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Jerry Costello

Father Bill’s Struggles Made Him a Better Priest
January 31, 2016

Twenty years ago, Bill K. was at the end of his rope. Forty-seven years old, the drinking that had always been a problem in his life threatened to engulf him. He worked odd jobs that paid him at the end of the day, and that bought him enough alcohol to get through the night. The faith that had been a vital part of his life was gone; he was adrift with nothing in his sights.
                “There was an emptiness in me, an idea that I was not enough,” he said in a later reflection. “It was a feeling I had chased all through my drinking years: trying to be enough, trying to belong.”
                By the time death took him in 2015, that had all changed. He had put his life together again as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He had begun to ask for and accept the help of others. And best of all, he had returned to the faith he once knew and was making a vast difference in the life of those around him: he was Father Bill Kottenstette, head of the Catholic Newman Center at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He had come full circle.
                “Father Bill was a wonderful pastor,” a close friend said. “The fact that he was older really helped. He had been through a lot. You tend to look up to somebody a little bit more when they’ve walked the walk.”
                Hannah M. Brockhaus put Father Bill’s story together for Our Sunday Visitor. Born in Denver in 1941, he entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1959 after graduating from high school. Despite early problems with drinking while in the seminary, he was ordained in 1973. But the problem persisted, and he was released from the Jesuits to focus on his recovery. He didn’t stick with treatments, however, and finally ended up away from the church, doing odd jobs.
                That was when Father Bill joined Alcoholics Anonymous, landed in Kirksville, and began working at a drug and alcohol rehab center. He was also active in AA, accepted a pastor’s invitation to live in the rectory, became involved again in the church, and ultimately was “re-ordained” and took the Newman position at Truman State.
                And suddenly he was home, right where he belonged. He loved his student-friends, and they certainly loved him. His “goofy” sense of humor, of bemusement linked him to his buddies, the collegians he constantly probed. One student recalled that Father Bill was consumed with the question of living the faith in the present moment—always asking, she remembered, “What are you going to do today?” It was as if he were asking, “How will you live your life today? How will you improve your world?”
                A recent graduate said that by the time she knew him he had heard it all, either from his own experiences or from the tales he had heard. Students could talk to him, just as they are, she said. He liked that, and they loved that in him.
                Above all, his own best friend said, he would tell his listeners that God loved them, and the key to knowing that was to love yourself first. “He helped the kids to see that the priest was a human being,” Chris Koch said. “He was himself with them.”
                Father Bill had learned the lesson himself, learned it the hard way. And it stayed with him for the rest of his life.
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