Instead of our usual TOB Thursday, I want to talk share some memories I have of an old priest of mine and encourage you to reminisce about priests who have meant a lot to you.
Fr. Bill Kottenstette was the chaplain of the Catholic Newman Center at Truman State University. No Catholic student at Truman went untouched by him.
My first memory of him was from my first Mass. He preached about Matthew 19:24, the verse that says it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to go to heaven. My grandfather had always used this verse in a very negative, insulting context. He had faith in a very angry, vengeful god and he had turned me away from Christianity. Fr. Bill, on the other hand, explained it in context with historical background and the whole nine yards. Fr. Bill used the verse not as a weapon, but as a platform for teaching.
I loved Wednesday night Masses at the Newman Center. The “homilies” were always dialogues between Fr. Bill and the congregation. I’ve heard people rant against such homilies saying that it is inappropriate for Mass. I have to disagree. As college students, we were grappling with the most difficult aspects of Church teaching. The open homily gave us all a forum to ask the hard questions, discuss it and learn. Otherwise, you’d have a bunch of confused college students coming to their own conclusions. Students who would not usually go to a discussion did come to a Mass.
I remember particularly the Wednesday night that we discussed Terri Schiavo. Fr. Bill allowed for varying opinions, but he did use it as a teaching moment to discuss end-of-life issues.
He was always a great and fearless preacher. When doing a homily that dealt with politics, he wasn’t afraid to name particular politicians or particular political events. I’m sure he pissed off plenty of students over the years although he was completely non-partisan about it. It wasn’t like he only picked on Republicans or Democrats. He seemed to really understand where we were in our lives, he related very well to us students. We went back to the dorms after every Mass with a real message to apply to our everyday lives. They just don’t make preachers like that anymore.
His homilies and his openness to letting us students ask questions were influential in my conversion to Catholicism. He Baptized and Confirmed me and gave me my first Communion. I remember him joking about drowning me (I was baptized by full-immersion). I wanted him to concelebrate at my wedding, but his health was already starting to fail him and he had a surgery scheduled the week before. There was no way he was going to make the 4 hour drive from Kirksville to St. Louis.
My heart right now is particularly with those friends of mine who were closest to him, such as my friend Abby who he basically adopted as a father after her dad died her Sophomore year. I know right now she feels like she’s just lost another dad.
It is a shame that he never wrote an autobiography. He had one of those lives. He was educated and ordained as a Jesuit. He became an alcoholic. Alcoholism took a toll on him and he had to leave the priesthood for a while. He returned as a diocesan priest. In addition to fearlessly talking about current events, he was also very open with his past and his battles with alcohol. He told the story of hitting rock bottom often. I remember noticing that he never drank the Blood although he did consecrate it for the rest of us. You could see the teachings of AA permeate just about everything he did, most especially his preaching. In addition to being a great priest, he was also totally human. His life story was a teaching of God’s grace. That was probably the most eloquent homily he ever made.
RIP, Fr. Bill.
“May the angels lead you into paradise:
may the martyrs receive you at your coming,
and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.
May the choir of angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor,
may you have everlasting rest.”
Who is a priest that has been influential in your life? Think about him and pray for him today. Thank God for his service.
Note: Fr. Bill died on the anniversary of the day St. Ignatius and his companions pronounced their first vows as Jesuits. That’s pretty cool.
You can hear some of his most recent homilies here: http://kirksvillenewman.podbean.com/