This is the second in a series of profiles of friars who are celebrating anniversaries of religious profession this year. The first featured John Heffernan, OFM.
WEST CLARKSVILLE, N.Y. — If Joseph Kotula, OFM, could pick an icon to illustrate his life’s journey, it would be that of a hitchhiker.
The Mt. Irenaeus friar says his life travels have taken him to many stops along the way, but none as rewarding and fulfilling as his 20-year ministry and simple life at the mountain retreat in Western New York.
As he prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of profession in June, the western Pennsylvania native, who calls himself an introvert, took a moment with HNP Today to look back over his life — one that he says has been, quite frankly, unconventional.
Joe reflected on his wandering life as a young adult in the late 1960s, when he was somewhat of a stereotypical “hippie,” hitching rides around the country. He said of the time: “I wandered the country. If I needed money, I got a job; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t work.”
Journey to Franciscans
After meeting a woman in California, getting engaged, and experiencing a painful breakup, Joseph ended up in the Boston area, where his ex-fiancé was from, making a living by selling pretzels outside St. Anthony Shrine. He also partied a lot. He began hanging out at the shrine, going on retreats, working with youth in an outdoor education program, and participating with the Teens Encounter Christ program.
“After one retreat, I started practicing my Catholic faith,” and was encouraged by Kevin Cronin, OFM, to consider a religious vocation.
But it was an encounter with a beggar that truly changed his life. “The beggar asked me for money and I initially said, ‘No.’ He asked again and I gave him half of what I had, $2. Then the beggar asked for more. It made me think of St. Francis. So then I said, ‘OK, God, should I turn my life over to you?’”
Joseph said God spoke to his heart like an angel speaks, reminding him of the annunciation to Mary and prompting him to call the Province’s Vocation Office. Shortly after, he entered formation.
“I entered the Franciscans and my standard of living went up like 300 percent,” he said. After profession, he interned at Mt. Irenaeus and asked to stay on in ministry with Daniel Riley, OFM, who, he said, had a reputation for being on the Church’s cutting edge.
Content & Contemplative at the Mountain
Unlike other friars, who’ve had many and varied ministries over the years, Joseph has been quite content at the mountain, where he oversees the 13 buildings and 400-acre site. He also tends the many gardens, and pitches in on maintenance jobs. He’s often seen chopping and splitting firewood, keeping the chain saws in good working order, carving and whittling. He’s also handy in the kitchen, taking turns with the other friars to make meals, both for themselves and for company and retreat participants.
When HNP Today caught up with him, Joe was planning to cook for 30 St. Bonaventure University finance students who were coming over for an academic evening. “I’ll probably barbecue chicken,” he said, “and have the students help.”
It is this kind of hospitality ministry at the mountain, and working with the SBU students, that Joseph finds so rewarding. “Young people keep us young,” he said. The friars also collaborate with Students for the Mountain, an SBU group that meets once a week to plan the mountain’s agenda and calendar.
“Our input as friars is one of mentoring. We’re building leaders. It’s not them helping us, it’s us helping them — they’re the future of the mountain, the future of the Church.”
Joseph is careful to stress that the mountain is not a facility, but rather, a community. “We work hard to combat the perception of being a retreat center—we’re a community that welcomes people into our life.”
He sees this same hospitality as one of the Province’s strengths. “Our (HNP) gift is our hospitality, sharing ourselves and our spaces. We open our doors to people. Most friars give of their time very readily, they’re always available.”
Joseph, 61, said he learned this through God’s grace. “I’ve experienced God working in my life. I was a hitchhiker, so I know what it means to have God’s grace. When Francis gave everything up, he acquired a certain freedom, which made him dependent on God. His faith journey with God grew when he became dependent on God.” Joseph is fond of the St. Francis story of true and perfect joy, and feels that people could experience this same joy if they lived more like St. Francis and become more dependent on God.
As a kid, Joseph was bashful and quiet, he said, and his mother often answered for him. “I was a skinny kid, but boy, I could eat like a horse.” He hated school and cried every day with the thought of having to go. “I did like to go out and play, though. We played at the (Monongahela) river, on the railroad tracks.” He has two living sisters (one is deceased) and a mother who will turn 94 this year.
Celebrating One’s Gifts
His wish for the anniversary of his profession, which he will celebrate with the Province on June 24, is “to celebrate the giftedness that we’ve been given — it’s all a gift. Whether it is joyful or hard times, we can continue to share that gift and grow with it.”
Joe, who takes hiking trips every year, also celebrates his philosophy on life, which he says is to live in the present and to be contemplative.
“I’m a person who lives in the now. Sure, I can plan things, like a retreat, but I’m not a person who can say, ‘In three years, I want to be doing this or that.’ My hopes are that I want to continue to grow and understand the contemplative part of our Franciscan life more. We’re called to be contemplatives. I want to keep growing in that contemplative aspect and allow it to be whatever it manifests itself as.”
While people often tell him that the mountain wouldn’t be the same without him, Joseph said that if he were to leave, it would be to a ministry like St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia or to another country as a missionary. “But I don’t really speak any other languages,” he said, “so that might be hard.”
For now, he’s content. “We think, we plan, we control too much. All it does is hold the Holy Spirit back from being operative in our life. Sometimes, too much planning doesn’t leave room for the Holy Spirit.”
— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. The March 17 issue of this newsletter will profile jubilarian Kenneth Paulli, OFM, of Siena College.