October 31, 2014

Religious Vocations Supplement

New Albany priest seeks to remind people of God’s presence

Father Daniel Atkins, pastor of Holy Family Parish in New Albany, poses on Sept. 18 with students at the parish’s school during a walkathon it sponsored. (Submitted photo)

Father Daniel Atkins, pastor of Holy Family Parish in New Albany, poses on Sept. 18 with students at the parish’s school during a walkathon it sponsored. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Priests might learn about the meaning of their vocation through prayer or from the wise words of a spiritual director or seminary professor.

Father Daniel Atkins gained insight into his calling from a football player at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

Father Atkins, 66, served as chaplain at the school from 1989-94. One night while standing along the sidelines at a football game, he was confused by a stoppage in play and an ensuing conference between coaches and game officials.

A player tried to explain the situation to him.

“I must have had a stupid look on my face,” said Father Atkins. “He said, ‘You don’t understand, do you Father?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ He said, ‘It’s OK. The last priest didn’t either.’

“When we were coming off the field, he came up to me and said, ‘Father, you don’t have to understand all the rules of football. That’s why we have coaches and referees. You’re just out there to remind us that God is with us.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

Wherever Father Atkins has ministered—at Roncalli, in parishes and at Indiana University in Bloomington—he has sought to carry out that mission.

“If I go to a hospital and the doctor comes in and starts talking about medical terminology, I really don’t get rattled,” he said. “I am not there to be a translator for a doctor. I’m just there to help the people remember that God is with them.”

Currently, Father Atkins serves as the pastor of Holy Family Parish in New Albany, not far from Floyds Knobs where he grew up.

During his childhood and teenage years, Father Atkins and his family were members of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County. His sister, Jackie Vetter of Palmetto, Fla., said he liked serving at Mass there.

“He always wanted to be in church,” said Vetter. “There were times when we had to walk down St. Mary’s Road because he was determined that we were going to go to church.”

Father Atkins’ faith blossomed in a different way as a young adult when, during a difficult time in the life of his family, he brought Vetter to Kansas where he was a college student and took care of her.

“He was putting himself through college,” said Vetter. “He took very good care of me. … He put me through school. He always gave me encouragement.”

Father Atkins gave encouragement to a broader audience after graduating from college in 1973, and began teaching English and religion at his alma mater, Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville.

Mark Lilly, a member of Holy Family Parish, had Father Atkins as his teacher for sophomore religion at Providence in 1979.

“He really caused me at that age to examine my faith in the Catholic Church,” Lilly said. “It wasn’t a textbook type of religious education. It was more heartfelt. It was a deeper kind of faith formation … ”

Father Atkins described his approach to teaching the faith to his students.

“I really enjoyed helping young people to take hold of their faith,” he said. “It wasn’t a matter of telling them what to think, but to help them to know how to think.”

While teaching at Providence, Father Atkins was encouraged by the school’s chaplain, Father Wilfred “Sonny” Day, to take summer school classes in theology at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. He spent several summers there.

During this time, Father Day and Father Kenny Sweeny, then-pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, encouraged Father Atkins to consider a possible call to the priesthood. That encouragement continued at Saint Meinrad.

“I was coming back from a class one day and Archbishop Daniel [M. Buechlein], who was then Father Daniel, the rector, stopped me in the hallway and said, ‘When are you going to come down here and study for the priesthood?’ recalled Father Atkins.

He eventually contacted the archdiocesan vocations office and become a seminarian in the fall of 1984.

Father Atkins received his priestly formation at Saint Meinrad. In the fall of his final year at the seminary before he was ordained a priest in 1987, he began to feel a confirmation in prayer that the priesthood truly was the calling that God had given him.

“I did a lot of walking at night, praying, just asking God, ‘Do you really want me to do this?’ ” Father Atkins said. “I knew that I was very happy and energized about my studies. I loved my classes, especially Scripture.”

After ministering at Roncalli, Father Atkins served at St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington for 11 years starting in 1994.

Ministering in the Indiana University community, especially among the faculty members, was intimidating at first.

“I learned a lot about how a priest can’t just pick and choose where he’s going to go simply based on where he feels comfortable,” Father Atkins said. “Sometimes a priest’s presence is needed where he would normally not choose to go.”

According to Mark Erdosy, however, Father Atkins was “personable, open and genuine” among the students and faculty at IU.

“He always looked for the good in other people,” said Erdosy, who assisted Father Atkins in his ministry at St. Paul. “Even when he really disagreed with people, he would still try to find that one thing that he could hang on to and bring it forth.”

What attracted students to Father Atkins, Erdosy said, was his availability and his warm desire to bring them close to Christ.

“He invested himself 100 percent in his ministry there,” Erdosy said. “He loved the students, loved their questions. He wanted to help them grow in their faith. When they encountered difficulties in their life, he wanted to be Christ’s healing presence for [them].”

That availability has continued in his parish ministry at Holy Family, says Father Day, who preceded his friend as pastor of the New Albany Deanery faith community.

“As soon as you call, if he can, he’s there for you,” said Father Day, who now serves as pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Starlight. “He’ll respond as best he can with the gifts he has.”

The selflessness he shows in caring for his parishioners when they are in need is related to the Eucharist for Father Atkins.

“Every celebration of the Eucharist, for me, reminds me that I’m not a priest for myself,” he said. “I’m a priest for God’s people. My being a priest for them reminds me that I belong, that I have a family. It’s an experience of love and unity.”

(For more information about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to www.HearGodsCall.com.)

More about Father Daniel Atkins

  • Age: 66
  • Parents: Carl and Margaret Atkins
  • Education: Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville; Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan.; Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad
  • Favorite Scripture passage: Phil 2:5-11
  • Favorite saint: St. John XXIII
  • Favorite prayer or devotion: Liturgy of the Hours
  • Favorite spiritual author: Franciscan Father Richard Rohr (“When I can understand him,” says Father Atkins with a laugh.)
  • Hobbies: Playing the guitar

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