Back in 1986, my parents took me to Disney World. It was one of the first times I used a wheelchair. Now, the whole experience was cool, and I thought the characters were “cool,” but I didn’t feel the thrill many children feel about “meeting” the characters since I knew they weren’t “real”. Take Santa Claus: I had a Chestertonian hope that somewhere there was a “real” Santa Claus apart from St. Nicholas in Heaven–I still do–but I always knew the guy at the Mall wasn’t him.
So, too, did I feel about the characters at Disney, and even if I didn’t already think that way, the family friends we were staying with had local friends whom we visited, and their adult daughter was a professional “Mickey Mouse” and talked to us about what it was like.
Plus, I’ve always had a certain phobia, which has gotten worse as I’ve aged, of clowns and of people in costumes.
So, while I thought it was cool, I purposely focused on the “B-listers.” If I had any desire to see any “A-list” characters, it was Snow White and Cinderella. Thus, the throngs of people around the various Mickey Mouses we passed didn’t bother me: I was happy enough “meeting” Chip n Dale, Pluto and Goofy.
Thus it happened that, late in the afternoon, we came to an area where dozens of kids were crowding around a “Mickey,” while Minnie stood alone nearby. I felt sorry for the person in the Minnie Mouse costume, standing there all alone while his or her colleague was being so adulated. So I told my parents I wanted to meet Minnie. They pushed me towards her in my wheelchair. She made some kind of sign and walked away. I was aghast. “She’s walking *away* from me?” I almost cried.
Now, I suppose you could say that the definition of magnanimity is when you meet someone “important,” and they treat you like it’s an honor to meet *you*, not an honor for yout o meet them.
Even before the Fr. Corapi controversy of last year, I was starting to feel a bit disillusioned with the phenomenon of “Celebrity Priests”: partly because of the Fr. Euteneuer scandal, and partly because of just a general sense of coming to realize that things were a lot more complicated than mere “orthodoxy” or “conservatism.”
For example, in 2008, we attended a “spiritual conference” by Fr. “Bing” Arellano-an experience we both needed, and it had some positive fruits. However, most of the content of the conference struck me as more political and paranoid than spiritually nourishing: it was all about conspiracy theories, organic food, etc. And Fr. Bing paraded around like a celebrity, surrounded by his entourage, only appearing briefly among the “raffle” and then speaking to only a select few people when he did.
During the Corapi Wars last year, I saw similar descriptions of how Fr. Corapi acted. I also saw lots of people talking about how he seemed to prefer surrounding himself with female “groupies”–and people said the same of Fr. Euteneuer.
I’m pretty sure it was a year later, in 2009, that Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, so recently excoriated by the MSM and the blogosphere, came to give a parish mission at St. John Neumann in Columbia, SC, and we attended a few of the sessions.
I came on the first evening, and he had a book signing. I forget if I had any of the kids with me, but my wife stayed at home. My wife’s brother in law used to live in New Jersey and new Fr. Groeschel from his activity in the Cardinal Cooke Guild. He frequently claimed to be very close friends with Fr. Benedict, so I was supposed to say “Hi” for him.
As a speaker, Fr. Groeschel has an authenticity to him. In his life, he’s lived out the Gospel as fully as any canonized saint. He’s a Ph.D. in psychology and a licensed therapist and has served on several university faculties. He has long worked in formal spiritual direction and in psychological counseling. He he has worked in counseling a lot of seminarians and priests, particularly those accused of misconduct. He has also counselled laity, and has a ministry for post-abortive women. He and his order sponsor a group of crisis pregnancy centers and shelters for women in crisis pregnancies. He says the times he’s been arrested for abortion protesting were some of the most spiritually fulfilling in his life. He is known for an attitude towards ecumenism that offends the sensibilities of many traditionalists, but while he has often gone to speak in Protestant and Jewish institutions, he does so by speaking unabashedly about Christ, the Gospel and the Catholic faith. At the conference in Columbia, for example, he talked of one time he spoke at a Baptist event and told them about why Mary is the Mother of God/Theotokos and why one cannot be a Christian and deny that.
