Strength in Weakness: Servant of God Father William Atkinson, O.S.A.

by Theresa Cavicchio

“[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’ … Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9 – 10).

Father William Atkinson, OSA (photo courtesy of the Province of St. Thomas of Villanova)

On October 3, 2023, a symposium was held at Villanova University; its theme, “Overcoming Hardship with Faith, Hope, and Perseverance.” To grasp the full import of that theme, we must try to imagine spending forty-plus years of life unable to do a single thing for ourselves, even the most basic functions of our own personal care.

The subject of that Villanova symposium was Father William (Bill) Atkinson, O.S.A. (1946 – 2006), a man who personified the reality of overcoming hardship – through faith, hope, and perseverance.

Father Bill’s faith was nurtured to fruition in a Philadelphia suburb. Life for him, his parents, and six siblings revolved around their parish church, Saint Alice, where they worshiped and served. The children attended its parochial school and then Catholic high school.

A natural athlete, Bill greatly enjoyed participating in sports. He chose a somewhat unexpected path after graduating from Monsignor Bonner High School, expressing his desire to enter the Augustinian religious Order. His faith had instilled in him a call to the priesthood, and he was ready to respond.

After his postulant year in Staten Island, New York, Bill entered the novitiate in New Hamburg: a time of solitude, prayer, and brotherhood with fellow novices. Physical activities, including the sports Bill always loved, were encouraged.

On February 22, 1965, a new snowfall provided the perfect opportunity for tobogganing, but what began as a fun experience suddenly turned disastrous. Bill’s toboggan swerved off the path, crashing into a tree. Other riders were thrown off but unhurt; Bill hit the tree head-on, and his life changed forever.

Hospitalized and believed in danger of death, Bill pronounced temporary first vows. As time went on, he had to confront the grim reality of his condition – almost total paralysis, with limited movement of his head, neck, shoulders, and arms.

During the many long months of recuperation, the virtue of hope eventually became a beacon lighting Bill’s way toward acceptance – both of his condition and of his total, unending reliance on others. His firm belief that he was following God’s will for his life fueled his zealous determination to achieve the goal of ordination.

Back at Villanova following lengthy rehabilitation, Bill received consistent support wherever possible from his Augustinian community. In repeated daily acts of humility, Bill relied also on family members and friends as caretakers for his personal needs. Bill looked upon them as true God-sends without whom he realized he could not live. For their part, time spent with him became his gift to them in return.

With great determination, Bill continued with his seminary studies, uncomplaining, typing papers one key at a time with a pencil held in fingers or mouth. Since Canon Law at the time forbade ordination in cases of paralysis, Bill wrote a heartfelt personal letter to Pope Paul VI, requesting a dispensation. He wrote, “The Lord is obviously calling me to a very special vocation closely conformed to His own Cross,” citing “the mysterious love of God working in my weakness … Let it not be my will but His that is done.”

Bill and his many loved ones rejoiced when a succinct message from the Vatican arrived in August 1973: “Atkinson dispensation granted.”

At Saint Alice, the church of his youth, William Atkinson was ordained to the priesthood on February 2, 1974, the first quadriplegic ever in the Catholic Church. His perseverance over the long, difficult road to ordination would stand him in good stead for the journey of more than thirty years to come.

Those years were full and rewarding for Father Bill. He reveled in the Jersey shore among family and friends. His priestly duties were typical: celebrating Mass, administering the sacraments, and offering counsel. At his alma mater, Monsignor Bonner High School, he served in a variety of capacities – managing his classroom skillfully, mentoring young students with great sensitivity, and sometimes accepting their help in what became “teachable moments” for them.

Steve McWilliams was one of many personal caretakers for Father Bill. He chronicled their 25-year relationship through some of their twice-weekly conversations in his book entitled Green Bananas: The Wisdom of Father Bill Atkinson.

On the subject of hope, he wrote: “Doctors and nurses marveled at how many times death knocked on Father Bill’s door, only for him to graciously decline. Moment to moment suffering and pain were his lifelong companions. Yet he saw hope in every second.”

Father Bill’s hope-filled perseverance sustained him over forty years of daily suffering and life-threatening illnesses. Yet he maintained a joyful sense of humor, a sympathetic ear, and a talent for wheelchair-dancing when the music got going. He retired from teaching in 2004 and died in 2006, his lifelong battle finally ended.

Green Bananas cites a quote of Father Bill’s which could be considered his parting message to us: “When I first entered into this life I was given gifts and I wanted to use them. Those gifts were taken away. But God doesn’t take away; He keeps giving. The gifts I lost, He said to me, ‘You don’t need those gifts for this journey; you’ll need these instead.’ And then He sent me the gifts I needed to do this journey. So what I’m saying is the cross is a gift or a loss. You have the power to decide.”

The formal inquiry into Father Bill’s cause for canonization was opened in 2017; he was named a Servant of God in 2021. A video on his life, entitled “extraORDINARY: The Bill Atkinson Story” is available on YouTube. Click here for more information on Father Bill Atkinson.

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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