Father Samuel Bellafiore
Father Samuel Bellafiore
"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 Father Joseph Koterski, SJ.

“You have to meet Joe Koterski,” he said when he heard I was going to attend St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, where Father 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 Father Koterski. At one conference, I saw a lecturer redden with embarrassment after Father Koterski responded to his paper. But this was not the Father Koterski I knew best.

Father Koterski, who passed away Aug. 9 at age 67, was a Fordham professor, philosopher and classicist. He played a major role in the founding of the 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. Father 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. Father 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?” Father Koterski received from God the gaze that keeps us ever in mind — and he shared it.

A few years after I met Father 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 Father 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: “Father Joseph Koterski, SJ”

Now Father 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 Father Koterski knew someone with that kind of light, someone in whose center was that name above all names.

Father Samuel Bellafiore is parochial vicar at Sacred Heart in Lake George and Our Lady of the Annunciation in Queensbury. His reflection was first published in firstthings.com and is reprinted with permission. First Things is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization. The Institute was founded in 1989 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism, which insists that the public square must be “naked,” and that faith has no place in shaping the public