Now, this would have been about 5 years after Fr. Groeschel was hit by a car in 2004 and nearly died (some reports say that he was legally dead for a while but revived). He was very frail, and he had some attendants who helped him walk.
While he did have those attendants, it did not come off as the “entourage” I had witnessed a year before with Fr. Bing or read about with Fr. Corapi and other “celebrity priests,” nor did Fr. Groeschel seem to have any concern for surrounding himself with “groupies,” and the whole thing did not cast off that air of “He’s too important for you.” While these “celebrity priest” events can often come off as a bit too commercial, the emphasis was placed upon the proceeds helping the crisis pregnancy centers the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal sponsor.
So Fr. Benedict spent some time hearing confessions, but there were local priests available as well, and I opted for the local priest. Then he gave a talk. After the talk, he signed autographs and the nice folks from the local Catholic book store handled sales of his books. Fr. Groeschel signed my book, and I named-dropped my wife’s brother in law. He gave me the kind of “that’s nice” response one expects in such a situation. I wasn’t able to get an up close picture, but I snapped a few pictures of him with my phone’s camera from a distance. Sadly, they’re all a bit blurry.
The next day, I came for noon Mass. I brought all four of my children with me, and I was in my motorized wheelchair, as the night before. One of the families from our homeschool group was there, and their children were all older, so my eldest sat with them. I took the other three–at the time aged 1 and a half through 5–into the cry room.
When it came time for Communion, I placed one toddler on each knee and my then-5-year-old on the arm of the chair, as I often did when I had them all out someplace.
I went to Communion carrying all three kids in my chair, and received Communion from Fr. Benedict.
After Mass, Father was greeting people outside church, and, of course, there was a long line.
Instead of getting in line to greet Father, I went over to collect Allie, and I got to talking with the couple whom she sat with. I knew the wife fairly well, but I had never met her husband before. So we stood there and talked for about 10 minutes.
The door from the vestibule opened, and Fr. Groeschel came back in, and made a B-line for me! He came specifically back into church to meet *me*.
He walked up to me and said, “I just want to tell you: you’re my hero! Being in that wheelchair, and having all those kids, and bringing them to Mass! And then when I saw the way you carried them all up to Communion in your chair! Keep up the good work! That’s what it’s all about! You’re an inspiration to me!”
When people like Malcolm Muggeridge and Susan Conroy write about their encounters with Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, they emphasize how her sanctity was not even so much in what she did as the general attitude she exuded: her humility in the truest sense of the word. That’s what I experienced with Fr. Groeschel. I don’t know if he’ll ever be formally canonized, but he certainly deserves it, if anyone does. I’ve already responded to the attacks on his perhaps poorly-worded commentary, spoken as a therapist who has counselled many involved in priest sex abuse (both victims and abusers), but I just wanted to share my thoughts on Fr. Groeschel the man.
It has become popular to categorized certain priests as “good and holy,” and therefore exempt from criticism of any sort. The Blogger at “Diary of a Wimpy Catholic” has used this occasion to criticize the application of these terms to any living priest. In general, I’d agree with him. While Fr. Frank Pavone was exonerated, I could see that the actual allegations against him might have been true (especially as they pertained to questions of financial management that were not immoral but potentially illegal). As much as I admired Fr. Corapi and found his talks inspiring, I always felt uncomfortable with certain of his teachings and certain aspects of his demeanor. Fr. Euteneuer’s case came as a shock, but when I read more about it after the fact, it all made sense.
But the Fr. Groeschel controversy is merely about an expression of one professional opinion, an opinion that I happen to agree with based upon my own study of these cases, an opinion that Bill Donohue agrees with given his study of these cases, even if no one else does. But just as Papal infallibility doesn’t mean Papal Sanctity, personal sanctity doesn’t mean personal infallibility, and one can recognize the holiness of a person without agreeing 100% with every idea that person expresses.
I’d sooner believe anything of anybody than believe any allegation of impropriety against Fr. Benedict, and those who are using this occasion to calumniate him and just make up scurrilous accusations should be ashamed of themselves.