The Protestant sage Stanley Hauerwas warns of the temptation to form a Church “of the world but not in it.” Hauerwas is wrong about a lot of things (mostly because he goes too far) – but he also feeds a steady stream of converts into the Catholic Church. I think this particular phrase gives a good starting point for thinking about the importance of Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, CFR.
I have just returned from Fr. Benedict’s funeral, which packed our enormous Cathedral here in Newark.
Fr. Benedict, as you probably know, was a popular author, where he tried to meld his education in psychology with his formation as a Franciscan. He was a popular personality on television, and a popular preacher; my first encounter with him was when he came to preach a three-hour meditation on the Cross in St. Paul, Minnesota, when I was in college.
Part of his popularity, I think, was rooted in that wild accent, distinct to the neighborhood of Jersey City where he grew up. (Was it Bergen Hill? I can’t keep track of the different “heights” and “hills” of our neighboring city.) But even more it was rooted in a distinct combination of transparent sanctity and deep humanity.
That’s the core of Fr. Benedict: the union of sanctity and humanity – of God and man. I don’t know if his writings were successful in their attempt to pursue this insight through psychology – but the reason he took psychology seriously was because he took humanity seriously.
This is the key, too, to his Franciscan reform. More important than his writings was the little community he formed, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. With seven younger priests, Fr. Benedict left the Capuchin Franciscans (who were watching a bit too much television, perhaps) and asked Cardinal O’Connor of New York to let them begin a reform.
It says something about the grit of this reform that the C in their initials, CFR, now stands for “community,” after the Capuchins refused to let them have a name that indicates their roots in the Capuchin reform of the sixteenth century. The CFRs are radically Franciscan, radically poor, radically committed to Christ and to his Church. Radical enough to be a threat.
But Fr. Benedict’s great gift to the Church is that the CFRs are also radically human. No one I have encountered makes clearer what Pope Francis means by “the joy of the Gospel.” No one is more filled with joy.
And no one more deeply loves humanity. No one, anywhere, looks you in the eye like a CFR.
At the funeral, the Servant of the Community (their elected head) urged that the deepest lesson we should take forward from Fr. Benedict is what Pope Francis, in Evangelium Gaudium, calls “the culture of encounter.” The Holy Father wrote, “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others.” That is the humanity that Fr. Groeschel taught us.
The Church is called to be in the world but not of it, but we sometimes run the risk of being of the world but not in it. The temptation is to make Catholicism a way of being opposed to the world but still worldly: what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness.” As if what Christ – no, not Christ, for such a falsified Catholicism rarely speaks of Christ – as if “Catholicism” were principally about being grumpy and hating people.
As if we can oppose loving the truth and being pastoral. There is nothing pastoral about hiding the truth. But neither can anyone claim to really love the truth – or Jesus Christ, the Truth – who is not passionate about bringing that Truth to others. To be unwilling “to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter” is to prove ourselves less than fully in love with the Truth.
Perhaps this is the challenge of Vatican II. After the Council, of course there were those who said we should give up on truth. But there are also those who have said we that instead should give up on the world. Who have made “real” Catholicism consist in being grumpy.
(The Council was no break from the past. It only warned of the danger of heading in the wrong direction. I think Fr. Benedict’s most important writing is this article, on the reform of religious life.)
Fr. Benedict’s gift to the Church is to show a true, radical religious reform, a reform rooted in truly radical poverty and radical love of Christ and his Church, that is not grumpy, but filled with joy, delighted to take the risk of a face-to-face encounter with real human beings, deeply enough in love with Christ to love, too, humanity.
Where is Christ calling us to be more humane?