There is more to the collar when one takes a long look at the life and legacy of Rev. Daniel G. Groody, C.S.C. He is an inspiring, ever more interesting, yet unassuming figure, sharing stories about his life and work, all while sitting at a conference table in his office — one he made with his own hands, from a felled tree from campus.
There are other mementos in this space — a chalice made from the wood of a refugee boat, a photo with Pope Francis, a photo of Father Groody during his days of competitive downhill skiing. There are many layers, indeed.
The initial occasion to speak with Father Groody is the release of his latest book, “A Theology of Migration: The Bodies of Refugees and the Body of Christ.” The foreword by Pope Francis reads something akin to the letters from Paul to one of the seven churches. It begins:
“I received the manuscript of your book. ... I read it with great care, and I feel moved by the beauty, the tenderness, the pain, and the commitment that comes forth from each of its pages.” It continues, “Thank you for everything you do and propose; may your book mobilize and help us become more sensitive to this reality. God bless you and bless all migrants and those who become companions on their journey; and please do not forget to pray for me.”
This book is a look at today’s migrant and refugee reality in the reflection of migrations of the past. It is also a reflection of a life that looks into the heart.
Writing about his passion for the migrant life is just one layer of who Father Groody is; a few moments of conversation moves us to a more complete picture of the man himself.
Father Groody is the vice president and associate provost for undergraduate education. He is also an associate professor of theology and global affairs and a Fellow and Trustee of the University. He teaches The Heart’s Desire and Social Change, a course he describes as helping students get connected to the deepest desires of their heart as they also connect to the needs and challenges of the world.
The heart analogy is apropos for Father Groody, who transitioned from professor to vice president and associate provost — an act he fondly described as “going from being a cardiologist to administration in a hospital.”
In his present role, he continues to practice matters of the heart while overseeing undergraduate education, making the undergraduate experience even better for students. One way this is happening is through the Transformational Leaders Program, also under Father Groody.
“We are trying to do a lot of things in the Transformational Leaders Program,” Father Groody said. “We’re trying to help our students who are coming from under-resourced backgrounds, who are differently prepared, to have an optimal experience when they come here.”
Father Groody is no stranger to the student experience at Notre Dame. He was born in Philadelphia where his father worked for the telephone company. That career led his family to move to Connecticut, New Jersey and Ohio. During those early years he saw international business or international law as possible careers. An avid downhill skier with an eye to competing in the Olympics someday, Father Groody seriously considered attending Dartmouth because of its ski team. But a few wise words from his father’s cousin shifted his thinking.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you take a look at Notre Dame while you’re looking at schools.’ I came out for a football game and I had an experience of a weekend here — from the game to the people I met to staying in the dorm with a student to going to Mass the next day,” Father Groody recalled. “That whole package just said to me this is the place that can really help me develop as a person. It was then I realized what I wanted more than a gold medal. I wanted to study under the Golden Dome.”
A “foundational experience” would later put Father Groody on the path to priesthood. As an exchange student in Uruguay in 1981, a language barrier gave him quiet time for introspection into the direction of his life.
“That was a time of military dictatorships,” Father Groody said of the oppression and human rights abuses that were taking place in Uruguay. “That awakened in me a desire to want to respond to injustices in the world.”
Father Groody entered the seminary with the goal of sorting out what God was calling him to do. He began working in foreign missions, particularly in Latin America, going back to Chile, Peru and Mexico where he did a substantial amount of research. “God interrupted my plans and put on my heart a desire to search more intentionally about my vocation.”
It comes as no surprise that Pope Francis would be asked to write the foreword for Father Groody’s book. In 2013, in his first trip outside of Rome as pontiff, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Lampedusa, Italy. He was moved by the deaths of refugees fleeing North Africa while trying to cross the Mediterranean.
“Pope Francis used a chalice at Mass made by a local craftsman from the driftwood of a refugee boat,” Father Groody explained. He too has a chalice made from that same wood.
“Thousands of people die each year in the Mediterranean and no one knows about it. And the only thing left is the remnant of pieces of the ships,” Father Groody said as he describes the small pieces of colored wood encircling the base of the chalice, which was completed with a supportive base made by Father Herb Yost. The base was made from mesquite from the deserts of the American southwest, “where the economic migrants cross the southern border. You literally have a migrant and refugee crisis as part of the story of this chalice,” Father Groody said.
It was this story of the making of the chalice and his own writing and research on refugees that awakened in him a desire to pursue woodworking, something he hadn’t done since high school shop class.
“I woke up one day and said, ‘I’ve got to get back into wood.’” After a “40-year break,” he found himself back in the craft, building a woodshop during COVID, using trees recovered from campus for many of his projects. “I started working with the gardeners on campus. Whenever they cut a tree down, they call me up and say, ‘Father, I have a tree.’”
A man who describes himself as working in the “death and resurrection business,” Father Groody established the Sacred Heart Woodworking shop in the annex between the lakes on campus.
“I love the way wood tells a story. I take a dead tree and bring it back to life like this,” he said, motioning to his conference table.
Father Groody works in his shop whenever he has a free moment, even if that moment is at 5 a.m. and just for a half hour. He has a number of projects in progress, including making cabinets for his apartment on campus. His faith is etched into his woodworking, as he contemplates a cabinet that will depict not just the physical architecture found on campus, but also the “spiritual architecture.” The etchings will include the Dome, the Hesburgh Library, Corby Hall, the Log Chapel, the Basilica and the Grotto.
“These particular buildings of campus reveal a more universal spiritual architecture at the heart of Christian faith. They remind us of who we are before God and how every person has a role to play in God’s kingdom. As we live out this mystery together in a common mission, then our labor itself becomes a prayer. And we begin to realize that all we do is a participation in the work of resurrection for the renewal and transformation of the world.”