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RIP Thomas Cardinal Williams 20 March 1930 – 22 December 2023

Cardinal Tom Williams, ONZ, Archbishop Emeritus of Wellington has died, aged 93.

Cardinal Williams became Archbishop of Wellington on 20 December 1979 – the 20th anniversary of his priestly ordination – following the death of Cardinal Reginald Delargey. He was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II on 2 February 1983.

He was appointed a Member of the Order of New Zealand, New Zealand's highest civilian honour, in the 2000 Queen's Birthday Honours List. Only 20 living people can hold this honour at any one time.

Thomas Stafford Williams was born on 20 March 1930 in Wellington. He attended Holy Cross Primary School, Seatoun; Saints Peter and Paul School, Lower Hutt; St Patrick's College, Wellington; and St Kevin's College, Oamaru; before studying for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Victoria University, Wellington, then working as an accountant for several years.

He was deeply involved in the Catholic Youth Movement and for a while worked full-time for it. “It gave me my vocation,” he said in a 2020 interview. “I wouldn’t have become a priest if had I not had the background in the formation in the Catholic Youth Movement.”

He began studying for the priesthood in 1954 at the National Seminary, Holy Cross College in Dunedin, and in 1956 went to the Pontifical Urban University in Rome where he gained a licentiate in theology. He was ordained a priest in Rome on 20 December 1959. He then attended University College, Dublin and received a degree in social sciences.

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Returning to Wellington, he was assistant director at the Catholic Enquiry Centre, which to the present day continues to bring the light of faith to many non-Catholics and Catholics alike. He was parish priest at St Patrick's in Palmerston North for two years, a parish priest a priest in Samoa for five years, and from late-1975 parish priest at Holy Family Parish, Porirua East, one of the archdiocese's most multi-cultural parishes. Four years later, he was named Archbishop of Wellington.

“Above all, I thank God for giving me a share in the priesthood of his son, Jesus Christ, as I thank God for those in earlier years who formed me, and prepared me to respond to his call to priestly ministry,” Cardinal Tom said in December 2019 in a homily marking his 40th anniversary as a bishop and his 50th as a priest.

In that homily, he expressed gratitude to his parents, Thomas and Lillian, “who made huge sacrifices in nurturing my faith”, to the Mercy and Marist Sisters and the Marist Fathers, to the Catholic Youth Movement chaplains as well as his brother bishops, “especially Cardinal John Dew, who supported me and tolerated my eccentricities and enthusiasms.”

In an article on Cardinal Williams, the Vatican reporter for the American National Catholic Reporter, John Allen Jnr, wrote: “Despite his modest style, Cardinal Williams is nobody’s fool. He has thought long and hard over a quarter-century about the distinctive contribution of Catholicism in Oceania, by which Williams has in mind not just people like himself, but also indigenous populations such as New Zealand’s Māori, as well as the cultures of Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Fiji. All this makes Williams a passionate advocate for his local church, which has sometimes meant defending it when he believes Rome hasn’t sufficiently grasped its challenges and its promise.”

In a 2019 interview with NZ Catholic, Cardinal Williams said he’d seen considerable changes in the Church: “The degree to which New Zealand has become very, very secular is quite alarming. I’m very grateful to God that, while all the Churches have declining membership, that the Catholic Church, which has now become the largest minority in New Zealand, has not declined to the same extent.”

That reflected an essay he wrote in 2004, where he said: “We have rejected the moral sustenance of the past, and are attempting to live on junk food provided by a bankrupt liberalism.” He warned that while today’s barbarians “may be soberly suited and stylishly presented,” their impact was still ruin.

Also in 2019, Cardinal Williams said that, having ordained 40 men to the priesthood, he had always emphasised in his ordination homilies “that priesthood has nothing to do with power and privilege, but everything to do with sacrifice and service, seeking nothing for the priest himself but striving to please God, imitate Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, and commit himself unreservedly to his pastoral responsibilities.”

Cardinal Williams “heartily disliked” the different forms of address for prelates, such as ‘My Lord’, ‘Your Grace’ and ‘Your Eminence’: “I hope they have been consigned to the domain of [the] historian and archivists.”

Looking back over the years, Cardinal Williams noted some of highlights in
his life: his two ordination ceremonies, his five years in Samoa, the 1981 Springbok Tour, the 1986 papal visit, the archdiocesan synods of 1988 and 1998, the 1998 Oceania Synod in Rome, the Church Leaders Social Justice Initiative, the consistories, the funeral of Pope St John Paul II, the election of Pope Benedict XVI, and the Launch Out Programme for forming lay pastoral leaders.

Cardinal Williams lived in retirement in Waikanae, where for many years he celebrated daily Mass for fellow residents at the Charles Fleming Retirement Village. He died there at 2.30am today.

Asked by NZ Catholic how he would like to be remembered, Cardinal Williams hesitated before saying, “I don’t expect to be greatly remembered but . . .I would like to be remembered as a dedicated servant.”

On the final page of his 2014 memoir, A Kiwi Cardinal’s Chronicles, Cardinal Williams wrote that he had made mistakes aplenty in his life and had much to atone for.

“In planning my funeral – I have reached the age when it is prudent to do so – I have expressed one wish which I have to accept may be ignored. It is that my eulogy and homily be reduce to just eight words: He was a sinner. Please pray for him.”

Cardinal Williams was:

President of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, 1980-1988.

Created Cardinal-Priest of the titular church of Jesus the Divine Teacher at Pineta Sacchetti by Pope John Paul II on 2 February 1983.

Founding President of the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania, 1990-1998.

President Delegate of the Special Assembly for Oceania of the Synod of Bishops (November-December 1998).

Appointed Military Ordinary in 1995.

Appointed a Member of the Order of New Zealand, New Zealand's highest civilian honour, in the 2000 Queen's Birthday Honours.

Archbishop emeritus of Wellington, from 21 March 2005.

Military Ordinary emeritus for New Zealand, from 1 April 2005.

He participated in the conclave of April 2005 which elected Pope Benedict XVI.

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