundays off?
A priest never gets Sunday off. I don’t remember the last time I had a day off.
Are you going out to various places?
No, I’m busy with people coming here — priests — all the time. Nearby, I go around, but I’m giving up flying. Flying has become miserable in this country anyway: The planes take off late; they cancel flights. So, if anyone wants to hear me personally, they can get it recorded. We’ll send it out to them.
You make special recordings to send out?
Yeah, I have them over here at Dunwoodie [St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York]. We have a studio right next to the seminary. If they want it, they’ve got to pay for it. But it’s not expensive for them to do that.
And you do your show every Sunday.
I do it ahead. I’ve got everything done til September. I used to go on by myself, and then I had a stroke, so it is somewhat difficult.
You said priests come to see you, so you do spiritual direction?
Yes, that’s mostly what I do: counseling, spiritual direction.
Mostly for your community or priests of the Archdiocese of New York?
Oh no, the archdiocese — or any place. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. And they come very quietly; it’s not that everybody knows about them.
And I still teach in the seminary, and I do things with the community, with the friars. And I go out and do days of recollection. You try to keep busy.
So the community is 25-years-old this year.
We have about 128 friars and about 35 sisters — which is a separate community, started 12-13 years ago. Sister Lucille Cutrone heads that. The present superior of the friars is Father Mariusz Koch, and the No. 2 man is Father Richard Roemer.
Do you feel the community has turned out to be what you anticipated?
Absolutely. First of all, I did not found a community. It came to be, and we thought it would be part of the Capuchins. The general of the Capuchins agreed, and the Congregation for Religious agreed, and the New York provincial agreed. Unfortunately, another provincial did not, and he objected to this. So we had to leave; and to this day I regret that we left the Capuchins.
However, it could be providential because in those days we’d have to be constantly checking out with them. And now, under the archbishop [of New York], we’re a diocesan community. He is our superior, and we check with him.
Cardinal Dolan is very supportive to us, all the way. And so is the archbishop of Newark [Archbishop John Myers], where we have a number of houses, and different bishops in the country. We don’t have any troubles with the bishops; in fact, we don’t have any troubles with anybody.
I’m sure they feel you are giving them support too.
Yes, because you’ve got a religious order that’s growing. They’re [most orders] deteriorating in front of everybody: no members, no numbers. The average age is in the 70s. Our average age is about 31, 32.
The way I put it: It’s a work of God. I did not want to leave the Capuchins. I cried when we left the Capuchins. It was my home for almost 40 years. It was heartbreaking, but, as it worked out, that was the way it went in the providence of God. And I have to say, we have a nice relationship with the Capuchins of this province. They’re very kind to us.
I always understood that you felt that if the situation was right you could return to the Capuchins.
Is that still the case?
That would be the case for people like myself who were Capuchins. The young fellows don’t have a knowledge of the Capuchins, so, unfortunately, the times are not calling for that now. Maybe they will very easily. Things change, and history goes on. The door is there, whether it’s open or shut. There’s not just a wall; there’s a door, and I’ll be going home to God or to purgatory very shortly.
Do you feel, then, that the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are pretty much going to stay independent?
For the moment. Wait and see how time goes. Right now, there is no push by the younger Capuchin friars or the younger Friars of the Renewal in that direction. And we’re quite different. We have very different ideas. I would say that we’re far more traditional.
Five years ago, you were in the process of applying to Rome for status as an institute of pontifical right.
We didn’t push it yet. We certainly have enough members to do that, and it wouldn’t be any great difficulty.
But it doesn’t make a lot of difference. The archbishop, Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan, does not intrude at all. It would be no noticeable difference if that piece of paper comes from Rome.
The existence of the community has certainly inspired a lot of people — in religious life and laypeople. It certainly has done a lot of good in 25 years.
Yes, I would think so.
But it would be unrealistic to think that everything has been smooth sailing.
No, of course not. It wasn’t so wonderful with the Twelve Apostles, right? So that’s the human experience.
There are always internal struggles.
Struggles and … nothing spectacular: a couple of people that left. I regretted that they left. And later on, they regretted that they left.
How do you deal with these things as a community, and how do you deal with the tendency not to stick by the original rules, which are intended to keep you on the path to holiness?
Oh no, I would say that because of the experience of the community, absolutely, positively, there’s been no moving away from the original ideal. It’s not there at all, because that’s where religious orders in the United States got themselves in a lot of trouble. They moved away from traditional values and accepted ways [that veered away from the path], and we would be absolutely traditional in religious life.
And the younger members coming in would be…
… would be more …That’s why they join us.
