Philadelphia, Pa., Oct 22, 2021 / 08:00 am (CNA).
Father Bill Atkinson, an Augustinian priest from Philadelphia who died in 2006, is one step closer in the cause for canonization. In a ceremony on Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia officially closed the diocesan phase, which is the first step in the process. The archdiocese will now hand over all materials to Rome for further examination.
“He was really a very quiet man, a humble man, but a very dedicated and devout individual in terms of his commitment to religious life, to his Augustinian identity, and to his service working for 30 years with young men in one of our high schools,” said Father Michael Di Gregorio, O.S.A., prior provincial of the Province of St. Thomas of Villanova, of which Father Bill was a member.
Father Bill was the first priest to be ordained who was a quadriplegic. He was paralyzed from the neck down in a sledding accident during his first year in the novitiate for the Order of Saint Augustine, also known as the Augustinians.
“He was always responsive to requests that were made of him to use his ministry on behalf of other people who were in situations that could be identified with his own in terms of his disability,” Father Michael said.
He often visited hospitals and spoke to veterans who had been injured, using his own experience as a paraplegic to minister to those who had disabilities.
“There’s something very ordinary about Father Bill in terms of how he did his work,” Father Michael said. “The extraordinary part was that he did his work, his ministry, exercised his priesthood in the context of great limitation—a physical limitation, but certainly not any limitation in terms of his mental ability or his will and his desire to be of service.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1946, Father Bill entered the novitiate following a year as a postulant at Augustinian Academy in Staten Island, New York. In the accident, it was unclear if Father Bill would survive, so he was given the opportunity to profess first vows from the hospital bed. He began a long and extensive rehabilitation process and continued in the novitiate.
“I really noticed most of all that he was just one of the rest of us,” said Father Michael, who lived with Father Bill during several years of formation. “He was in a wheelchair and needed the assistance of others around him all the time, but he participated in everything that we did. He was always at prayer. He came to meals with us. He fit right in, and never saw himself or wanted others to see him as different from the rest of us.”
Almost nine years after the accident, Father Bill completed his studies and petitioned St. Paul VI to be ordained a priest. The pope granted a dispensation and on Feb. 2, 1974, Father Bill was ordained a priest.
“He did what he needed to do without any assurance of where it would lead—it had never been done before,” Father Michael said. “He wrote his letter to Pope Paul VI and the answer came back, ‘Yes, it’s possible.’”
“Perseverance was a great hallmark of his life, but it wasn’t guaranteed. It was always a trust that whatever God’s will is here, that’s what will happen,” Father Michael said.
Father Bill died Sept. 15, 2006, at Saint Thomas Monastery at Villanova University. Several years later, the Augustinians decided to examine the possibility of introducing a cause for canonization. The postulator general met with relatives, friars, friends, and caretakers of Father Bill, and asked them to explain to him their reasons for wishing to have Father Bill’s cause introduced.
“Father Joseph, who was the postulator, said, ‘Well, you have convinced me that this is a cause that we should undertake.’” Father Michael said.
The postulator gathered written material over several months and made an appointment with Archbishop Charles Chaput, then the Archbishop of Philadelphia, who then took it to the USCCB for a confirmation.
“The response was overwhelmingly positive, if not unanimous,” Father Michael said.
In 2015, Archbishop Chaput appointed a tribunal and an historical commission to look at documentation about Father Bill. The tribunal was charged with the task of interviewing people who knew Father Bill and who wanted to offer testimony toward the cause.
“This is where all the ground work is done in speaking to people, in gathering information,” Father Michael said.
The closing ceremony, which was held at Saint Thomas of Villanova Church Oct. 19, marked the official end of the first phase of the process. The materials were bound and sealed in preparation for the transfer to Rome, where the cause will go before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to make sure the process was completed correctly.
“Then we need to wait for a miracle—a miracle can happen at any time along the process,” Father Michael said. “There are some favors that have been presented to us that we forwarded to our postulator general.”
If a miracle happens, it can speed up the process and put someone in a higher priority for review, Father Michael said.
“From our perspective, what seems to have been given as a great cross became a great opportunity, because he was able to touch and influence the lives of people precisely through his challenge that he might never have had the opportunity to touch otherwise,” Father Michael said.
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