Homily of Monsignor Michael Ryan at the Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Archbishop Thomas A. White

11 May 2017

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It is this common faith in the Eucharist which unites all today here in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, as we offer this Mass to the praise and glory of God and for the eternal peace of Archbishop Thomas White, who passed into the presence of the Lord on Sunday evening in Abbey Nursing Home, Gowran, which had been his home for the past few years.  He shared the same faith in the Eucharist and found in its daily celebration his inspiration and strength for more than sixty years of priestly life in the service of the Lord in so many different parts of the world during his long ministry in the diplomatic service.

A Funeral Mass is an occasion for all of us to renew our own understanding of Christian death and to pray that our own faith in the hope of Resurrection in strengthened.  The late Cardinal Hume who was terminally ill for some time before he died wrote his own reflections on death in his book entitled “The Mystery of the Cross”.  He wrote:

“The human mind cannot understand death.
We face it with fear and uncertainty, revulsion even;
but faith gives us answers when reason fails,
faith admits us into deaths secrets.
Death is not the end of the road but a gateway to a better place.
It is in this place that our noblest aspirations will be realised.
It is here that we will understand how our experience of goodness, love, beauty and joy, are realities which exist perfectly in God.
It is in heaven that we shall rest in him and our hearts will be restless until they rest in God.”

He died on Vocations Sunday – a day when the Universal Church prays for priests and for vocations to priesthood and to religious life.  The seeds of Father Tom’s (and I will continue to use that title because when he went to the nursing home that was the name he wished to have put on his door) vocation were sown in his home by his parents, William and Bridget, and nourished in the National School in Cullohill, Co Laois and then in Saint Kieran’s College.  The parish of Durrow has given a remarkable number of priests and religious to the Church over the years.  In the Saint Kieran’s College Record of 1982 (the bicentenary of the college’s foundation) there is a photo of a group of some nine priests all from the parish and not all the priests are included.  Such was the religious culture of his home and upbringing.  Should we not today as we bury a good and faithful priest, pray in a special way for vocations to priesthood and to religious life?

The commemorative booklet that you have gives the details of all his appointments in so many countries following his ordination to the priesthood in February 1956 and further studies in Rome in Canon Law and two years in the Pontificio Accademia Ecclesiastica.

I want for a few moments to reflect in more detail on just one of his appointments – Papal Nuncio to Ethiopia from 1983 – 1999, a time of unbelievable famine and suffering in that country.

As Dean of the Diplomatic Corps he was able to organise food supplies from countries that had ambassadors in Ethiopia and many other donors from around the world.  To help organise this relief effort took a huge amount of time and even more diplomacy lest he fell out of favour with the native government.

Writing some years after he left Ethiopia he wrote a full account of his time there in the college record.  “From the beginning I tried to keep out of the media limelight and was generally successful.  Church diplomats must co-exist with the local administration if they are to be of any help to the people who are dying.

I would supply background information but not for attribution because I felt I needed to retain the confidence of the Ethiopian Government which permitted me personally to travel freely.”

This is a side of the work undertaken by the Pope’s representative that we would not usually associate with their ministry.  He had already been engaged in similar Christian humanitarian work in Rwanda and El Salvador.

In 1996 he retired home to Ireland but he was only partially retired.  He undertook some assignments for the Vatican and celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation in Ossory and in the Diocese of Cork and Ross regularly.

Today we give thanks for the full life he lived ever faithful to the good Lord in whatever assignment he was given.  He was happy in his retirement in Saint Kieran’s College and in Gowran Abbey Nursing Home.   I know his family would wish me to thank in a special way the matron and manager, Mrs Bridget Kirwan, and all the staff.  I would like to mention too, the prayerful support of Bishop Forristal and Father Jack O’ Leary who are resident there and Canon Patrick Dalton parish priest and chaplain.  He was at peace with God there.  His daily celebration of the Eucharist was so important to him as he adjusted to the final stages of life in the spirit of the words of Sacred Scripture from the Book of Lamantions:

“The Lord is good to those who wait for him,  to the soul that seeks him, it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

Today is a sad day for you his family, his sister Alice and her husband Edward, his brother Liam, who is praying with us through the gift of modern technology from his home in London, his nieces and nephews who were always so close to him.   I know you were always very special in his life too.  You will have your own special memories which will become even more important to you as the years go on.

The life of a Papal Nuncio is a strange one in ways, you never have a permanent home, you are always at the service of the Holy Father to represent him wherever he chooses.   Father Tom was happy and fulfilled in that role and after terms in so many countries, exploring and getting to understand the needs of the Church, he was happy to return to his beloved Ossory and to County Laois.  The quote from T.S. Elliott is I think is very apt:

“We shall never cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

When Father Tom moved to the nursing home he brought with him his Breviary and spiritual reading and what he need if he wished to celebrate Mass in his room.  He brought also some personal photographs:

  1. A photo of Bishop Collier who accepted him as a student for the Diocese of Ossory and gave him his full support when he wished to join the Diplomatic Corps.  He wished to be laid to rest beside Bishop Collier and we will honour that request after this celebration of Mass.
  2. A few photos of him presenting his letter of appointment to various heads of state including to Queen Elizabeth when he was appointed Papal Nuncio to New Zealand in 1990.
  3. A framed photo of the Saint Kieran’s College All-Ireland victorious team in 1948 and another framed photo of medal he won in 1950 Leinster Colleges hurling final.

