COLUMBIA, S.C. – Paul Williams, OFM, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Columbia, S.C., was honored by Pope Benedict XVI on Dec. 9 with the Pro Ecclesa et Pontifice Cross at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston.
Paul is the first African American to receive the medal in the Diocese of Charleston, and was lauded in recognition of his dedicated service to the Lord, his church and the diocese.
With approximately 15 parishioners from St. Martin de Porres by his side, Paul received the cross from Bishop Robert Baker, in a Mass celebrated by Msgr. Martin Laughlen.
“You don’t want to turn down the bishop when he asks you to help,” laughed Paul in describing his ministry to the diocese. That ministry includes being dean of the Midland Deanery, vicar for the Office of Black Catholics of the diocese, and member of the Presbyteral Council and Diocesan Priests Personel Board.
For Paul, that means being busy all the time, in addition to tending to his parish of 350 members, which built a new church last year. “It’s hard to say ‘no,’ ” he said, “but I have done it on occasion.”
Paul was also very modest and humble in talking to HNP Today about the award. “Fr. John (O’Connor) wanted me to do this; I just wanted to put the whole award thing in the closet,” he laughed. But there’s no hiding Paul’s value to the diocese.
This is the first time that the cross has gone to a Diocese of Charleston member in a long time, he said.
Approximately the size of a large medal, the cross is a replica of the one used for the silver jubilee of Pope Leo XIII in 1888. Pope Leo, according to Paul, was the one who started the medal. Bishop Baker recommended Paul to Rome for the honor. This medal is the highest award that a Franciscan can receive from the papacy as friars are not eligible to receive the Papal title of “monsignor” given to diocesan clergy.
Paul is no newcomer to the papacy and Rome. He met Pope John II several times, once in the 1970s when the pope preached at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., again in the 1980s at the 43rd International Eucharistic Congress in Nairobi, Kenya, and finally, a year before the pope died while the friar was on a visit to the Vatican “I shook hands with him several times,” he said.
While Paul said he has no immediate plans to meet Pope Benedict when he comes to the United States next April, he wasn’t ruling out the possibility.
Earlier this year, Paul was honored by Bishop Baker with the 2007 Caritas Diocesan Medal for his service as dean and vicar for Black Catholics in Charleston.