In December 2009, Cardinal Tom Williams celebrated 30 years since his ordination as bishop and 50 years since being ordained a priest. He cites as a major challenge the meeting of the NZ bishops on the day of his episcopal ordination that decided to have all Catholic schools integrated into the state system.
The thorny subject of whether to have the Catholic schools integrated into the state school system had exercised the minds of authorities for some years. So far those in charge of Catholic education had decided to trial 20 schools but on the day Fr Tom Williams was ordained Archbishop of Wellington the committee decided to go ahead and integrate all schools.
‘I didn’t know which way was up,’ Cardinal Tom said.
‘It involved an immense amount of work. Bishop John Kavanagh was responsible at that time. It wasn’t long after that that he had his stroke so he handed over to Bishop John Mackey who also wasn’t so well and resigned three years later.’
Cardinal Williams talks about the plank on which all the schools in the archdiocese were listed in the order in which work on each would be undertaken.
‘We used that plank for many years.’
Another challenge was to get the diocese back on a firm, financial footing. Cardinal Reginald Delargey had taken ill more than a year before Cardinal Williams took over the pastoral care and administration of the diocese.
‘The work then was finding out what being a bishop was all about and then building on the foundations laid by Cardinals Peter McKeefry and Delargey.
In those days there was no school for bishops as there is today when new bishops are invited to Rome for an induction course. But, he said the auxiliary bishop, Bishop Owen Snedden, was a great help in showing him the ropes.
Bishop Snedden died in 1981.
‘We began reorganising parish pastoral care, work that continued throughout my 25 years as archbishop.’
Cardinal Williams was keen to build up the Maori Mission and on renewal generally.
After spending a number of years in youth ministry during his own youth, including working full time for the Catholic Youth Movement for a few months in 1953 and 1954, Cardinal Williams saw this as vital to the life of the diocese.
‘I wasn’t able to be closely involved myself but I got the best man available – John Dew.’
Monsignor Hugh Doogan had proposed that the diocese should plan for re-establishing its cathedral. The archdiocese had been without a ‘mother church’ since fire destroyed its first cathedral in 1898. Sacred Heart Basilica in Hill St was designated the cathedral in 1994, then strengthened against earthquakes and with the addition of foyer, Blessed Sacrament Chapel, choir room and vestry.
Bringing all the archdiocesan staff together under one roof in the Catholic Centre was another highlight as was starting Wel-com in 1984, at first a bimonthly but moving to monthly publication in 1986.
‘ Wel-com was started by the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council through the initiative of its secretary, Pat Scrimshaw.
‘Fr Bernie Hehir of the Archdiocesan Media Centre became the editor followed a few years later by Marilyn Pryor.
The seven New Zealand bishops made their first ad limina or five-yearly visit to the Vatican in 1988. Cardinal Tom remembers visiting each of the 13 dicasteries (church offices) as well as the Mass, meal and private audiences with Pope John Paul II, a new experience for all seven.
Another highlight of Cardinal Tom’s career was being made a cardinal − ‘although that didn’t affect anybody else, it gave me more responsibility.
‘I was already the bishop of the diocese and the Metropolitan of NZ, so being made a cardinal was to assist the Holy Father.
‘I was appointed very quickly to three different Vatican bodies. That was what took me to Rome so often. I never ever thought I’d return to Rome. I was well content to have had the privilege of studying there for four years.
The formation of the Federation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Oceania was an achievement Cardinal Tom appreciates now. As a younger priest he spent five years in Samoa which sparked his interest in the Pacific.
After several meetings in the early 1980s at the invitation of the Australian bishops a federation began to grow comprising CEPAC, PNG, Australia and NZ bishops. Decrees of the second Vatican Council encouraged such alliances.
‘At a meeting in 1984 we agreed to form a constitution. In 1988 it came into being and I was the founding president and remained in office until the synod for Oceania in 1998. I thoroughly enjoyed that work. It kept me in touch with the Pacific.’
Today Cardinal Tom is relaxed in retirement as a ‘cadet gardener’ with a flourishing composting system and a green finger or two applied to the nurturing of seedlings and cuttings gleaned from the gardens of Waikanae.