He wished that his body would rest in the college chapel.  This is the chapel where he attended Mass every morning for five years.  This is the chapel that as a student I’m sure he prayed for guidance from the Holy Spirit as to his future.

He has come the full circle.

May he be safe in the company of the Lord forever and may he continue to pray for the Church he loved and served.  I pray it will be a consolation to his family to know that there is a new bond of love between them and him now.  Pope John Paul II  – now Saint John Paul – put that belief in these words:

“Our departed ones continue to live on among us, not only because their memory is part of our lives but especially because their spirits intercede for us with God.”

May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.


  • Monsignor Michael Ryan is the Diocesan Administrator of the Diocese of Ossory.  This homily was delivered at the Funeral Mass of Archbishop Thomas White which was celebrated at 12noon yesterday in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.
  • Please see below the life and ministry of the late Archbishop Thomas White RIP:

Archbishop Thomas White was born, one of a family of five, on 12 August 1931 to William and Bridget White. After his early education at Cullohill National School, Laois, he progressed to Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. While there Thomas enjoyed outstanding academic and sporting successes and he was part of the College’s senior hurling team who won Leinster Championships in 1949 and 1950; he was also chosen for the Leinster interprovincial schools hurling team in 1950.

Archbishop White studied for the priesthood in Saint Kieran’s College and later in Rome until his ordination for the Diocese on 25 February 1956. Released by his Bishop, Rev Dr Patrick Collier from a commitment to teach Canon Law at Saint Kieran’s, the newly ordained Thomas spent the next two years at the Pontificia Accademia Ecclesiastica in preparation for a career in the diplomatic service of the Holy See.

In 1960, after graduation Monsignor White was sent as Secretary to what was then the Apostolic Delegation of Eastern Africa, covering territory from Kuwait to the Zambezi, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya to work alongside Archbishop Guido del Mestri. For the next five years much of his time was taken up with preparing for decolonisation in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and the Seychelles, and the eventual establishment of separate Nunciatures in each of these countries after independence.

In 1965 he was transferred to the Nunciature in Guatemala where the Head of Mission was also Nuncio in El Salvador. It was a time of great political upheaval in Central America and the local Church was often in the forefront of the struggle to obtain fairer treatment for the poor campesinos.

From Central America in 1967 Monsignor White moved to Colombia. Most of his first year there was spent on the arrangements for the visit of Pope Paul VI in August 1968 for the Eucharistic Congress in Bogotá and the Plenary Assembly of the Latin American Bishops in Medellín. In 1970 he was posted to Switzerland as Counsellor of the Nunciature in Berne and also acted as Observer of the Holy See at various United Nations and other International Agencies in Geneva.

In 1974, following two years in administration work at the Secretariat of State, he received his first effective Head of Mission appointment as Chargé d’Affaires in the Apostolic Nunciature for China. His appointment coincided with the Cultural Revolution and as the Nunciature had to leave the mainland following the Communist takeover, he fulfilled his responsibilities towards China and the underground Catholic Church there from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. In 1978 he was ordained as Titular Archbishop of Sabiona and returned to Africa, this time as Apostolic Nuncio in Rwanda.

Archbishop White was transferred again as Nuncio in Ethiopia in 1983. The six years he spent there and the three terrible famines in that space of time changed him for life. As head of the diplomatic corps he was responsible for coordinating the contributions of many countries and charities to counter the effects of famine. The endless struggle to help the starving people eventually took its toll. Thomas suffered a heart attack in 1988.  He was then, in 1989, asked to serve in New Zealand. Attached to this was the Apostolic Delegation for Oceania, involving problems of distance and communication in that vast territory embracing practically all the island states of the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after his arrival in Wellington he presented his credentials to Queen Elizabeth II who was there for the Commonwealth Games and wished to exercise her prerogatives as Queen of New Zealand. Over the next six years he was to repeat the same procedure with the King of Tonga and with the Presidents of Nauru, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Western Samoa, Vanuatu and Kiribati.

The Archbishop was only the second Irishman in the history of the Church to have served as a Papal Nuncio in a country where he did not already hold an episcopal rank. After his retirement from the papal diplomatic service in 1996, Archbishop White carried out several important missions for the Vatican Secretariat of State, including liaison work with the church of the Syro-Malabar rite in India.

Following his retirement, Archbishop White lived in Blackrock, where he continued to consult on Church matters. Later he moved to Saint Kieran’s College to be close to his family. More recently he moved to Gowran Abbey Nursing Home. Archbishop White is predeceased by his sister May McKenna and older brother Seán J White, he is survived by his sister Alice O’Byrne, who now lives in Kilkenny, and his younger brother Liam White who lives in London.                    

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