At the Altar

story by CLAIRE DOZER photos by TUCKER COVEY
Father Mike Williams cleans the communion cup after drinking from it. After communion, Father Mike Williams finishes the ceremony by cleaning the communion cup. Due to COVID-19, communion consists only of wafers as passing the cup and drinking from it does not abide by CDC guidelines.

Rev. Mike Williams, from Cynthiana, is the priest at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Campus Center. He grew up conflicted in his Catholic faith.

“I didn’t like being Catholic for a lot of my life because I grew up in a church where God was kind of a ‘black book God,’ always watching you, always trying to find you doing something wrong and he’d send you to hell,” Williams said. “I was really afraid of God.”

Williams remembered the priest at his childhood church, nuns at his school and his own father being mean and hateful. This caused him to associate Catholicism with negative feelings toward himself.

“Dad, father. Priest, father. God, father. All these connections were, ‘Well if father thinks I am a loser, and dad thinks I’m a loser, well then certainly God, the father, must think that I’m a loser,’” Williams said.

When Williams was 17, he left his small town to attend the University of Louisville, where he said his main priority was partying. After failing out of university in his second year and spending much of his early 20s working and partying, it was years later that he realized his life was missing faith.

“I never have doubted since that moment that God loves me, and that he wants me with him, and he’s with me, and I’m going to heaven.”

-Rev. Mike Williams

Rev. Mike Williams of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Campus Center gives out communion wafers during a service on Sept. 21. Communion has had to make some changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically removing the communal wine from the process in order to keep church goers safe.

“It was really when I was 26 or 27 that I thought, ‘I’m gonna go to hell, so what am I gonna have to do to get myself into heaven?’” Williams said.

Due to the negative experiences Williams had in childhood, he never got the chance to figure out the right way of living a godly lifestyle. He only knew that bad feelings came with the mentioning of God.

Williams’ established fear of God as a child caused him to fear the possibility of hell as well.

He said he still did not know much about Catholicism because of the prior negative experiences, but he decided to go to seminary when he was 27 to learn what he did not when growing up. He said going to seminary was his way of making a deal with God to get forgiveness for the time he lost to partying and ignoring his faith years before.

After much spiritual counseling, which he received during his time in seminary, his thoughts about God changed. He realized that the higher power was calling him to preach.

“I really fell in love with the Catholic Church,” Williams said. “I fell in love with God for the first time in my life.”

While studying in Europe in 1996, his last year in seminary, he participated in a six-day silent retreat in Belgium. He said that he began this retreat by going to the gym in the monastery where he was staying and silently begged God to tell him what he needed to know and give him a sign that God loved him.

He said that he walked a lot due to the fact that he was not able to talk. On the fifth day of the retreat, he heard the answer after a near death experience at a small stream in the middle of winter surrounded by two feet of snow. While exploring alone, he nearly slipped into the stream while attempting to cross.

“I remember standing there thinking, ‘Be careful you idiot; you’re out here in the middle of nowhere,’ and then that thought came again, ‘And if you die, you might go to hell,’” Williams said.

This realization of mortality combined with the impact of his surroundings allowed him to hear what he needed to know.

“I could hear the snow falling. It was so quiet,” Williams said . “I’m standing there thinking all these things, and I hear God say, ‘I know where you are. I know where you are.’ That was the end. I never have doubted since that moment that God loves me, and that he wants me with him, and he’s with me, and I’m going to heaven.”

After he graduated from seminary, he began to work with Catholic churches on college campuses. He said that he has always worked with college students, and he loves it because of the physical and mental growth he gets to witness in others. He has seen students become husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and the impact that going to church has had on these roles.

“I’ve seen lots of students come in here angry, or hurt, or frustrated, or confused or sad,” Williams said. “Because of the love of Christ, their lives are changed.”

The struggle to reach this growth can be found in other religions, too.

Sedin Agic, the Imam at the Islamic Center of Bowling Green, said people may have issues with living the life that God wants them to live. Born in Bosnia, he said that he was always taught that someone must be willing to put in the effort to please God by being a sincere and honest person, regardless of which religion they may claim as theirs.

“They want to fit religion according to their life, not to fit their life according to their religion, so there is the conflict,” Agic said.

Regardless of how someone chooses to worship God, both Agic and Williams believe that God has played a pivotal role in the happiness of others. Agic said the positivity one emanates onto another brings hope and comfort to the recipient, something that Williams attempts to do any chance he can get on WKU’s campus.

Churchgoers at St. Thomas Aquinas hold their rosaries during pre-mass prayers. Pews have been moved in accordance to COVID-19 guidelines so that attendees can still worship.

Williams said that if he sees someone he knows from church or has worked with in group, he will go up to them and start a conversation. He hopes they interpret this attention as love.

“I didn’t feel love by God or from the church growing up,” Williams said. “I think that’s why God called me to priesthood — to love people.”

Williams now works with groups across WKU’s campus in order to bring that love to others. Prior to the COVID-19 social distancing mandates, he would host Bible studies with fraternities such as Sigma Nu, Sigma Phi Epsilon and FarmHouse and used to work with the men on WKU’s football and baseball teams.

One of the students who has seen Williams spread this love to others is Chase Small, a senior from Evansville who met Williams his freshman year. Small is a part of the Sigma Nu fraternity and attended Bible studies when Williams would visit the fraternity house. He said that before he had the chance to even get to know Williams, Small could tell that others in the fraternity loved having him around.

Small said being a freshman in a fraternity was a big change in his life and he struggled with the transition. His morals were changing because of the new life he was growing into and the Bible studies that Williams hosted were key in helping him through this time.

“He genuinely cared about the situations we struggled with and how we dealt with them,” Small said.

Small had never been one to go to parties prior to college, and this new lifestyle was a confusing time for him to overcome. That hardship is something that Williams knew all too well.

Small said that Williams never emphasized religion as being the sole way to get through a difficult time. Instead, Williams helped him by being someone who cared and listened. Small continues to live by this idea.

“Whether you are religious or not, you must have a respect for his overwhelming kindness and selflessness,” Small said.

One time in Fresh Food Company when Small and some friends were eating lunch, Williams approached the group of boys. After talking for a short amount of time, Small asked Williams to join them at their table. Small said he was shocked when Williams declined the offer.

“He shook his head toward another student sitting alone and said, ‘I’m going to join him,’ then he left and introduced himself to this lonely student,” Small said.

He said that this act of kindness made him respect Williams, more so than many other influential people he has met in his life. Despite not seeing Williams as often as in the past, Small appreciates the experiences he has had with Williams.

“Only a few weeks into college, I met someone who taught me something I will never forget,” Small said, “Showing kindness and inclusion towards everyone can always change someone’s day for the better.”