Priest shared life’s wisdom with former student
“Green Bananas: the Wisdom of Father Bill Atkinson” really sounds like a weird title for a book about a deceased priest. You have to know the context.
As author Steve McWilliams explains in his introduction, when Father Atkinson was approached by Villanova University to receive an honorary degree and speak, he wrote back, “I never buy green bananas”.
When asked for a clarification he explained he might not be around when the bananas ripened. If he was alive he would be there. He died a few years later.
Father Bill Atkinson, an Augustinian priest, was 19 and just four months into his novitiate when a 1965 toboggan accident left him a paraplegic and almost completely paralyzed from the neck down.
Despite his severe disability, after more than a year of rehabilitation he resumed his studies and with a special dispensation was ordained a priest by Cardinal John Krol in 1974. He went on to a distinguished teaching career at Monsignor Bonner High School.
Although mentally capable, he was entirely dependent on a team of professionals and volunteers for his most basic physical needs. McWilliams was a Villanova faculty member and volunteer who twice weekly beginning in 1985 dressed Father Atkinson in the morning and would do so for the next two decades.
For most of this time, conversation between the two was very limited.
McWilliams had enormous respect for Father Bill for his patience despite real suffering, but “because of our lack of conversation I would confide to my wife I felt Bill just didn’t like me,” he writes.
This all changed after 18 years; suddenly one morning Father Bill asked McWilliams if he would like to stop by in the evening to watch a game on television and have a beer. What he really wanted was to have McWilliams critique some poetry he wrote.
From this a deep friendship and a real bond grew between the two men. It was after Father Bill’s health forced his retirement that same year that McWilliams suggested he write an inspirational book on spirituality.
Father Bill reluctantly agreed after McWilliams promised to help with the technical end of writing, and so began the series of taped interviews that provides the core of “Green Bananas.” Curiously, it also evolved into spiritual counseling for McWilliams, who had his own spiritual doubts and frustrations.
“You asked what I thought, and I think this is how God works through us,” Father Bill told McWilliams. “Relationships are chances in bringing God’s love to others. It’s not always easy. But if you approach all your relationships as a chance to know God or let God work through you, then I think we can improve our lives. Without love, where would I be?”
Another time he said; “I can’t touch or feel someone’s hand, but I can touch and feel their heart.”
Father Bill died Sept. 15, 2006, before the book was completed, and it was McWilliams’ task to see it through. He and many others who knew Father Bill believed he was a saint, especially because of his deep faith and humble acceptance of very difficult trials.
The book is not a biography; it is a presentation of Father Bill’s spiritual outlook. Perhaps at another time a biography of this remarkable priest who touched many lives can be written.
“Green Bananas: The Wisdom of Father Bill Atkinson” is available in hardcover for $24.95 through Harrowood Books, 3943 North Providence Rd, Newtown Square, PA 19073 and online at http://fatherbillbook.com/