The Rabbi and the Friar
Father Benedict Groeschel, whose death we all mourn, lived at Trinity House in Larchmont, a hundred yards from my late mother-in-law. Coming from Cologne, Germany, where Jews had good relationships with the Catholic Church, my late mother-in-law chose to continue that tradition. Whenever she cooked for the Jewish holidays, a portion was sent down the block to Father Benedict. Whenever objects had to be disposed of, they went to Father Benedict. In this way, everything, from used clothing to used cars, was recycled to the poor through Father Benedict. We always visited him on the days before Christmas with our children. Our youngest son came out of Trinity after a pre-Christmas visit and remarked, “It must be great to have so many brothers.” Another son went with him to distribute Thanksgiving Day meals to the poor. They made quite a picture, the friar is his habit and the young Orthodox Jewish boy in his head-covering distributing non-kosher meals to the poor on Thanksgiving Day.
Father Benedict returned the favor. He would pay a call on Seder night and join us for the liturgy for a while. My late mother-in-law organized the annual New York charity concert for Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem and, for many years, Father Benedict and several of the brothers would come and join the otherwise Orthodox Jewish crowd that attended the concert.
When I joined the family, I was a rabbi at Beth Emeth Synagogue in Larchmont and we struck up a friendship very early. I think Father Benedict even arranged for me to give the annual prayer at the prominent Catholic sailing club one year. Father Benedict was proud of the fact that he had grown up as an Irish Catholic in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark. He even spoke some words of Yiddish and knew some Hebrew. When the Pope came to New York, he saved me a sign in Hebrew welcoming the Pope. Later, after I became a professor of Jewish Studies and taught at the Gregorian Pontifical Institute in Rome for a few months, Father Benedict set up a series of meetings for me with prominent Catholics in Rome. When we moved to Atlanta, he set up a visit to the sisters who maintain a hospice here in Atlanta, just behind the big sports stadium.
But it was our one-on-one discussions that bound us together, as it did so many people. A few sparks:
When Father Benedict was arrested for protesting at an abortion clinic and, together with an 80 year old priest, was strip-searched by the police, he was furious. I asked him, “What was the formal charge?” “Trespassing.” “Were you trespassing?” “We knelt down in their driveway and prayed.” “So, you were in fact trespassing.” “Yes.” “You believe in the cause and you believe in suffering. Jesus carried a crown of thorns. It seems to me you have nothing to complain about.” At this, Father Benedict just looked at me and said, “You know. You’re really right.”
After one pre-Christmas family visit, Father Benedict remarked in passing, “If that young man’s mother, and that one’s, had believed in abortion, those boys wouldn’t be here now.” That really made me think twice about my otherwise open view on the subject. His remark still haunts me.
Father Benedict, as a PhD in clinical psychology, was one of the designated persons for treating priests who had strayed from the path. He was also one of those who spoke out strongly in internal circles for zero tolerance of clergy sin. He knew that the Church had strong protocols for dealing with these sins, better than the prison prescribed by the state. But the Church had to take a very strong stance against clergy abuse. One year, there were several clergy who had been seduced by the same woman and Father Benedict asked to meet her, in a public place of course. Reporting on his meeting to me, Father Benedict said, “You know, David, she really came on to me.” I replied, “My friend, it was the habit that attracted her; not you.” As an experienced therapist, he just laughed because he knew it was true.
We shared the agonies of establishing the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and various personal problems in our family. We shared the loneliness of all who follow God as we move through a society that is indifferent, ignorant, and often hostile. He read some of my books and I read some of his. I remember his remark in The Courage to be Chaste that, “if you are looking for completely loyalty and friendship, get a dog”; human friendships, even in families, are not unwaveringly loyal.
A few weeks before he died, my wife, Ursula, and I visited him. I called ahead and identified myself as Rabbi David Blumenthal. The receptionist didn’t quite grasp who I was and kept referring to me as “Father David.” When I saw Father Benedict, I told him, “I think I have been promoted.” He just smiled.
Some time after Father Benedict had moved to the Friary, my wife and I stayed at Trinity for a weekend when there was no retreat being held. The brothers were, as they always are, very warm and very respectful. Trinity had a peace that resided in it. I remarked later to Father Benedict that that peacefulness stood in great contrast to the noisy, vibrant environment of my late mother-in-law’s home just down the street.
To me, as a Jew and a rabbi, Father Benedict was a walking testimony to what a life lived in the presence of Jesus can mean. He had deep faith, in a world that did not believe as he did. He had deep piety, in a world that wanted God’s presence but couldn’t achieve it. He lived a life of very deep activism on behalf of the poor, as a messenger of God, going into neighborhoods that even the New York Police would not enter, and caring for those whom even the City would not, or could not, care for. The word “spiritual” meant something to him. So did the words “God” and “Jesus Christ” and “servanthood.” Father Benedict walked the streets as Jesus would have. Everyone, Christian, Jew, and just plain human could look to the life of Father Benedict and find inspiration. It is fitting that Father Benedict died not only of the Feast Day of St. Francis, his patron saint, but also on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Tehi nishmato tserura bi-tsror ha-chayim / May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. Amen.
David R. Blumenthal
Rabbi, Professor of Judaic Studies, Emory University, Atlanta, GA