Orlando R. Barone
is a writer in Doylestown
He was the finest athlete I ever saw up close, certainly the best I ever played against. I got to know him in high school, where he was a varsity baseball player. I sat right behind him in homeroom for two of our four years at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, because of the alphabet. He was Atkinson; I was Barone.
He was unassuming and good-natured, but not the sort of person who would up and decide to become a priest. When he up and decided to become a priest, I was surprised. I had up and decided the same thing, and our connection continued in the Augustinian seminary.
This is where we played, mainly touch football. He was fast, gifted with ridiculous reflexes, and able to catch anything thrown near him. The one time I was sure I would tag him, we were playing in a downpour. He pulled the football out of the air, tucked it away, and watched me angling toward him at top speed. The muck was too slick to permit his escape.
So he went into a slide, sort of as if he were on a skateboard. I yelled something unpriestly as I ran harmlessly past him; he loped into the end zone.
Our rooms faced each other, so we could look across the corridor and chat, a forbidden activity we indulged in daily. One especially gloomy evening I revealed all the anxiety and grief I was then suffering. "How do you handle it when everything is going wrong?" I asked him.
His response was swift and completely unexpected. "I just look up," he answered, glancing at the ceiling, "and say, 'Thy will be done.' "
During our second year, our novitiate, he stopped playing ball forever. He was thrown from a toboggan after the season's final snowfall. His forehead fiercely smacked a skinny tree, and he was paralyzed.
At the hospital he was pronounced terminal. "He won't live out the night," his doctors said, unaware that, although he couldn't move a muscle and was temporarily blind, he could hear just fine. For example, for the first time in his life he heard the word quadriplegic.
The doctors did him an unintended favor. Their casual dismissiveness, combined with their heroic efforts to stabilize him, gave him one, only one, area of control. He could prove them wrong. He could live.
And he did.
This was the first of four impossible feats the former athlete performed. The second was to arrange for physical therapy at a time when people with his level of disability rarely received it. At Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, he eventually learned to feed himself and to work an electric wheelchair.
The third impossibility was the resumption of his studies for the priesthood. In the history of the Catholic Church, no one with his level of disability was known to have been ordained a priest. I was there in 1974 when Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia made that very point as he ordained Bill an Augustinian priest.
For almost three decades he taught and counseled and labored at our alma mater, Bonner. Thousands of young men and women experienced his witness and inspiration. They were every one the better for it.
I knew his favorite prayer: Thy will be done. He taught me what it meant. He made it his life's work to accept the will of God, yes, but no part of that acceptance implied acquiescence. He always took firm control where he could.
He decided to live when medical science said no dice. He decided on rehabilitation when nobody was rehabilitating the likes of him. He decided on the priesthood when a musty, 2,000-year-old door barred the way. And he lived the most productive and meaningful life of anyone I ever knew.
You don't need to take my word for it. A few weeks ago, the fourth impossibility occurred.
The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, by acclamation on Nov. 17, declared that his cause for sainthood would move forward. I'm glad this didn't happen while he was with us. He survived a presumably fatal spinal injury, but, if he heard he was going to be canonized a saint, I'm afraid he'd have laughed himself to death.
St. Bill. Imagine that. They tell me that to be canonized, a person needs to have three miracles certified. I can attest to four, one over the limit. I hope it doesn't disqualify him. In these times, his story of faith, hope, and courage needs desperately to be told.
I just hope he doesn't become "the quadriplegic saint." We who knew Bill Atkinson never looked upon him as disabled. If anything, he helped us see our own disabilities. He taught high school for many years, and was known as "tough," according to my nephew, who had him in class. "What do you mean by tough?" I asked. "He can't hit you."
"No, Uncle Lon, it's not that," he replied. "It's just so hard to go up to him and say, 'I can't do it.' You don't say, 'I can't do it' to Father Atkinson."
I'm not going to worry about it, though. I'll just look up, give him a wink, and pray to the God he loved through it all, "Thy will be done."