A 12-year-old Boy Scout was on a Catholic camping retreat on the grounds of the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Starkenburg.
There was all-night Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in the chapel. He signed up for 2-3 a.m. but wound up staying until after 5.
"Picture yourself there by yourself, in the middle of the night," he recalled. "You're tired, but what a tremendous experience!"
That long, sleepless night brought about a spiritual awakening.
"God kind of planted in my head from that time forward that maybe he's calling me to be a priest," Father Eric Groner said.
The Jefferson City native recently noted his 25th anniversary as a priest of the Society of the Divine Word.
"I am so grateful for all the people I've gotten to know and all the opportunities I've been given," he said. "I am grateful to be alive and well and in God's service."
On bended knee
Father Groner is the second of five children born to Joann and the late Richard Groner. All of them attended Immaculate Conception School in Jefferson City.
"We had the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word," he said. "We had three priests and several deacons and a lot of big families. It was a very happening place."
He was active in the Boys Scouts and eventually attained the rank of Eagle Scout.
An uncle, Father John Groner, and a great-uncle, the late Monsignor Bernard Groner, both of the Jefferson City diocese, were among the 13 priests in his extended family.
Many cousins and great-aunts became religious sisters.
All of this helped "demystify" the priesthood and religious life for Groner.
"They were members of my own family," he said. "I looked up to them, but I saw them as human."
Another priestly role model was Father Richard Cronin, now deceased, who as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, gave Groner his First Holy Communion.
"He had tremendous recall and could remember people's names," Groner said. "He was a people person, and everyone respected him."
A native of Ireland, Cronin knew several Divine Word Missionaries from the society's Ireland province.
"He was impressed with them," Groner said. "He wound up giving me a recommendation."
The Society of the Divine Word is the fifth-largest men's religious community in the world, with about 7,000 members serving in 82 countries.
It is an international mission society that includes priests, religious brothers and two communities of religious women: the Holy Spirit Missionaries and the Sister Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration.
"We're more or less a new community compared to the others," Groner noted. "We're working in over 80 different countries. In theory, you could be assigned anywhere, based on need."
St. Arnold Janssen, a diocesan priest from Germany, founded the SVDs in 1875 to be the national foreign mission society of a newly united Germany, as most other countries in Europe already had one.
Its first task would be to minister to German expatriates during a time of turbulent church-state relations in their homeland. The society sent missionaries to German-speaking people in China, South America and the United States.
"And now we're international," Groner said. "We have members from almost every country we work in."
In the U.S., the SVDs were charged with ministering to poor African Americans, mostly in isolated rural locales.
"That was a big part of the work we did for many years," Groner said. "From 1920 until 1968, we had the only seminary in the United States that would accept Black candidates for the priesthood."
"Most of our parishes are African American or multicultural," he noted. "My current parish is about 80-90 percent Hispanic. That's kind of our mission field for today."
Groner's childhood neighbors included Immaculate Conception parishioners Paul and Mary Goedde.
Mary Goedde grew up on a farm near Freeburg. One of her 11 siblings, Divine Word Brother Leonard Bauer, had served at Masses offered by Groner's great-uncle.
Eric Groner later attended Divine Word Seminary College in Epworth, Iowa, where Brother Leonard was the business manager and became one of his mentors.
He continued his studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, earning a master's degree in divinity.
He served his novitiate at St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, professing first vows there Aug. 18, 1990.
First profession is the day from which Divine Word Missionaries mark their jubilee.
"For diocesan priests, the ordination date is really important, so 25 and 50 years are big celebrations," he noted. "When you have priests and brothers in the same community, the anniversaries of vow dates are celebrated by everyone together."
Along right paths
During formation, Groner served on mission on the Isles of St. Kitts and Antigua in the Caribbean.
In Puerto Varas, Chile, he worked at the central office of the Hogares de Menores Verbo Divino, which helps homeless children, and at the Colegio Germania (German College).
He earned a certificate of proficiency in Spanish from the Chilean North American Institute of Culture, part of the University of Chile in Santiago.
He professed perpetual vows Sept. 16, 1995, in the Holy Spirit Chapel at Divine Word International in Techny, Illinois.
He was ordained to the Diaconate the following day.
He served as a deacon at St. Mary of Celle Parish in Berwyn, Illinois, and as a chaplain at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.
On March 23, 1996, in Techny, Illinois, Auxiliary Bishop Curtis Guillory, of Galveston-Houston, ordained Groner and seven other men to the Holy Priesthood.
"The celebration was just unbelievable!" Groner's mother, Joann, recalled. "Each nationality had their own choir and their own Offertory Procession where they carried up items according to their tradition. It was just beautiful."
