Fr. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. (November 28, 1953–August 9, 2021), was a man who worked hard, very hard. He could rarely say no, whether he was asked to celebrate Mass, give a talk, or drive someone to the airport. Yet he lived out the teaching of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture: We are most human when we are doing what is most humane; and the final and perfect act of leisure is the celebration of the Eucharist.
Fr. Koterski was born in Cleveland and raised in Pittsburgh, where he attended Bishop’s Latin School. In 1976, he received an honors B.A. in classics from Xavier University in Cincinnati, and went on to study philosophy at Saint Louis University. There he was awarded an M.A. in 1980 and a PhD in 1982. He taught at the University of St. Thomas in Houston for two years before entering the Society of Jesus in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, in 1984. As a Jesuit, he received the MDiv and STL degrees in theology from the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was ordained a priest on June 13, 1992.
After his ordination, Fr. Koterski began the most stable period of his life—nearly thirty years at Fordham University in the Bronx. His work and ministry there revolved around three central points: his priesthood, his life as a philosopher, and his sympathy for those in need.
He was, through and through, a priest. He celebrated Sunday Mass whenever he could in a parish in Manhattan. How many confessions he heard, how much spiritual direction he gave, will never be known to us. On these matters, he was absolutely discreet.
In his life as a priest, he had a special ministry to women religious, especially the Sisters of Life and the Missionaries of Charity. He provided these sisters with sacraments, retreats, days of recollection, and spiritual direction. One memorable part of this ministry, and one that he did speak of, was several trips to Haiti to give retreats for the Missionaries of Charity there. Fr. Koterski was an austere man, but the squalor and wretchedness of Haiti unsettled even him.
Fr. Koterski was also deeply committed to the pro-life cause. He was active in University Faculty for Life and served as editor of the annual volume of proceedings for twenty-six years. This last task was typical of Fr. Koterski: He was always willing to serve rather than to shine.
Fr. Koterski’s scholarly life and interests were broad. In 2009, he published An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy: Some Basic Concepts. His particular strength, however, was in research essays and studies. He also produced lecture courses for The Teaching Company on Aristotle’s Ethics, on Natural Law and Human Nature, and, most recently, on Biblical Wisdom Literature. Other scholars often attested to the value of his leadership and industry. He was a member of many scholarly societies. One further sign of his dogged devotion to his field: He served as editor-in-chief of the International Philosophical Quarterly from 1994–2021, almost thirty years of almost thankless labor.
He regularly taught standard courses in philosophy. But he also developed special interests: natural law; Dante, Shakespeare, Thomas More in literature; and the four senses of Scripture. Fordham remained the focus of his teaching, but he also taught (off the books) in seminaries, sharing his love for philosophy with the priests of the future: St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in the Archdiocese of New York, the New York archdiocesan college seminary program, and several others.
Fr. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J., was a wholly devoted priest, a faithful Christian philosopher, and a spiritual director and guide to more people than can ever be known. His memory will continue to inspire many.
Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., is professor of theology at Fordham University.
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Image from a lecture at the American Public Philosophy Institute.