Saturday, December 29, 2007
Cassocks and Christmas charity...
The Rev. Benedict J. Groeschel with Desire Matos, 2, and her mother, Joanna Brown, at the St. Francis Center in the South Bronx. An aid effort grew from an idea he had in 1962.
A Circle of Faith Grows in Unexpected Ways
By PETER APPLEBOME
Published: December 23, 2007 New York Times Religion Section
Forty-five years ago, the Rev. Benedict J. Groeschel had a small idea.
Then the chaplain at the Children’s Village for troubled youths in Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County, he decided in December 1962 to take Christmas dinner, other food and a smattering of presents to the impoverished families of five children from the South Bronx and Harlem whom he worked with.
Those families mentioned others — nephews, cousins, friends who were also in need. He thought: Why not? So next year the circle widened a bit. Word spread in the neighborhood. A building superintendent or neighbor would mention other names. Each December the list continued to grow.
Before long, he realized he had begun something that couldn’t be stopped, a Christmas tradition with a regular cast of characters, a past as well as a present, one of those reminders that the more noble notions of Christmas can sometimes creep in amid the seasonal clutter of commerce, bustle and noise.
Pick your religion, the essence of the season is the enormous things that can flow from small ones — a birth among the poor in a humble stable, a day’s worth of oil that somehow burns for eight.
And so, when Father Groeschel and his crew of helpers went to the South Bronx for the 45th year on Saturday, this time with around 700 boxes of food and thousands of presents, the message was not just about the importance of service to the poor. It was also about the huge things that can come from tiny ones.
“As a psychologist, I have to say I have a Santa Claus complex,” Father Groeschel said on Friday, the calm day between the loading and delivering of the food and toys and their distribution. “But I never, ever anticipated that this would become anything like this.”
Actually, there’s a second reason why this Christmas is so special. It’s a miracle he has lived to see it. Father Groeschel, an author of religious books and a fixture on the Roman Catholic EWTN television network, was crossing a street in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 11, 2004, when he was hit by a car. He was near death three times in the next month, particularly on the night of the accident when he had no blood pressure, heartbeat or pulse for about 20 minutes. A few days later, he almost died from toxins that were overloading his system, then later from heart failure while on a respirator.
The accident left him without much use of his right arm and trouble walking, but he recovered to a degree almost no one expected.
“They said I would never live. I lived,” he said. “They said I would never think. I think. They said I would never walk. I walked. They said I would never dance, but I never danced anyway.”
Father Groeschel, a Franciscan friar who is the director of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s office of spiritual development, which assists priests, now presides over an ad-hoc partnership of the faithful for the Christmas operation.
In addition to hundreds of donors, it includes Teresa Catullo, a local woman who spends the entire year buying up hundreds of off-price toys and gifts, which clutter her house until packed and shipped off; Cathy Hickey, who has worked with him since 1986; Jim Hogg, who runs a homeless shelter in Bethlehem, Pa., but comes in every year to help load trucks and deliver the food and toys; and two women, Doris Reeves and Anne Duffy, who for the second year flew in from California to help out as needed.
“If we believe what we say we do, then we should put our words into action,” Mr. Hogg said. “The Bible says, ‘If you do this unto these, the least of my brethren, you have done it for me.’”
Father Groeschel, who is 74, with a long white beard that’s more Merlin than Santa, is considered liberal on social justice issues like poverty and immigration, and extremely orthodox on church issues like abortion and homosexuality.
He figures Christmas has long been in a struggle between the sacred and the temporal, between charity and marketing, tensions that are particularly out of whack now. But then that’s true in our society overall, where the notion of service to the poor that is the focus of the order he helped start seems as quaint as friars in cassocks.
“I’m the only person in Larchmont who wishes he lived in the South Bronx,” Father Groeschel said, in his home and office in what used to be a garage at the archdiocese’s Trinity Retreat House, overlooking a bay off Long Island Sound.
Still, there are consolations. On a frigid Friday, it feels astoundingly peaceful. There’s no television with the overheated cavalcade of daily astonishments in the news and the commercials for luxury cars with bows on top. Priests and fellows and helpers of various stripes pad quietly to and fro. For a moment, in this quiet corner of Westchester all is calm, all is bright.