Why, despite the faults and struggles of family life, the Church says ‘yes!’
Living a life for Christ
More than once, I heard Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski described as “one of the good Jesuits.” Many times, it was meant with a little sarcasm, a commentary on the state of the Jesuit order in some places. But I never quite saw it like that.
Father Koterski, a philosopher and gentleman, a son of God the Father and lover of life, died suddenly while directing a retreat on Aug. 9. He was an alter Christus as a faithful priest. He was also another Ignatius, a man of the Spiritual Exercises, and a soldier for heaven, where I pray he is or will be soon. He had been a professor of philosophy at Fordham University since the early 1990s, but all of this only begins to paint a portrait of who he was and what he did. He lived with freshmen at the residential college on campus (good kids who wanted to be good). He was a chaplain to Missionaries of Charity and Sisters of Life, for whom he taught the novices and postulants. Losing him was losing a member of their community.
So great was his heart that he was a member of multiple communities — as people at the university’s Faculty for Life, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and so many more entities will tell you. As his friend and colleague (and brother Jesuit), who entered the Society of Jesus with him on the same day in 1984, Father Christopher Cullen put it in his homily at Father Koterski’s funeral Mass: “For many years, I had thought that it was only at his funeral that we would get a full accounting of all his apostolic activities. But after hearing from so many people these days across a range of walks of life, I now realize that a full accounting will have to wait until the last trumpet; for God Himself is surely still trying to reckon them all, there were so many.” He added: “Perhaps, there are disciples of the Lord with greater zeal; I have not met them.” Many priests, sisters, seminarians and laypeople lost their spiritual director, which requires a good ear on top of wisdom.
While admitting he could never do his dear friend justice in words, “life, books and priesthood” were three good ones that captured his heart. As a graduate student, before becoming a Jesuit, he would protest at abortion clinics. “He understood the evil of abortion, perhaps, especially because he knew firsthand what it was to be vulnerable and defenseless, since he had been born with a cleft palate,” Father Cullen said. He loved to announce with hearty laughter that his parents had been told that he would never talk. Not only did he talk and preach and teach, but he edited six books and authored over 100 articles, and so much more.
As for books, he loved them “and his life was, in many ways, a long and detailed conversation with the great books and their authors,” Father Cullen reflected. I felt this to be a nudge from Father Koterski from eternity: “Father Koterski loved literature especially, and was always reading a novel, no matter how busy his life,” Father Cullen said. He shared that “Father Koterski read his way through a slew of great Russian novels during COVID,” and during the shutdown, “he organized a Sunday afternoon reading of Shakespeare plays for his Jesuit community. We read through nearly a dozen plays under his direction and inspiration.”
And finally, Father Cullen said, Father Koterski was “a priest first and foremost.” There is no doubt about that. One Sister of Life told me how when Father Koterski arrived in their convent, Jesus’ presence was known in an even more palpable way. His charity was made possible by the Mass. “Father Koterski was, from the rising of the sun to its setting, at the altar of God offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” Father Cullen remembered.
Father Koterski’s death from a heart attack was sudden and a devastating shock to so many who loved and were loved by him. But his memory is a wonder. A life of holiness is possible in the world today, and so is engaging the world, aware of the indwelling presence of the Trinity. Let’s be more like Father Koterski, who lived each day wanting to be more like Christ.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.