But that truth-uttering father read my thought,
saw the wish I was too shy to reveal,
spoke, and emboldened me to speak my mind.
—Purgatorio, XVIII (trans. Anthony Esolen)
One of my college professors first told me about Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J.
“You have to meet Joe Koterski,” he said when he heard I was going to attend St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York, where Fr. Koterski taught. Another professor concurred. They had often seen him at conferences. “He got up to give a response paper and ripped this guy apart!”
I would eventually witness this side of Fr. Koterski. At one conference, I saw a lecturer redden with embarrassment after Fr. Koterski responded to his paper. But this was not the Fr. Koterski I knew best.
Fr. Koterski, who passed away last week at age 67, was a Fordham professor, philosopher, and classicist. He played a major role in the founding of University Faculty for Life and edited International Philosophical Quarterly. He drove all over the tri-state area teaching philosophy and theology to seminarians and sisters. In my last semester of seminary, he taught an elective on Dante’s theology; his lectures were masterful.
But many of us knew him simply as a father. And I knew him primarily as a spiritual director. He was assigned as my spiritual director during seminary and remained my director even after I was ordained a priest. During that time, he showed me an unending reserve of tender goodness. He was a beloved friend and director to countless lay people, Jesuits, diocesan priests and seminarians, Missionaries of Charity and Sisters of Life. He was a conduit of wisdom, insight, consolation, and hearty practicality. “My job is to hold up a mirror to you,” he said once, describing the role of spiritual director.
He offered humorous and practical wisdom to us seminarians, who sometimes took ourselves a little too seriously. “Gentlemen, when you are ordained people will love you,” he said. “They will praise your homilies. Don’t take it personally.” He encouraged those healing from past wounds, especially the wound of abortion, to pray these words: “Jesus, I accept your mercy.” When he got home, often at 10 p.m., he would chat with Fordham freshmen. Then he would get up, pray, and celebrate Mass at 6:45 a.m. for the Missionaries of Charity. Sometimes he would sit down at a café table in Grand Central Station, put on a purple stole, and hear confessions. No one knew where he found the free time.
Fathers generate life outside themselves. Fr. Koterski did and gave everything for the people around him. He never rushed. He looked at each person and each thing he encountered one at a time, perceiving truth and welcoming beauty. Fr. Koterski’s gentleness—the way he approached and looked at people—drew what was deepest and truest out of them. He would often suggest I pray Psalm 8: “What is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him?” Fr. Koterski received from God the gaze that keeps us ever in mind—and he shared it.
A few years after I met Fr. Koterski, a long-forgotten memory came to mind. As a seventh grader, I had attended a lecture at Fordham on St. Thomas More. The lecture, delivered by a Jesuit, was geared toward middle schoolers. This Jesuit had stood at the door, greeted each of us individually, and queried: “Do you prefer geometry or algebra? You can tell a lot about someone based on whether they prefer geometry or algebra.” When I mentioned this memory to Fr. Koterski, he said, “That was me.” He had noticed that there was a difference between people who work backward from the answer and people who seek the unknown. After I was ordained, my dad was going through old boxes and found the notes I had taken at Fordham that morning. Twelve years before he became my spiritual director, I had written that name on top of a sheet of printer paper: “Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J.”
Now Fr. Koterski moves toward the radiant realms of the Love who moves the sun and the other stars. He loved the Society of Jesus, whose emblem—a sun of beaming light with the name of Jesus at its center—evokes an image from Dante. All who knew Fr. Koterski knew someone with that kind of light, someone in whose center was that name above all names.
Samuel Bellafiore is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York.
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Image taken from a lecture at Xavier University.