November 27, 2020

God is still blessing me each day

Msgr. Paul Koetter continues to minister despite challenges of ALS

Retired Msgr. Paul Koetter types into a tablet on Oct. 29 in his office at Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, where he previously served as pastor. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has taken away his ability to speak. He types what he wants to say, and software on his tablet vocalizes his words in what sounds like his voice. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Retired Msgr. Paul Koetter types into a tablet on Oct. 29 in his office at Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, where he previously served as pastor. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has taken away his ability to speak. He types what he wants to say, and software on his tablet vocalizes his words in what sounds like his voice. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

The pilgrims rode in a boat across choppy waves on the Sea of Galilee with wind gusting and rain blowing into their boat.

A greater storm was churning in the hearts and minds of the pilgrims and the priest who was leading them in their journey of faith through the Holy Land in November 2019.

Msgr. Paul Koetter, at the time pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative nerve disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The condition was taking away his ability to speak, a prime way he helps connect the people he serves with God, and a prime way through which God blesses him by connecting him to his parishioners.

As the waves rocked the boat, as the wind blew in the rain, the pilgrims gathered around Msgr. Koetter, lovingly known as Father Paul in the parishes in which he has served, to pray for him.

“We all prayed, our hands touching him,” said Cindy Thomas, a pilgrim and a Holy Spirit parishioner. “As soon as we did that, the storm stopped. The sea calmed. The sun came out. It was like God saying, ‘OK. I hear you. I’ve got you.’ It was the most powerful thing.”

“I noticed, and I wondered if it might be a sign from God,” recalled Msgr. Koetter.

He shared his diagnosis with the pilgrims at the start of their trip and had arranged for a letter about it to be published in Holy Spirit’s bulletin while he was away.

“The bond with the pilgrims was very deep,” Msgr. Koetter said. “I think us all knowing my illness allowed a deeper bond of love and support going both ways.”

Bonds of love and support continue to connect Msgr. Koetter to Holy Spirit parishioners as ALS has totally taken away his physical ability to speak.

But he is so determined to continue those connections that he now uses software developed by the Belgium-based Acapela Group to speak. He types into his tablet what he wants to say. Then, using recordings of Msgr. Koetter speaking that are stored in the software, the tablet verbalizes what he wrote, producing a sound like his voice.

(Hear Msgr. Paul Koetter pray through the software that he uses to communicate)

‘Overwhelming support’

In July, Msgr. Koetter, 69, was granted early retirement from active ministry. With the permission of Holy Spirit’s current pastor, Father Michael O’Mara, he continues to live at the parish and ministers in limited ways.

At the same time, he finds that the parishioners minister to him.

“They have been an overwhelming support,” he said through his tablet. “The number of people praying for me is very high. And I really think those prayers are sustaining me.”

This sustaining strength allows him to continue to live out the priestly vocation given to him by God.

“God is always calling us to serve in some way,” Msgr. Koetter said. “So, now that I have this illness, I think it creates an opportunity for me to serve in a unique way. The illness opens doors with people who are suffering in their lives. They feel that I would understand.”

It was hard for Suzy McLaughlin, Holy Spirit’s director of finance and facilities, to see the condition take hold in her pastor and limit his ability to minister.

But she finds that his willingness to be open to her and the parishioners about his condition is a kind of ministry.

“It’s a privilege to go through this with someone,” McLaughlin said. “I feel that Father Paul is letting us share his journey … . We’re just all blessed by being able to be with him during this. It’s such a gift that he’s given the parish to stay as long as he can.”

So far, ALS has only affected Msgr. Koetter’s ability to speak and to swallow. His motor skills have been unaffected. He also experiences no physical pain from the illness.

To help him in his continued life in the parish, Thomas and other parishioners make meals for him. She speaks with him when she delivers the food.

“He’s never sad,” Thomas said. “He never has the attitude of ‘Why me?’ He’s still pastoring. He has so much to give and to share. I consider it a blessing to be able to cook for him and to have those few minutes with him. It’s such a gift, because he has so much to give.”

