The following was taken from the National Catholic Register:
Father Benedict Groeschel has spent a lifetime evangelizing, preaching, teaching, writing books and reforming religious life.
Recently celebrating 50 years as a priest, the Franciscan Friar of the Renewal shows little sign of slowing down, in spite of a serious car accident several years ago and a minor stroke earlier this year. He still appears live on EWTN each Sunday evening and is getting ready to release yet another book.
In a wide-ranging interview with Register correspondent Celeste Behe Oct. 25, Father Benedict, 76, discussed growing up, discovering his vocation and the highlights of his many years in religious life.
You celebrated your first Mass at your home parish of St. Aloysius in Caldwell, N.J. Today, 50 years later, you returned to St. Aloysius to celebrate Mass once again. What were your thoughts upon entering the church?
I went to live at St. Aloysius in 1933 with my family; I’m the oldest of six children. In that church, most of my brothers and sisters were baptized. We all made our confirmation there; I was ordained and said my first Mass there; my parents and my brother were buried from that church. It’s so beautiful to have one’s family united in a parish.
You and your family had strong ties to the parish.
In those days, the parish was the center of social life; it determined who you were. In Jersey City, where I grew up, if someone asked where you were from, you told him the name of your parish. Most of the time, the churches were called by their popular names, like St. Al’s or St. Pete’s or OLPH. And if you lived in Brooklyn, you weren’t from New York, you were from Sacred Heart. I was in New York working at Children’s Village, an agency for homeless and delinquent kids. There I met a fellow from Jersey City who was a Baptist. I asked him, “Where are you from?” He said, “St. Mary’s.” I said, “You, too?” That was his identity.
When did you feel that you had a vocation to the priesthood?
I knew that I was supposed to be a priest when I was 7 years old. I was somewhat disappointed because I wanted to be a fireman. Near our house in Jersey City was the firehouse with the beautiful engines and the firemen who would give the kids candy and nuts. We used to listen for an alarm so that we could watch the firemen sliding down the poles.
Then in second grade I had a wonderful teacher, Sister Theresa. She would go out every day to bring food to a poor old woman who lived in a tenement. One day I went up the fire escape and looked in the old lady’s window. Now, the only movie I had seen was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which you may recall has a very awful witch in it. So I looked in the window, and there was the witch, about six inches away from me. I jumped off the milk box that I’d been standing on and ran up the street into the Church of Our Lady of Victory, praying because I had seen a witch. While I was praying, something told me to be a priest. It was an extremely clear thought that did not come from myself. It was like the “something” that clicks in the mind of an inventor and suddenly the idea is there. So I came out of the church knowing that I would be a priest, but I didn’t tell anybody.
You speak fondly of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell who taught you in school. Did they encourage you in your vocation?
Sister Consolata, who taught me in the third grade, gave me a holy card and wrote on the back “ora pro me.” My dad said, “Why did she write it in Latin?” I asked Sister Consolata, and she said, “Because you’re going to be a priest.” So there it was: Sister blew my cover!
These very good sisters gave me a wonderful example of Christian life and faith. Sister Theresa had taken care of the poor woman, so I also wanted to take care of poor people. And what’s the most obvious thing to do but become a priest? So I started reading about being a friar. I decided to be a Capuchin friar, and for many years, I was chaplain of Children’s Village.
The Dominican Sisters were excellent teachers. I am heartbroken, just heartbroken that they are gone. Recently, I met three of my classmates. We talked about where to have dinner, and we decided to have it at the motherhouse. We had a picnic supper because no one lives at the motherhouse anymore. It’s very sad.
What did your family have to say when they learned that you were going to be a priest?
My family always knew that I would be a priest, and they had always supported me. But I still couldn’t help thinking, “Who wants to be a priest? I want to be a fireman!” And it didn’t help that the parish priest’s house looked more than a little foreboding.
You became a Capuchin in 1951, but in 1987 you and seven other Capuchins left to start the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. What led you to make that move?
We felt that the Capuchins needed to have a reform. Right now, the Capuchins are varied in different areas; in some places, we would be quite at peace with them. Generally, they are in the area of getting life back together. You see, the whole Church is moving toward a Catholicism that is more authentic, more observant, more enthusiastic, and theologically more orthodox. I profoundly disagreed with the rather laissez-faire, casual kind of liturgy and Catholicism. There are good people on that side, and I disagree with them and they disagree with me. But I have to tell you this: They’re all getting old. I have never found one person under the age of 32 who agrees with their position. Very interesting!
For the rest of the interview please click here.