Now, interestingly, for the first time in 25 years, we’re getting a little competition because some established orders got their act together. They got the toothpaste back into the tube. And so, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. So fellows go other places. This year we have six novices. I think a year or two ago we had 14. Why did it go down? Because people are joining communities that got their act together. Not a lot, but a number. I don’t want to mention names, but well-known communities.
What happened to them? How did they get their act together? What does it require?
Divine grace. And men to be elected who want things to be proper. In the confusion of the ’70s and ’80s, there were always men who did not appreciate and agree with what was going on. But they were dimmed out, and there were a few communities that went along — a couple of Benedictine abbeys, a couple of newer communities. Now it’s started to grow. And a gentle wind of reform is going on.
And it’s not only in religious life — it’s in the Church. It’s fascinating watching young-adult Catholics, from high-school graduates, college graduates, up to their mid-30s — they’re much more traditional than the people in the ’60s. And it’s not just the Catholics. I try to listen and read publications, and I talk to various friends who are in the Jewish community. All of them are moving toward traditional values. There was something put in the water supply.
You’ve been involved in so many things in your life — the friars, preaching, television, books, Courage, Cardinal [Terence] Cooke’s cause.
I still work for the archdiocese.
Is there something you would say is your greatest accomplishment? The friars?
I never use the word “accomplishment.” I’m a fanatic on divine will, all my life, since I was 14 years old. I read a book called Saints for Sinners by Archbishop Alban Goodier, a Jesuit archbishop of Kolkata and archbishop of Bombay. He taught me to put everything into the will of God. So you just wait for God to put something there to do. People think it’s a crazy thing to do, but it’s called abandonment to divine Providence. And there are books with that title. And so, anything I’ve done in my life, it was there in front of me to do it. And often, it was something I didn’t want to, I was not inclined to do. Something told me I should be a Capuchin — I didn’t know any Capuchins. And I went to visit the Capuchins, and they were all Italian, in New Jersey. And they hardly spoke English. And they said, “But your mother’s Italian.” And I said, “No, she’s Irish.” They said, “You gotta go to New York — join the German Capuchins. Otherwise, you starve to death.” I didn’t like Italian food.
But I opened the next door. I didn’t ask to go to Children’s Village [a secular child-care agency in suburban New York], but I was sent there. I was there 14 years, superbly happy. I don’t know any priest who could have had a more wonderful apostolate. I was sent there by the Capuchins, who thought that I was a dangerous liberal. William Buckley had come to the friars to give this lecture, which wasn’t bad.
But Father Dominic and I argued a little with him in very respectful ways. And we both got canned. Dominic, these many years later, has been a confessor at Padua, at the Shrine of St. Anthony, in exile. And I was in exile at Children’s Village — and very happy.
Then Cardinal Cooke asked me to open this place [Trinity Retreat House]. I gave one priest retreat in my life. I wasn’t thrilled about coming here, but here I am 38 years. I’m at peace. It is not what I would have done. I would have much preferred to live with the poor, work with the poor.
I enjoy being with poor people. I have a great time with poor people. And they like me, and if they’re different minority groups, I get along very, very well. Even during those difficult civil-rights days, I never had any difficulty down in the inner city with black kids that were obstreperous — never bothered me at all. And if they got a chance to talk to me for two minutes, if they had an attitude, they changed.
So here I am in beautiful, exotic Larchmont — it’s the wrong place. But it’s been a work of God, with priests over the years, and I have no regrets. The reason Cardinal Cooke thought it would be helpful was I had a degree in counseling from Iona College [in New Rochelle, N.Y.]. So when I got here, I went to Columbia and got a doctorate [in psychology], which would permit me to teach well in the seminary for 45 years. I still am teaching in the seminary. I tell people I’m one of the few people teaching psychology who knew Sigmund Freud.
Oddly enough, about Sigmund Freud, did he like to talk to Catholic priests! He actually told me that he enjoyed talking to Catholic priests. As we say in Jersey City, “Go figure!”
Part of your work here at Trinity has been working with priests involved in abuse, no?
A little bit, yes; but you know, in those cases, they have to leave. And some of them profoundly — profoundly — penitential, horrified. People have this picture in their minds of a person planning to — a psychopath. But that’s not the case. Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.
Why would that be?
Well, it’s not so hard to see — a kid looking for a father and didn’t have his own — and they won’t be planning to get into heavy-duty sex, but almost romantic, embracing, kissing, perhaps sleeping but not having intercourse or anything like that.
It’s an understandable thing, and you know where you find it, among other clergy or important people; you look at teachers, attorneys, judges, social workers. Generally, if they get involved, it’s heterosexually, and if it’s a priest, he leaves and gets married — that’s the usual thing — and gets a dispensation. A lot of priests leave quickly, get civilly married and then apply for the dispensation, which takes about three years.
