By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 30, 2012
Father Chris Williamson wears a golden ring on his left hand. There’s a crucifix, along with sheaf of wheat, Jacob’s ladder, a scimitar and other symbols. A Lutheran friend gave it to him shortly after his ordination.
“It’s a declaration of faith. It’s like a rosary. You can say a prayer on it,” said Father Williamson.
Indeed, for a man who spent six years in a Benedictine monastery, the ring reveals at least partially how he sees his ministry.
At any time, at any place, one can say a prayer. When an ambulance passes by, pray for the patient and the emergency workers. When a police car rushes past, pray for the restoration of order and security.
Prayer means “offering your heart to God,” he said.
Father Williamson, 68, retired during the summer after six years at St. Joseph Church, Washington, on the eastern edge of the archdiocese. He served as a priest for 25 years in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Now, he is getting to know his way around St. George Village, a Roswell retirement community. Over a lunch of lasagna, French fries, washed down with sweet tea, he talked about growing up in Ireland, his love of traveling and what brought him to ordination at the age of 45 and then the United States. He wears a white shirt open at the collar, suspenders, wire-framed glasses.
A witty man, he pokes fun at his family and his own life. Asked about growing up, he said, “I grew up a little saint. Every time someone saw me, they’d say, ‘Good God, here he comes.’”
Or some former parishioners would look at him skeptically when he joked a collection at Mass would go to “Father Chris Williamson’s Barbados retreat fund.”
Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, he is one of seven siblings. His father sold tobacco to shops around southern Ireland, leaving the family for a week at a time. His parents were devout with two sons becoming priests and two daughters as religious sisters for a time before each left her congregation.
Father Williamson’s 20s were not spent in church. He lived in London and traveled the United Kingdom to set up betting stations at horse racetracks. He rarely went to church. “Laziness,” he said. At one time, he even traveled to India as part of a large group traveling with the Beatle George Harrison.
But later, to please his mother, he attended an Easter Vigil Mass back at his Dublin home parish. An usher pointed at him, and Father Williamson feared he was being kicked out. But instead, he was asked to take up the offertory gifts.
“I suddenly felt like I was the only one in the church. I was trembling all over. To this day, it was the most extraordinary day in my life,” he said.
That and other experiences brought him back to his faith. And with an interest in meditation, he first explored a vocation at monasteries. He was invited to Atlanta after six years as a Benedictine monk.
“I fell in love with the trees in Georgia,” he said.
Since his ordination to the priesthood by Archbishop Eugene A. Marino, SSJ, in 1988, he has served mostly in the rural parts of the archdiocese. He spent a dozen years at St. Anthony of Padua Church, Blue Ridge, close to the Tennessee and North Carolina border, and also ministered at Good Samaritan Church, Ellijay. He was also assigned at times to All Saints Church, Dunwoody; Christ the King Cathedral, Atlanta; and St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville.
With his monastic background, prayer has long been important to him.
“For me, to be a priest, there’s no substitute for prayer,” he said. But he thinks people lose the richness of prayer when they rush through line by line.
The “secret of prayer is praise,” he said. Father Williamson said he’s prayed in tongues at times. “You don’t know what you are saying, but you are saying it enthused,” he joked.
As ordination approached, he recalled his eagerness to celebrate the sacraments.
“I couldn’t wait to say Mass. That was the be all and end all. I just loved being a priest,” he said. But being a new priest can be humbling “as you get corners knocked off you by experience.” Answers learned in seminary don’t always ring true in people’s lives and it requires a man to readjust, he said.
And now retired, he said he looks forward to celebrating Mass but in a different role, where others lead the worship and he concelebrates.
“God gave me some time to rest before he calls me to himself,” he said.