By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 24, 2017
ATLANTA—Just as Jesus went into the desert to pray, the deserts of the American West were Father Bruce Wilkinson’s destination for contemplation.
His recent journey for time away and study included the Vatican Observatory in Arizona to stare some 2.5 million light years away at the Andromeda Galaxy.
“You see the entire sky as it really is. You feel the vastness of creation,” he said, sipping from a large cup of coffee at Community Grounds, a coffee shop in south Atlanta.
He wore a large crucifix around his neck. The crucifix, in addition to being a statement of faith, serves as a conversation starter for folks who seem to wear religious items as a fashion accessory, he said.
After 36 years in the pulpit, Father Wilkinson stepped away from full-time ministry this summer and retired. He will continue to celebrate Mass and provide other sacramental duties at area parishes.
Now 62, Father Wilkinson was raised in a close-knit family in Chicago where his mother taught at a public school and his father was a city worker.
Faith life was not a regular part of his upbringing, although his parents were Baptist. Scouting brought him in touch with the faith and various churches.
He first stepped into a Catholic church to make good on a bet after losing a card game. He agreed the loser would go to the other person’s church. So he went into his neighborhood parish church in Chicago, a place he knew because it was part of the landscape, but had never entered. He was intrigued by what he heard and saw there as priests raised their voices for justice and were grounded in bringing the Gospel to the wider community. When he came to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College, he worshipped at St. Anthony of Padua Church, in the West End neighborhood. He attended classes in the Catholic faith taught by Father Eusebius Beltran, who would soon become a bishop, and by the late Msgr. Frank Giusta. He was received into the Catholic Church at Easter 1974 at St. Anthony of Padua.
“It all fit together. As a mathematics major, I liked logic. As I started to listen, I heard a cohesive theology,” Father Wilkinson said.
One request fulfilled
He attended St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana and Collegium Josephinum, Columbus, Ohio, where he studied theology for three years. It was a complicated time for him. As the only black student among hundreds of others, Father Wilkerson at times felt isolated and faced racial animosity.
But at the same time, his new faith was revived by the words and actions of priests in Chicago who fought on behalf of justice, dismantling segregation and erasing racial lines.
He was ordained on June 27, 1981, by Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan at the Cathedral of Christ the King. His first assignment was at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur, and later he was an assistant pastor and pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church. He served as pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament Church, Atlanta, starting in 1992 until 2016.
Reflecting on his ministry, he said God fulfilled his one request. “Please give me something that is exciting every day. I laughed when God said, ‘You got it.’”
He sees the power of the priesthood in “intangibles,” people saying thanks for a forgotten conversation from years ago or a young man not normally an altar server coming forward so he could serve with an African-American priest at Mass.
“You never realize the impact you have,” Father Wilkinson said.
As for liturgy, Father Wilkinson said in a 2010 Georgia Bulletin interview, “Now I find liturgy to be a much more personal encounter with the Lord Jesus. I always felt that. I feel it more now, even when I visit a parish and sit in the pew. It is still a joyous, mystical gift Jesus has left us.”
“Being a priest is not what you give up. It’s what you receive. It’s a blessing,” Father Wilkinson said then.
Early role in black Catholic ministry
His roles included starting a ministry with and for black Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese and becoming first secretary of that ministry in the early 1980s. This became the Office for Black Catholic Ministry. Following the development of a guiding vision for the archdiocese in its 2015 Pastoral Plan, the ministry became part of a newly formed Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity. An annual award given to celebrate exemplary service in evangelization in Atlanta parishes was created in 2002 and named in his honor. He was the first recipient of the award.
Living in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood, he has come across Black Lives Matter rallies in city streets. He said amid the struggle, he sees hopefulness in the movement with both black and white people coming together in common concern about police shootings of unarmed black men.
After the racial tensions in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 11-12, he said now isn’t the time for Catholic leaders to show “ivory tower engagement.”
Instead, he said, now is the time for “serious discussions on the issues of racism and discrimination in our churches and to begin some steps so that we can all engage together against this sin in our midst.”
He can be found on social media. With his Twitter handle @atlantapadre, Father Wilkinson touches on a range of topics, from words of thanks for the vision of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, to keeping tabs on the successes and pitfalls of his beloved Chicago White Sox, to touting advances in astronomy.
“Astronomy gives eyes to God’s cosmos and creativity,” he wrote in a tweet.
He has not been shy to use social media to ask moral questions about presidential policies.
Social media is an opening to engage with people and the opportunity to move from there to a lived faith experience, he said, adding he can envision a social media ministry sharing the “joy of living the faith.”
Astronomy, both poetry and faith
With his love of the stars, Father Wilkinson speaks of the night sky in the language of faith.
It is the “awesomeness of being before God,” he said. “You just want to hold it. But you cannot because it is going to go away.”
He is active in local astronomy clubs. He gave away a telescope a while ago, instead relying on powerful stargazing binoculars to look at what is above. His recent trips on Amtrak included the Vatican Observatory in Arizona and the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of west Texas.
He looked forward to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, with a reservation to stay close to Lake Hartwell along the “centerline” of the natural phenomena.
There is no mystery about what would happen, but to him there is a beauty to an eclipse indescribable until those minutes of darkness.
“Even though we know the science of it, it reveals something of ourselves,” said Father Wilkinson. “It’s an experience that God reveals the amazingness of creation.”