But there are the relatively rare cases where a priest is involved in a homosexual way with a minor. I think the statistic I read recently in a secular psychology review was about 2%. Would that be true of other clergy? Would it be true of doctors, lawyers, coaches?
Here’s this poor guy — [Penn State football coach Jerry] Sandusky — it went on for years. Interesting: Why didn’t anyone say anything? Apparently, a number of kids knew about it and didn’t break the ice. Well, you know, until recent years, people did not register in their minds that it was a crime. It was a moral failure, scandalous; but they didn’t think of it in terms of legal things.
If you go back 10 or 15 years ago with different sexual difficulties — except for rape or violence — it was very rarely brought as a civil crime. Nobody thought of it that way. Sometimes statutory rape would be — but only if the girl pushed her case. Parents wouldn’t touch it. People backed off, for years, on sexual cases. I’m not sure why.
I think perhaps part of the reason would be an embarrassment, that it brings the case out into the open, and the girl’s name is there, or people will figure out what’s there, or the youngster involved — you know, it’s not put in the paper, but everybody knows; they’re talking about it.
At this point, (when) any priest, any clergyman, any social worker, any teacher, any responsible person in society would become involved in a single sexual act — not necessarily intercourse — they’re done.
And I’m inclined to think, on their first offense, they should not go to jail because their intention was not committing a crime.
What has the Church learned in terms of preventing this?
We’ve been screening seminarians for decades. That’s nothing new. I’ve been doing it for 40 years, for our old community — the Capuchins — for the diocese, for our small religious community. … It takes a lot of time — four or five hours — to do a psychological screening, and I don’t have a lot of time. There were times in the past when I’d do 30 of them. I’d do it for our community and our sisters.
Also, it’s very expensive. Now, I never got a nickel, but it costs between $800 and $1,200 for a psychological battery. I used to teach psychological evaluations.
You know, we’ve reduced considerably the number of seminarians, and the Church is going to be in plenty of trouble as time goes on — one pastor for two or three parishes. So permanent deacons, laypeople, deaconesses — if you don’t want to call them that — you’re going to need a lot of people helping to keep the parish going. And that may not be a bad thing at all. Years ago, in the New York Archdiocese, you were an assistant for about 25 or 30 years before you became a pastor. We’re making men pastors with five years’ experience.
It was too long before, and it’s too short at present.
There have been a number of high-profile priests in recent years who have gone astray. As a prominent priest yourself, would you say there’s something about fame that goes to the heads of priests like this?
It could. I wouldn’t want to say about any particular person, but people could be foolish enough to take themselves too seriously. It’s true: I’m reasonably well known, and that’s because I broadcast and I write. I don’t write and broadcast to be well known. It’s the opposite.
For many years, I was happy as the chaplain of Children’s Village.
I’ve written 45 books, but the vast majority of my books are written for devout people [holding up a copy of a recent book, he continues]: Now, this annoys me, when they put my picture on the cover.
But it’s also very good to be coming close to death. I just passed, three years ago, the average age of when a man in the United States dies: 75. I’m pushing 79. … When you start getting close to the age where you start thinking about where you’d like to be buried … you do think about the Church’s, the Christian belief — and largely the belief of many other religions — that the individual, as a person, goes through death, and they have to some degree memory and will.
What’s missing when you have a dead body? That’s what’s there. The whole personality is gone. That’s on the other side. The Christian belief of the saints … they’re on the other side. I’m looking forward. I’m fascinated by what’s coming next.
We’re passing through this valley, and, for a great many people, life has been difficult. Not just for the poor. There’s a sign I put up there on the wall: Be calm and carry on.
I am immensely grateful to God that I knew when I was 6 or 7 years old that I was supposed to be a priest — and a friar or a monk when I was 13 or 14. A poem that we had by Longfellow, called The Legend — beautiful — about a monk who had seen a vision of Christ; and he had to leave the vision because the bell was ringing, and the poor people were there to be fed. And he didn’t know — Should I go or should I stay? Should I go to the ragged people at the gate? And he goes, and he feeds the poor for several hours. And he comes back and opens the door, and Christ is standing (there), and Christ said to him, “If thou had stayed, I must have fled.”
The nuns taught it to us in the eighth grade. It put it in my mind to be a monk.
And I look back — and I didn’t know much about priests. We had very nice priests in the parish. I knew nothing about priests not getting married. Father O’Donnell, a big Irishman who walked up and down every street in the parish every day — one of the great old priests, in Our Lady of Victory in beautiful Jersey City.
I was there and very happy.
John Burger is the Register’s news editor.