INDIANAPOLIS — 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, or 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 and the wind blew in the rain, the pilgrims gathered around 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,” Cindy Thomas, a pilgrim and a Holy Spirit parishioner, told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “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 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,” 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 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 Koetter speaking that are stored in the software, the tablet verbalizes what he wrote, producing a sound like his voice.
In July, 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,” 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 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.”
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.”
Although the software has allowed 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 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 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 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.”
Without all the duties of pastor, Koetter now has more time for prayer and reflection.
Although he knows his condition will eventually take his life, Koetter tries to live in the present moment “where God can be found,” he said. “God is in the present moment, right now. So, if we want to experience God, then we stay present to the now.”
Gallagher is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.