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After ‘almost miraculous’ recovery, priest considers every day a gift

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Six years ago, Father Paul Richardson almost died from a severe case of pneumonia that left him in a coma. Weakened by multiple sclerosis diagnosed a few years earlier, he was not expected to recover. “They were actually talking with my family about turning off life support when I woke up,” said Father Richardson, 57, who considers his recovery “almost miraculous.”

 He had taken medical retirement in 2011 because of the MS and was living and serving as a chaplain at St. Joseph’s Home in Richmond, a medical facility run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. 

But after spending most of 2014 in hospitals, he returned to Northern Virginia and now lives at St. Rose of Lima Priests’ Retirement Villa in Annandale, where he uses crutches to get around. His MS has been in remission, thanks in part to medication. 

“I consider every day a gift,” he said.

He’s not letting that gift go to waste. “If I didn’t have things to do, I would kind of lose my mind sitting around,” he said in a phone interview. “I like to contribute and keep my mind occupied.” 

A bit of a Renaissance man, he fills his time with an eclectic range of ministries, projects and hobbies. He celebrates Mass every day on Facebook Live, at the request of friends and family. “You’re preaching to a tablet instead of a congregation, but you know there are people listening — there’s a little box with the number of how many people are watching.”

“I’ve always been up to my eyeballs in curiosity,” he said. “My father says I need to cut my hobbies down to 50 or 60.” His father, a retired U.S. Navy captain, still lives in the area, as do most of his five brothers and sisters.

Growing up in a Navy family, he moved a lot as a child, until the family settled in Northern Virginia. He attended public high school and while his brothers made careers in the Navy, he said he’d known “since I was very little, I wanted to be a priest.” Father Richardson was ordained in 1991, after serving his diaconate assignment at St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax.

His favorite part of ministry at the many Northern Virginia parishes he’s served — from his first assignment at St. Mark Church in Vienna to his last at St. Bernadette Church in Springfield — has been teaching. Since his retirement, he has taught and assisted at schools and churches whenever called. He has degrees in philosophy, divinity and theology, but also is fascinated by science. 

“People say ‘Father, why aren’t you teaching religion?’ And I say, ‘I am — who do you think created all this?’ ” Science, he said, “gives you much more appreciation of what a genius God really is, and how enormously complex and beautiful” a world he created. 

Music is another fascination. Father Richardson plays a number of instruments, including banjo and guitar; he’s offered guitar lessons at St. Leo’s. A few years ago, a friend gave him a balalaika — a Russian three-stringed triangular instrument — and after attending a concert of the Washington Balalaika Society, the soloist offered him lessons. He picked it up quickly, he said, and has been playing with the society’s orchestra, which features an array of Russian folk instruments. 

After giving a retreat last year for Calix, the Catholic 12-step recovery program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, he recently became the group’s chaplain. “I’m delighted to do that, and I’m impressed with the program,” he said. 

He’s almost finished writing a book that aims to be “an everyday layman’s explanation of the Book of Revelation,” based on a scripture study class he led 20 years ago at St. Philip Church in Falls Church. “It’s the most talked about and least understood book of the Bible,” he said. “It’s actually very uplifting and encouraging, about how completely God loves us. He’s desperate to get us into the kingdom of heaven, even if it means frightening us.” Some speculate that COVID-19 is a sign that the end times are near, but he sees “no more reason to believe that now than I ever did. It’s just a challenge the Lord is giving us. If we do this right, we’re going to come out better than before.”

A year ago, Father Richardson went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Knights of Malta, which he calls “the most amazing week of my life since my ordination. There were people from 36 countries praying the rosary in different languages, and flags from every country. You could walk up to someone from another country and talk to them like you’d known them your whole life, because you knew you had something in common — they all loved Our Lord and loved his mother. It felt like a tsunami of faith.” 

When asked how his illness and convalescence have affected his prayer life, Father Richardson said it “makes me think the Lord is keeping me here for something, but he hasn’t really told me what it is, per se. So, I just keep going with my ministry, wherever that leads me.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020