Fr. Bill Atkinson O.S.A., Cause

AUGUSTINIAN FRIAR, SERVANT OF GOD

The Cause Of Beatification And Canonization Of Fr. Bill Atkinson, O.S.A.

On a quiet night in the middle of August 2014, a group of twenty-five invited guests gathered at Saint Augustine Friary, Villanova, to meet with the Augustinian Postulator General, Fr. Josef Sciberras, O.S.A. The agenda was simple, if a bit unusual. Fr. Josef had come from Rome for an informal conversation with friars and laity, relatives, friends and confreres of Fr. Bill Atkinson, to consider whether or not this friar might someday become a canonized saint of the Church. Fr. Josef offered a challenge to those present: “Convince me that Fr. Bill lived a life of heroic virtue. Persuade me that he is a saint.” One after another, the surprised gatherers told stories of their relationships with Fr. Bill and made a case for his character, virtue, fidelity, ministry, humor and humility. By evening’s end, Fr. Josef acknowledged that he was convinced. If canonization were only that easy! But it did signal an important beginning of a process whose first phase would continue for the next seven years.

Father Bill Atkinson

William E. Atkinson, O.S.A. 1946-2006

Fr. Bill Atkinson before a microphone in a crowded room

Thirteen months later, on the afternoon of September 15, 2015, the very anniversary of Fr. Bill’s death, Fr. Josef, accompanied by Villanova’s prior provincial, met for thirty minutes with Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap, Archbishop of Philadelphia, to present several documents, including a brief biography of Fr. Bill’s life and his own credentials as Postulator General of the Augustinian Order, and requested formally that the Cause for Fr. Bill’s beatification and canonization be opened. The request conformed to the protocol established in the Church which directs that the first stage of the beatification process take place in the diocese in which the candidate died, which, in the case of Fr. Bill, is the same diocese in which he had been born and lived almost his entire life. Archbishop Chaput received the two Augustinians cordially, and spoke about Fr. Bill and the steps of the canonization process, indicating his great pleasure in accepting the Order’s request and pledging to do what he could to further the process.

The United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops

On November 17, 2015 at 4:20 P.M., Archbishop Chaput spoke to the members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, of his decision to introduce the Cause of Fr. Bill Atkinson, O.S.A. and invited their endorsement. “William Atkinson’s cause will be a beautiful one, because it would be a source of encouragement for people with this kind of accident in their life, this kind of disability, but also reminds us of the great generosity of his family and his religious community; they were all called to holiness by their special care for this man. I think he will fit very beautifully into the niche of the communion of saints as a very special patron.” The conference president invited the assembled bishops to indicate their opinion. Their affirmation of the Cause was unanimous.

Three bishops at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2015.
View of the alter at the crowd at St. Thomas of Villanova Church during the solemn opening of the Cause.

The Solemn Opening

All necessary preparations and preliminary inquiries having been made, the evening of Monday, April 24, 2017 was chosen as the date for the official solemn opening of the Cause at St. Thomas of Villanova Church, Villanova. The selection of the date was not arbitrary. It was the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Augustine, a significant celebration on the Augustinian calendar, and an appropriate context for the occasion, as it marked the decisive step which set Augustine on the very same course of holiness that Fr. Bill would travel. The place was the church in which Fr. Bill had been ordained to the diaconate in 1973 and where his funeral was celebrated in 2006, when the first comments regarding the holiness of his life were already circulating. Prior to the opening ceremonies, Archbishop Charles Chaput celebrated the Eucharist at the request of the Province. Concelebrating were the Vicar General of the Order and the Prior Provincial, together with a number of priests of the Archdiocese. A very large number of friars of the province were in attendance, as were many members of Fr. Bill’s family, his friends, former students and caregivers.

The Process

This first of several phases of the Cause was to be the work of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and not of the Augustinians. The Tribunal – responsible for interviewing witnesses, and the Historical Commission – accountable for collecting documentation, would spend the next four years carrying out their respective duties with great diligence. For its part, the Order, principally through the initiatives of the Province of St. Thomas of Villanova, accepted the task of making the life and message of the Servant of God more widely known through the establishment of the Father Bill Atkinson Guild, a host of speaking engagements to parishes and organizations, the publication of articles and devotional material and the production of video presentations. The tenth anniversary of Fr. Bill’s death in 2016 was celebrated with a widely attended Mass and reception. While these initiatives were not proper to the Cause or its Process, they were important in raising awareness of the Cause among the public.

Man speaking at the pulpit.
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The Closing Of The Archdiocesan Phase

The substantial work of both the Tribunal and Historical Commission was brought to conclusion in the fall of 2021. Fifty-two witnesses had been interviewed by the first and seven hundred and seventy-two documents had been examined by the latter. Reports of all this work had been drawn up and presented, and copies of all documents made, packaged and sealed, two sets of which would be sent to the Office of the Congregation of Causes of Saints in Rome. The work of the Archdiocesan Process was near to its end. There remained only the formal ceremony to be presided over by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, now Nelson Perez. Before a packed gathering of friars, family and friends of Father Atkinson, convoked once again in the Villanova church, Msgr. Daniel Sullivan, Vicar for Retired and Infirm Clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, spoke the following words, “In the year of our Lord 2021, on this the 19th day of October at 6:30 PM, at St. Thomas of Villanova Church in Villanova Pennsylvania, before the archbishop, in the presence of the episcopal delegate, the promoter of justice, the notary, the substitute notary and the postulator general, all duly cited, we are gathered to close the archdiocesan inquiry into the life, heroic virtues, reputation of holiness and of intercessory power of the servant of God, William Atkinson, a professed priest of the Order of St. Augustine.”

Next Steps

Two copies of the work of the Archdiocesan Tribunal and Commission were delivered to the Congregation in Rome. The Cause now awaits the examination of this same material by Church experts in order to pass to the next step which, if approved, will decree that the candidate has indeed shown heroic virtue. Then follows the examination of writings by a panel of theologians, after which the Servant of God may be declared venerable. The next major advancement of the Cause is the declaration of the candidate as ‘blessed’ which depends on the judgment by physicians, theologians and cardinals, that a miraculous favor has been obtained through the candidate’s intercession. A second miracle, following the ceremony of beatification, brings the papal pronouncement that the individual is a saint. Certainly, the process follows no predetermined timeline. Prayer and patience are essential elements. However, the work of advancing the Cause is greatly enhanced through the initiatives undertaken by the Augustinians, the Archdiocese and by many interested individuals, to bring Fr. Bill’s story to wider audiences, to pray, and to recommend prayers through his intercession, on behalf of those in need of strength, courage, healing and perseverance – the virtues which he himself exhibited so clearly.

St. Peter's Basillica in Vatican City Square