Remembering Father Joseph Koterski: Jesuit, pro-life advocate and humble genius
“I have never met anyone so generous—in his thought, in his person, in giving of himself to anyone and everyone,” Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., the mother superior of the Sisters of Life, reflected after learning of the death of Joseph Koterski, S.J.
Father Koterski was a Jesuit, but after arriving at Fordham University in the early ’90s, he slowly became part of the Sisters of Life community, too. “His whole position toward life was ‘yes’,” Mother Agnes said. “He was always moving from a place of gratitude.”
“He was a man for all men. He made himself available to countless people. He loved God. He loved the church and loved beauty. He had a pastoral power and breadth,” she added.
“I have never met anyone so generous—in his thought, in his person, in giving of himself to anyone and everyone.”
Father Koterski’s birth is a testament to the great faith of his parents. Having difficulty conceiving, they went to the beautiful Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal to pray that God might bless them with a child. An answer to their prayers, he was named Joseph. Born in 1953, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1984, was ordained a priest in 1992 and took final vows as a Jesuit in 2001. On Aug. 9, Father Joseph was taken into eternity in the Year of St. Joseph.
Father Koterski was a member of the Philosophy Department of Fordham University since 1992 and was the editor-in-chief of the International Philosophical Quarterly. He served two terms as president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He was also integral to the existence of University Faculty for Life, serving as longtime secretary on its board of directors. He was a brilliant intellectual, but he was also at heart a humble priest who was boundlessly generous. Father Koterski also served as Master of Queens Court Residential College for Freshmen at Fordham University, living in a college dorm room year after year with freshmen seeking to live a Christian life. That always impressed me: Like many things he did, he didn’t have to do it. He joked that it kept him young.
On a snowy winter night earlier this year, I met up with Father Koterski in his office for a secret mission we were working on together. I asked him about his schedule because I wanted to marvel—and he described a 48-hour window that included teaching seminarians in Connecticut and Philadelphia and the Sisters of Life in the Bronx and Suffern, N.Y. That was in addition to his day job and praying with his brother Jesuits and all of the spiritual direction and writing and editing and advising and other counsel he would provide.
On Aug. 9, Father Joseph Koterski was taken into eternity in the Year of St. Joseph.
I spent the better part of the Feast of St. Lawrence talking with Sisters of Life who are grieving him as a member of their community. For some of the younger sisters, this is their first community loss. They are too young to have known the Sisters of Life’s founder, Cardinal John O’Connor, or Msgr. William Smith, a moral theologian who was similarly close to the community until his death in 2009.
Father Koterski regularly celebrated Mass at a number of their convents. He was a spiritual director for many sisters, for a decade or more in some cases. He taught postulants and novices philosophy, spiritual theology, logic and metaphysics. He would spend Thanksgiving with them. This past June, he made time to direct retreats for sisters at the last minute when another priest had to drop out. When he directed retreats for the Sisters of Life, as he frequently did, he would do spiritual direction, say Mass and hear confessions—and then he would go into the kitchen and help with the dishes. He wasn’t going to rest until the retreat team was done.
One of his favorite things, multiple sisters told me, was to read through plays with the sisters. One told me she came to appreciate Shakespeare because of him; he would take the time to explain and take questions. He would do the same with pregnant women and young mothers who live with the sisters in their Holy Respite convent in midtown Manhattan.
When he directed retreats for the Sisters of Life, he would do spiritual direction, say Mass and hear confessions—and then he would go into the kitchen and help with the dishes.
“He was teaching us how to build a culture of life when he did this,” another sister points out. He knew pro-life activity was important, but it went beyond praying outside clinics and sidewalk counseling (which he was deeply involved in since his graduate student days in St. Louis), bigger than the prayer and work the sisters do to help women and families in living out their fourth vow “to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.” He “relished culture,” she remembered. Like St. John Paul II, he “understood that saving our good culture is going to save lives.”
Though many know him through the academy, I got to know Father Koterski because of the scourge of abortion and other threats to life. In 2011, Archbishop Timothy Dolan appointed us both to his new Pro-Life Commission in New York. To my humble delight, Father Koterski and I would become collaborators and friends. He made it clear to me that his desire to defend, protect and nourish human life was not just right and just, but personal. He was born with a cleft palate; he knew others would see that imperfection as a rationale for abortion. His parents cherished him, and he was always aware and boundlessly grateful, making him a St. Joseph figure for our cruel times.
Over the years, with love, he would help pregnant women trying to see a way to life and women in need of post-abortion healing. The women on post-abortion retreats would casually call him “Father Joe,” so clearly because his gentleness put them at ease.
One Sister of Life who had him as a spiritual director for at least a decade described Father Koterski as “the most humble man I’ve ever met and also the most brilliant. He was a genius and yet never acted like it.” He also, she said, “was never in a hurry.” They knew he was busy, but he would never rush them, always treating him like he had “all the time in the world for them.”
One Sister of Life described Father Koterski as “the most humble man I’ve ever met and also the most brilliant.”
Another sister told me “each sister had a personal relationship with him.” (There are about 120 sisters currently, with 10 new postulants joining in early September.) Another sister describes how attuned he was to the Holy Spirit, giving her counsel in a way that he could not have known on his own she needed. He was a “good son of St. Ignatius” in his devotion and deft loyalty to the Spiritual Exercises and rules for discernment of the founder of the Jesuits.
A number of the Sisters of Life saw him for the final time before the perpetual profession of six sisters on the Feast of the Transfiguration last Friday morning. He was hearing confessions at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before Mass. After confession, one sister said she blurted out, “You are beloved by each one of us!” And she is so grateful she did; it was a great grace for her in retrospect. A younger Sister of Life who also went to confession that day described him as always having “an open door.”
I didn’t get to talk to Father Koterski at that Mass on Friday, but I smiled as I saw him walking in with his backpack to hear confessions. “It is good for us to be here!,” my heart silently exclaimed. There was nowhere else either of us would want to be. We have both been blessed to be welcomed as extended family by the sisters, and I was drawn closer to Father Koterski because of that. He was all about Christ and served the roles of tender father, brother and friend, one with great wisdom and prudence but also gentleness and humor.
When someone dies, a Dominican priest I love always says, “God be good to him!” Goodness, Father Koterski was good to God. Can there be any doubt about his home?
Remembrances will cite his brilliance, and as many sisters attest, he knew how to make truth sweet and clear. But it is his love for God that overflowed with love for everyone and anyone and all beauty. He would often refer to “the heart of Christ beating in the womb of Mary.”
Father Koterski loved well. He loved each and every Sister of Life individually, as a little window into how God loves. I don’t know how to explain it, but the Mass last Friday was heaven opening up to shower love on the church after such a strange and difficult pandemic time and ongoing scandals in the church. It was Transfiguration, and we saw something more of God. I wish I had called Father Koterski after. I want to know what he was thinking.
It is only the sure knowledge that God must be happy that Father Koterski is near to him that keeps me from turning into a puddle of tears. When someone dies, a Dominican priest I love always says, “God be good to him!” Goodness, Father Koterski was good to God. Can there be any doubt about his home? May we all learn to live more like Christ from the example of this great, courageous man.
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