June 6, 2019 — “If you want to live in religious life, you must hang on to Jesus Christ; if he is not in first place, then you are in the wrong place.” With half a century of work behind him, this is the advice that Fr. Pierre Côté, SJ, offers to new Jesuits. We interviewed him on the occasion of his 50th anniversary in the priesthood.
A Minister of Care
Fr. Côté grew up in a (very) big family: the youngest of 20 sisters and brothers, two of whom are priests. Even at the age of 8 or 10, Pierre knew he wanted to enter religious life. He did not want to be a diocesan priest like his brothers, he wanted to live in a community. But which one? At 17, he accidentally (or was it an accident?) fell upon a brochure explaining what the Society of Jesus was all about.
Thereafter, things moved very quickly: he went to the novitiate in St-Jérôme and… came back home with all the necessary paperwork enabling him to begin his journey with the Society. How did he realize that he was going to be alright with the Jesuits? “I knew it was the right choice. No need to look elsewhere in that case!” On the one hand, the Society of Jesus offered a structured formation and, on the other hand, it allowed its members to develop their skills in order to contribute to the world professionally. And it is at the heart of this world that Fr. Côté, after his formation and a PhD on marriage, has spent all of his life.
Pierre first worked for 20 years at the Parish of l’Immaculée-Conception, in Montreal. As a priest, he helped his parishioners in all moments of their lives. “The most important thing is to be with people. If you run a parish, you meet persons from birth to death, in the good times and the most difficult ones.” One cannot help but feel that this Jesuit has a deep desire to be there for others and to help them in every way possible.
photo credit: Marc Rizzetto
Another piercing moment during the interview was when Fr. Côté reminisced about the way in which he helped several moribund people. He has fond memories of them, including family members, some as young as 25 days. “My relationship with Jesus allowed me to help others transition to the other life, a passage which transforms a person even physically.” He also helped these individuals deal with their grief.
An Experienced Administrator
If being a priest was always the most important role in his life, Fr. Côté also developed many administrative skills as episcopal vicar, namely the link between the bishop and parishes. Indeed, he was the assistant to Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, Archdiocese of Montreal, for 20 years. Used to never taking any holidays since he was young (!), Fr. Côté literally worked non-stop: “As a priest and as a vicar as well, there was always work to do.”
Amongst his many tasks, some were more delicate than others. For example, he had to shut down 35 of the 85 parishes under his supervision. “For instance, on Adam Street, there were 5 parishes in a 2.5 km radius, and I had to close down 3 of them.” But then again, he understood that these decisions went beyond economical and managerial reasons, that closing down a parish touches parishioners in their sense of belonging, their memories. That is why he always tried to obtain a consensus from the priests and to speak with the parishioners.
After being episcopal vicar, Fr. Côté worked for 2 years at the Villa Saint-Martin. And he is now Minister of the Maison Bellarmin, Hotelier and Provincial Bursar.
A Vision for the Jesuits of Tomorrow
With 50 years of experience as a religious and a full life, what is Fr. Côté’s vision for the Jesuits of Canada? “On the one hand, we must ensure that the foundations of the Jesuits of Canada be well-established from a legal standpoint, which they now are. On the other hand, the Society must instill a spiritual dimension into society, respect for life and for the person,” namely through spirituality resources that are easily recognizable and accessible.
photo credit: Marc Rizzetto
50 Years in the Priesthood
Fr. Côté entered the Society in 1961 and was ordained in 1969. Reminiscing 50 years later about his ordination is a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, he feels immense joy when remembering that day and the next one, his first mass with his brothers. His 50th anniversary in the priesthood was also a time of gratitude for half a century in the service of others. Jesuits, family and friends were present to celebrate with him, even the auxiliary bishop, who gave a very moving testimony.
photo credit: Marc Rizzetto
But on the other hand, this celebration brought back some difficult memories, such as the laicization of his brother the day after his first Mass and other moments in his journey. However, as Fr. Côté underlined in his homily during the celebration, faith was and remains at the centre of his life. “The Gospel is a text which has kept and still keeps me on track in my life. For some time now, I have been struck by the words of Jesus – ‘My Father and I, we are one.’” Fr. Côté’s life truly reflects the challenges and joys of putting into practice the various facets of this unity.
Fr. Côté said that Cardinal Turcotte had a great influence in his life because of his simplicity and honesty. After this interview, it seems that Fr. Côté is endowed with the same qualities – profoundly human and serving Christ and others for more than 50 years.
To know more about Fr. Côté, you can watch this video (in French) of when he received the diocesan merit Monsignor Ignace-Bourget in Montreal.