Fr. Bill Atkinson, O.S.A. Symposium at Villanova | From the Desk of Fr. Rob

November 1, 2023

Dear friend of the Augustinians,
On Tuesday, October 3, over 150 people joined the Augustinian Friars, special lecturers, and friends and family of Servant of God Fr. Bill Atkinson, O.S.A. for a special symposium discussing Fr. Bill’s extraordinary life and the Cause for his beatification and canonization.
We Augustinians are very excited and invested in the Cause of our brother, Fr. Bill. There are a number of ways in which we – as Augustinian Friars, as a Province, and as an Order – have promoted awareness of Fr. Bill’s Cause through prayer, novenas, pilgrimages, and educational days at parishes and schools. This symposium was a more academically-focused one, but with the same purpose: to invite both existing and new members of our community into the spirituality of disability, and to see the grace of our Lord reflected through the life of Fr. Bill as well as others all around us.
We began planning for this symposium with an eye to create more visibility of Fr. Bill’s Cause. Our friends at Villanova University graciously hosted and co-sponsored the event with our Province. We looked for speakers who would discuss different aspects of the spirituality of disability, and we were delighted to host Dr. Brendan T. Sammon, Ph.D., associate professor at St. Joseph’s University. 
Dr. Sammon spoke on the beauty of all God’s creation during a very enlightening academic presentation. He calls us to remember that God “disabled himself on the cross for us.” Such love was in that sacrifice, and so much good came from it! Dr. Sammon particularly highlighted the virtue of dependence. So many people celebrate their independence, but there is incredible value to each of us and to our community when we recognize how much we need each other, and how much we need God and God’s grace. Father Bill’s life really embodied that. Everyone who knew him remembered that he was not a complainer, even though he had much to complain about. Instead, he chose to depend on God’s grace, his family, and friends; live with gratitude; and to love the life that God gave him. A disabled body may be a reminder of our limitations, but people like Father Bill can teach us how God helps us to rise above our limitations.
Father Thomas F. Dailey, O.S.F.S., professor of theology at St. Charles Seminary, did a wonderful job of helping us understand the process for canonization. He was very clear that, as much as we would all like Fr. Bill to become a saint tomorrow, it can take time and it is upon all of us to continue to pray. Don’t be discouraged if everything you prayed for has not come to pass; Fr. Bill once said that while “he didn’t get everything he asked for, he did get everything he hoped for.”
Fr. Tom also reminded us that the saints help us to see Christ continually present in our world – how real people in our everyday lives, who live with heroic virtue, can draw us closer to God. Fr. Tom fielded an insightful question about relics from one of the students in attendance from Pope John Paul II High School, and stated that relics “are a tangible connection to a saint that remind us we are all called to be holy.” Pope John Paul II High School is doing some amazing things around Fr. Bill’s life. They chose Green Bananas: The Wisdom of Father Bill Atkinson as their “One School, One Book” selection; once a week they pray the prayer for Fr. Bill’s canonization; the administration created prayer cards and distributed them to the students – they even made posters with information about Fr. Bill and hung them up in every classroom and office. Did you know that throughout his life, Fr. Bill taught and impacted over 40,000 high school students? We can all imagine all the life lessons that he imparted – perhaps none more notable than during his time supervising the detention room, or what was called Justice Under God (J.U.G.). Memories of J.U.G. were shared by many people who, though they were disciplined, discovered much wisdom through the experience.
We were treated to a visit by the most Reverend Nelson J. Pérez, Archbishop of Philadelphia, who blessed us and shared his reflections on the value of the Communion of Saints and some of the many of the lessons we can learn from Father Bill’s life. The Archbishop emphasized a line from one of Fr. Bill’s poems, “The Strength of Others,” about how Fr. Bill’s family, friends, and the strength of others taught him “to live, not just to cope.” As Augustine reminds us, Fr. Bill found his rest when he rested with God.
The day culminated in a panel discussion featuring four very special individuals whose lives were impacted by Fr. Bill: his sister Joan Mullen; his student and caretaker Ted Donnelly; Anne Marie Dolceamore, assistant principal of Monsignor Bonner & Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School, who attributes a significant healing in her life to God through the intercession of Fr. Bill; and Michael Gaynor, executive director of undergraduate admission at Villanova University, who spoke both as a friend of Fr. Bill and as a caregiver of his own disabled children who have brought joy and meaning to his life and the life of his family.
There are many accounts of what you might call Fr. Bill’s miraculous intercession, which we are collecting and sending to Rome for further verification. Fr. Tom noted that while Fr. Bill’s first attributed miracle may occur at any time, the second miracle must occur after Fr. Bill is beatified, so you can see that this is an extended process. Many people reflected on how Fr. Bill always spoke to God while he was waiting, whether it was for an elevator or a doctor’s appointment. Fr. Bill waited a lot, and in the waiting, he was brought closer to God. Perhaps in our waiting, we too can be brought closer to God, to Fr. Bill, and to others.
It was a joyful day in the company of loved ones, friends, family, and the extended Augustinian family. This day was a day of prayer, a day of awareness, and a day in solidarity with so many others who are waiting for healing, forgiveness, and peace. Hopefully it was a day when people discovered a new friend in Fr. Bill, who can offer them inspiration and hope as they move through their daily lives. To me, this feels very much like when you have a good friend, and you are eager to introduce them to all your other friends. My brothers and I are so excited at the prospect of other people getting to know Fr. Bill, his story, and his spirituality for generations to come. Fr. Bill, pray for us.
Peace always,
Fr. Robert P. Hagan, O.S.A.
Prior Provincial