April 25, 2014

Pastor’s focus on relationships leads to national education honor

Msgr. Paul Koetter distributes Communion during a school Mass on April 16 at Holy Spirit Church in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Msgr. Paul Koetter distributes Communion during a school Mass on April 16 at Holy Spirit Church in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The fifth-grade girl launched the whipped cream pie toward the face of Msgr. Paul Koetter as the other students at Holy Spirit School in Indianapolis howled with delight.

Yet the girl’s aim was slightly off so only half of the pastor’s face was plastered with whipped cream, while the rest of the whipped cream landed on his shoulder.

When someone zoomed in with a camera to capture the result of Msgr. Koetter’s good-natured cooperation for a school fundraiser, the priest made sure that the girl was part of the photo, too. Smiling, he hugged the girl so that some of the whipped cream on his shoulder ended up on her, leading to another round of smiles and laughs in the crowd.

That scene helps explain why Msgr. Koetter is so well-liked by the students and staff members of Holy Spirit School.

So does the scene that unfolded during the weekly school Mass at the parish church on the Wednesday morning of Holy Week.

After reading a passage from Matthew’s Gospel about Judas betraying Jesus, Msgr. Koetter walked among the kindergarten to eighth-grade students sitting in the pews and asked them a series of questions about what it means to be a friend, and how friends can hurt each other.

After listening to their thoughtful answers, he talked about how Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, how the other Apostles ran away from Jesus when soldiers arrested him, and how Peter denied Jesus.

“That might have been his greatest suffering. Everyone left him,” Msgr. Koetter told the students. “But he continued to trust that God was still with him. God never betrays us. God is always there. We can rely on God when other relationships let us down.”

In that last sentence and in those two scenes, Msgr. Koetter reveals what is essential to him as a priest and a pastor.

“I’ve always felt pretty strongly that you have to develop relationships.”

Trying to unite a community

Those two scenes also show why the Holy Spirit community is thrilled that Msgr. Koetter was honored on April 22 as one of the seven national recipients of the 2014 Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

In the past three years, enrollment at Holy Spirit School has increased from 301 students to 411—a result of the parish’s effort to make families aware about Indiana’s school voucher program. The program provides assistance for families to pay for an education of their choice for their children. Msgr. Koetter led the effort to communicate the benefits of the program to the parish’s Hispanic and English-speaking families.

He has also strived to bring together those two cultures at church.

“Our parish community has a large Hispanic population with one large Mass on Sundays,” notes Alessandra Brown Baez, a parish member. “Father Paul believed we needed to make another one of the Sunday Masses a ‘unity’ Mass where both communities celebrate liturgy in both English and Spanish. This has united us as a community in other areas as well.”

For the past two years, Msgr. Koetter has met monthly with the school’s staff members to teach a class about the Catholic faith.

“The staff will say, ‘Being raised Catholic, I thought I knew our Catholic beliefs, but this class has put the icing on the cake for me. It makes sense,’ ” says school principal Rita Parsons. “This interaction has enlightened most of us to carry on discussions outside our staff meeting.”

His focus on prayer and communication has had the same impact on the parish staff, Parsons says.

“Our parish staff meetings have connected our ministries together as one. It makes a huge difference when we all work together for the common cause of living out our faith.”

Connecting school and parish

Msgr. Koetter humbly downplays the praise and the award, preferring to view them as an affirmation of “our school and the people who work here.”

“It’s all about working together,” he says.

For him, it’s also about following these words from Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the only visible quote in his office: “Do small things with great love.”

He loves that the parish he pastors has a school.

“I think a school adds a lot to a parish. There’s a vitality and energy that comes with a school. It adds work and financial responsibilities, but it’s well worth the effort. I think a school creates a strong identification with the parish. For the kids, this is their place. I tell people that when they walk into church they should feel like they’re walking into their home. And they feel it here.”

He smiles when he talks about the reactions he receives from students when he comes to the playground—how they run up to him and share their news with him.

“I like to feel I have a relationship with the kids, that they know me, they’re comfortable with me, and that they can come to me if they need to.

“I try to go over to the school if there’s a play or another activity going on. I just want to let them know I’m supporting what they’re doing, and I want the parents to see I’m doing that, too. It builds the connection between the school and the parish.”

‘God is working with these kids’

The students embrace that connection, too.

“One of the first things I think about Father Paul is how connected he is with every individual,” says Jack Wright, an eighth-grade student at Holy Spirit. “He learns everyone’s name.

“He is also thoughtful of the younger kids. Some of the Gospel readings are very hard to understand, but he puts them in perspective for all the little kids. Father Paul also gets you involved and engaged during Mass. He’ll ask questions about the Scriptures, or he’ll make a joke and cause the whole church to laugh. And from my experiences while serving, the reverence and respect he carries, especially during funerals, is unrivaled.”

Msgr. Koetter views his interactions with students as teaching moments.

“If I ask them questions, they’re engaged. With the questions, you get them thinking, and you can reach them in a different way. I usually end with something I want them to do that day—‘Today, I want you to say, “Have a good day,” 10 times.’ I give them a challenge they can carry forward.”

Sometimes, he’s the one learning from the interactions.

“Yesterday, we had a junior high retreat, and I gave a talk on the Mass. There was one young lady whose eyes were glued on me. I really felt a hunger of her wanting to learn, to know, to understand. Those kinds of moments are very enriching for me as a priest.

“My whole role as a priest is to help people grow closer to God. And when I see something like that happen, it lets me know I am doing what I want to do. It also reminds me that God is working with these kids, and they have something to offer, something we may have missed.

“It always goes back to relationships.” †

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