Msgr Koetter agreed that the giving goes both ways.

“In the last year, I have received many letters about how my ministry has impacted someone’s life,” he said. “Those are beautiful to read. It has helped to confirm my role as a priest and the life I have tried to lead. It is one of the big blessings that I have experienced.”

‘God is still blessing me each day’

Although the software has allowed Msgr. Koetter to “speak,” he still finds communicating challenging.

“The flow of the conversation is very different now,” he said. “If I am in a group, it is hard to get my words in, because conversations move forward while I am typing. And yet, I don’t want the conversation to be controlled by my pace unless I am with only one or two. It seems to work better one-on-one.

“Being an extrovert, I would often talk to come to understand myself. That is natural for extroverts. Now that is hard to do. So, I miss that a lot.”

But Msgr. Koetter hasn’t had to miss preaching homilies at weekend Masses at Holy Spirit, which he continues to do one weekend each month.

He types his homily in advance into the software. Then the recording of the homily produced by the software is sent through the church’s sound system while Msgr. Koetter stands at the ambo, motions with his hands and moves his head as if he was actually speaking the homily.

“The message is always the word of God,” he said. “But what I say is heard differently now. So, if I give an example about carrying one’s cross, people hear that with more focus. They understand that I know what that means.”

Homilies aren’t the only way that Msgr. Koetter shares this message. It comes across throughout his continued life and ministry at Holy Spirit.

“A phrase I have often used in my preaching is, ‘God is good all the time. All the time, God is good,’ ” he said. “I want people to know that I still believe that this is true. While my illness has been a big burden, the blessings given have been overwhelming. So, God is still blessing me each day.”

‘God is in the present moment now’

Though he continues to live and assist in ministry at Holy Spirit, Msgr. Koetter no longer serves as the principal celebrant at Mass. He doesn’t celebrate baptisms, funerals or weddings. And he no longer has the responsibility of leading a parish of more than 2,000 households.

“In the past, being a priest and being a pastor were very interlocked,” Msgr. Koetter said. “Now, I think my priesthood is best expressed in how I carry this illness. So, I think my impact as a spiritual leader is not through many concrete ministries, but through a witness. I am not a perfect witness, but I try.”

That witness comes across strongly for Holy Spirit parishioner Teresa Heil.

“It’s just his presence that you need sometimes,” she said. “You don’t need him to say anything.”

Teresa’s husband Larry has come, like Msgr. Koetter, to see his former pastor’s condition and the way he lives with it as a gift.

“It’s not the gift that you would ask for,” Larry said. “But it’s the gift that allows you to be there for other people.”

Without all the duties of a pastor to fill up his daily life, Msgr. Koetter now has more time for prayer and reflection.

“The busyness of life as a priest sometimes can control the mind. I was running all the time,” he said. “Now I am not running.

“I would say that the elements of faith and awareness of God are easier today than before, because my emotions are more raw and I have the time to sit. Like when a loved one dies, we are more emotionally open to the reality of God.”

Although he knows that his condition will eventually take his life, Msgr. Koetter tries to live in the present moment as much as possible.

“I do not project myself into the future of the illness any more than I need to do,” he said. “I find that that can increase anxiety and fear. So, I try to stay in the present moment in my life and in my prayer.

“It is also a belief in where God can be found. God is in the present moment, right now. So, if we want to experience God, then we stay present to the now.”

By living in the present moment, he also remains aware of the difficulties of his condition.

“Certainly, the diagnosis was a hard reality for myself, my family and the parish,” Msgr. Koetter said. “But we get past the diagnosis into daily life.”

While he noted that he wants “to have a sense of normalcy in each day,” he admitted that one “blessing of this illness is that there is no pain. I feel fine.”

Still, said Msgr. Koetter, “I am carrying an illness that will eventually take my life unless a miracle happens.

“But we all carry our future with the reality of death.” †

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