By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
ROCHESTER, Mass. — New Bedford native Joseph A. Koczera, 35, was recently ordained a priest of the Society of Jesus — the largest order of priests and Brothers in the Roman Catholic Church — during a Mass celebrated at Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago, along with seven other Jesuits.
Father Koczera and his classmates also had the distinction of being among 28 ordained in the Society of Jesus this summer — the largest group of new priests ordained into the order in more than 15 years.
Having professed his vows in the Society of Jesus during this Year of Consecrated Life as declared by fellow Jesuit Pope Francis, Father Koczera ultimately sees this uptick in ordinations as “a sign of hope.”
“Across the country, nearly 600 priests were ordained for various dioceses and religious orders, reflecting a steady increase in numbers over the past few years,” Father Koczera recently told The Anchor. “I believe that the Year of Consecrated Life gives members of religious communities a special opportunity to share our hope with the wider Church. By embracing this opportunity, I hope that we will see continued growth and that we will be able to offer an even more joyful and vibrant example of dedication to the Gospel.”
Born in New Bedford and baptized at St. Patrick’s Church in Wareham, Father Koczera spent most of his formative years in Rochester, where his parents, Joseph and Helen, still reside.
Although his home parish of St. Rose of Lima in Rochester is part of the Archdiocese of Boston, Father Koczera still has close ties within the Fall River Diocese, including a brother and sister who live in Wareham.
“Much of my extended family lives on the South Coast, so I still feel a strong connection to the region even though I have spent a lot of my adult life elsewhere,” he said.
Having graduated from Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett in 1997, Father Koczera initially expressed an interest in politics, which led to his involvement in local and state elections and an internship at the Massachusetts State House. Upon graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 2001, he went on to study law at the University of Notre Dame, receiving his Juris Doctor degree in 2004.
Since entering the Society of Jesus in August 2004, Father Koczera has also earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University and a Master of Divinity degree from Regis College in Toronto.
It was somewhere between his interests in politics and law, between studying for high school and college, that Father Koczera discerned a vocation to the priesthood.
“I wouldn’t say that I had an exceptionally devout upbringing, but I always had an awareness of being Catholic,” Father Koczera said. “I never thought about becoming a priest as I was growing up; but on reflection I can see how some youthful experiences impacted my vocation.”
Thinking back, Father Koczera fondly recalled making annual pilgrimages to La Salette Shrine in Attleboro with his family for the yearly Christmas Festival of Lights.
“I always looked forward to going to La Salette, and on an instinctive level I think I was drawn to the beauty of the faith,” he said. “I was also fascinated by the rituals of the Mass, by the sights and sounds of worship. It took many years for me to feel a sense of being called to the priesthood, but in retrospect I can see how the signs were there from an early age.”
It was during his time as an undergraduate at Georgetown University that Father Koczera felt drawn to seriously consider the priesthood.
Inspired by the example of “many fine Jesuit priests I had as professors,” Father Koczera singled out Father Thomas M. King as someone who greatly influenced his vocation.
“Father King was the first priest I ever had as a teacher, but he also had a major impact on me because he offered Mass in the university chapel six nights a week at 11:15 p.m.,” Father Koczera said. “That 11:15 Mass provided a kind of Spiritual study break for me and many others, but it also offered a Spiritually-nurturing environment in which I could begin to discern God’s Will and to consider a vocation to the priesthood.”
Although that initial spark was lit, Father Koczera admitted he wasn’t quite ready to enter the Society of Jesus when he graduated in 2001. But he continued discerning a vocation while studying law at Notre Dame.
“I attended Jesuit discernment events and met regularly with a Spiritual director,” he said. “My Spiritual director at that time was Father Brian Daley, a Jesuit who teaches theology at Notre Dame. Meeting regularly with Father Daley helped me to come to the clarity I needed to decide to apply to enter the Jesuit novitiate, and he has remained a good friend and a positive influence on my vocation ever since.”
Father Koczera said his decision to become a Jesuit priest stems back to his initial encounters with Jesuits at Georgetown University.
“What particularly impressed me was the way they were able to harmonize the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind — as priests, they were men of prayer who had devoted themselves to offering the Sacraments and leading others to God, but they were also teachers and scholars who were able to find God through intellectual endeavor,” Father Koczera said. “Before I went to Georgetown, I had never known priests who were also teachers, and the idea that one could be both made me think about the priesthood in a way that I had not done before.”
With a strong background in law and politics and a growing interest in teaching, Father Koczera seemed well-suited for the central mission of the Society of Jesus, and he looks forward to teaching at one of the order’s prestigious universities.
“I have already had an opportunity to work in this ministry, as I taught philosophy for three years at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as part of my Jesuit formation,” he said. “I hope that my interest in teaching and scholarship will give me an opportunity to make a positive impact in an area of ministry where the Jesuits have traditionally been strong.”
Father Koczera said his recent profession and ordination in the Society of Jesus in Chicago was something he’ll never forget. His parents and siblings were all present, along with friends from the various places he’s lived and worked over the years.
“I like to say that the mix of people who came to witness the ordination gave the event a sort of ‘this is your life’ quality,” Father Koczera said. “I was vested by two Jesuit priests I’ve known for a long time, Fathers Joel Medina and Peter Nguyen. I’ve known Joel since I first began discerning my vocation, and Peter is someone I have lived with during my theology studies in Toronto. I was also honored to have my Spiritual director, Father Brian Daley, preach at my first Mass the day after the ordination.”
Just over a week later, Father Koczera returned home to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Rose of Lima Church in Rochester on June 21, which was, appropriately enough, Father’s Day.
“The experience of celebrating Mass in my home parish made the sense of being called from among the people to serve as a priest a bit more tangible for me,” Father Koczera said. “I was surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners whom I’ve known my entire life, but for the first time I was able to minister to them as a priest. Having lived in a number of different cities and countries over the course of my Jesuit formation, being able to return home at the start of my priestly ministry also reminded me of the importance of my small-town roots. Wherever I go as a Jesuit, I hope that I am able to retain a strong connection to the place where I grew up and came to faith.”
Father Koczera said he will spend his first year completing work towards his Licentiate in Sacred Theology at Regis College in Toronto, Canada, and he hopes to be teaching somewhere after obtaining the degree. But he is already eager to begin hearing Confessions and administering the other Sacraments that he considers “the heart of my ministry.”
When asked if he or his fellow Jesuits had any pearls of wisdom on how to deal with what many have deemed to be a “vocations crisis” in the Church, Father Koczera said he would offer three pieces of advice.
“The first is to pray, both on your own and also by attending Mass regularly,” he said. “The second is to find a Spiritual director, someone with whom you can discuss your prayer and who can help you to better understand where God may be leading you. Finally, take up Jesus’ invitation to ‘come and see’ — visit the religious communities or seminaries you are considering, both to get to know them better and to see whether there is a good fit. I wouldn’t be a priest today if I hadn’t done these three things.”
And he added that words of encouragement from people you know can go a long way in helping you to answer God’s call.
“If you know someone who would make a good priest, tell him so,” Father Koczera said. “I wouldn’t have considered a vocation to the Society of Jesus if I had not been encouraged to consider it by others, so I believe strongly in the importance of a personal invitation.”