Groner offered a Mass of Thanksgiving three weeks later in Immaculate Conception Church in Jefferson City.
He consecrated the Precious Blood in a restored chalice from Germany that had been used on the ordination days of his great-uncle and uncle, in 1921 and 1971, respectively.
Groner believes the variety of his priestly assignments has helped him appreciate the church's universal nature.
"It gives you a different perspective," he said. "I've gotten to see a lot of things."
He was first sent to El Banco, a town in northeastern Colombia.
"We had three priests and three churches in town, with about 30,000 people apiece, and 45 mission stations," he recalled.
The town is now part of one of the poorest dioceses in the world.
"Our parish there, even with all the people being Catholic, didn't have enough money to support us," he noted. "We had to rely on the March distribution from the (SVD) generalate to pay the bills."
The country was engulfed in a 50-year civil war, and drug cartels were wreaking havoc.
"You had five major drug families fighting for territory, and you had socialists and communists waging war against each other," he said. "It was very dangerous to be at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Groner was just getting to know his parishioners in El Banco when he was summoned back to the United States.
The SVD Southern Province needed him to help establish a ministry to the growing Hispanic population in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana.
Six months later, a priest and lay missionary in El Banco were driving out to one of the missions when a wheel came off of their Jeep.
It flipped several times and landed in a ditch. The priest spent three months in the hospital, and a lay missionary seated in the passenger side was paralyzed.
"Both of them were about 5 feet in height," said Groner, who is significantly taller. "Had I still been there, I would have been in the front seat of that car, and I would have been killed."
Shortly thereafter, Groner needed an emergency appendectomy.
"My appendix exploded on the operating table," he said. "If I were still in my parish in Colombia, I would have had to drive four hours to Santa Marta to get that surgery. I wouldn't have made it."
Town and country
Stationed at St. Edward Church in New Iberia, Louisiana, Groner helped minister in the southern half of the Lafayette diocese.
"That was new mission territory in '96 and '97," he noted. "You had a lot of seasonal workers coming to work in the catfish, shrimp, sugarcane and rice industries."
Having spoken and heard almost no English in his previous assignment, he had to relearn some of his native tongue.
"Once you've learned a new language and adapted to a new culture, that's what seems normal to you," he said.
He then ministered for nine years at Sacred Heart Parish in Greenville, Mississippi, followed by five years at St. Mary Parish in Cleveland, Texas, and a year at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
He then served for six years as pastor of St. Rita Parish in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was entrusted with shoring-up the parish school.
He celebrated the silver jubilee of his religious profession in 2015 back in Techny, along with his Divine Word classmates and Holy Spirit Sisters who had professed in the same year.
Last August, he became pastor of St. Peter and St. Raphael Parishes in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and St. Justin Parish in neighboring Star City.
It presented a dramatic change of scenery.
"The Dallas-Fort Worth area has 8.2 million people," Groner noted. "The whole state of Arkansas has about 3 million."
He arrived during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Most of our parishioners caught COVID last January and thought it was the flu," he said.
The parishes are gradually opening back up, and Groner is looking forward to resuming a full slate of ministries, including a soup kitchen near St. Peter Church.
Groner's mission field also includes the high seas.
As an appointed chaplain of the Apostleship of the Sea, he has ministered to Catholic tourists on 21 ocean cruises all over the world.
The Apostleship of the Sea is an international organization under the Vatican Dicastery for integral human development in Rome. It ministers to seafarers at ports, as well as cruise ship ministry.
The U.S. affiliate is headquartered in Port Arthur, Texas.
"My provincial reminded me that this is working time, not vacation time," he noted. Nonetheless, "it's a pretty fun ministry."
Groner is also chaplain for religious activities of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting.
"That's something I've been interested in my whole life," he said.
In the hearts of all
Groner has found life on mission to be unpredictable and exciting.
"You're always a heart attack away from a new assignment," he quipped. "And hopefully it isn't your heart!"
He noted from the 1920s to the 1950s, the United States was the largest source of Catholic missionaries in the world.
"We were sending out more priests, sisters and brothers than any other country," he said.
Now, many U.S. dioceses are relying on missionary priests from other countries to help meet people's pastoral needs.
Confident the Lord will continue to provide in his own time and way, Groner is content to do his best and not sweat the rest.
"You have to enjoy the time you get," he said. "Don't take life too seriously."
He is grateful for people's prayers.
Groner's mailing address is: St. Peter Catholic Church, 207 E. 16th Ave., Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 71601.
This article was republished with permission from the Catholic Missourian.