Several weeks ago I had the privilege of spending some wonderful days in New York. Because of my friendship with Rev. Colleen Holby, chaplain at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry (Wheaton ‘55), I was introduced to Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who has been a friend of Colleen’s for many years. Fr. Groeschel has been a huge supporter of the ecumenical work done at Children’s Village, a residence for young teens since 1851.
The mission of The Children's Village has been to work in partnership with families to help society’s most vulnerable children so that they become educationally proficient, economically productive, and socially responsible members of their communities. The teen boys at Children’s Village often have this one last opportunity before they may go to prison. (I toured Children’s Village later on the same day that I had lunch for Fr. Benedict.) There is a chapel program at Children’s Village and the chapel itself was built by Protestant and Catholic donors many years ago. Today this ministry is served by Colleen, who is an ordained Protestant minister and an evangelical with a Young Life background, and a Catholic chaplain. Colleen was recently awarded an special honor as alumna of the year at Wheaton College. I had the opportunity to be there to honor her with other friends. It is an excellent model of missional-ecumenism.
I enjoyed a lovely lunch (May 20) with Colleen, Fr. Groeschel and two dear friends, who have supported me and the mission of ACT 3. We met on a Friday at the lovely Trinity Retreat House, which is owned by the diocese of New York. Fr. Groeschel lives in a small cottage nearby. He is limited in his ability to get around and must be physically cared for by a brother at all times. About seven years ago he was hit by a bus and suffered very serious injury.
Fr. Groeschel will be well known to many of my Catholic readers. Not only is he a prolific writer but a well-known television host of the program Sunday Prime on EWTN. He is a Capuchin Franciscan priest who co-founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an order committed to preaching evangelical reform. The order, in typical Franciscan fashion, also serves the homeless in the South Bronx and elsewhere.
Fr. Groeschel is the author/editor of dozens of books. You can see them all on a site dedicated specifically to his work and writing. Abby Gruen, writing in March 2007 in the New York Times referred to Fr. Groeschel as a man of faith who was “Straddling Liberalism and Conservatism.” I think this insight is correct and it underscores why I love Fr. Groeschel as I do. Ms. Gruen wrote in The Times article:
“Father Groeschel lives in a converted garage next to the retreat house, in a cell-like bedroom that looks out on the Long Island Sound. Beneath his long white beard and kind demeanor is a wise-cracking, street-smart Jersey boy who is unafraid of ruffling feathers. He preaches orthodox Catholicism in the retreats he leads around the world, on his popular show on the Catholic cable network, and in the three dozen religious books he has written — forums in which he is well known for outspoken attacks on hypocrisy, bureaucratic complacency and the news media.”
Fr. Groeschel is humorous, self-effacing and bold. He is conservative when it comes to Christian conviction and Catholic beliefs. He is liberal when it comes to putting him in a box that limits his frankness about injustice, social well-being and concern for the poor. He is also, contrary to what many viewers of his EWTN program realize, genuinely ecumenical. Just last Sunday evening I watched his program. He referred to reading Christianity Today and to his love for evangelical Protestants. It was endearing and genuine. I experienced this love and warmth and can attest to its being real and encouraging.
Fr. Groeschel has a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University and is a trained therapist. One fellow priest says of this tender man: “When people went to confession to him, he didn’t give stock answers out of a moral theology book. He was respectful of the story they were telling him.” I love that. I wish many more priests had the grace, humility and devotional life of Fr. Benedict Groeschel. (I wish the same for evangelical pastors, who need a much deeper life of real devotion!)
Fr. Benedict signed a copy of a large new book of his that he then gave to me. His inscription reads: “To John. Welcome to Trinity – Lets pray for each other, Benedict.” My distinct belief is that Fr. Benedict has prayed for me. I have prayed for him. The book he gave me is a treasured classic titled: I Am With You Always: Personal Devotion to Jesus Christ. It is a study of the history and meaning of devotion to Jesus for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians. The devotional life of Christians for two thousand years has been in motion, changing in response to the challenges faced by Christians and the church. Yet the core of authentic Christian devotion has not changed! Those who love Jesus have found practical and personal ways to express that love. Personal encounter with Jesus is what the Christian faith is finally all about. Fr. Groeschel understands this as well as any Christian teacher I’ve ever met. I am honored to have spent a lengthy time with this modern spiritual master teacher. I will always cherish my lunch at Trinity on May 20.