Cardinal Thomas Stafford Williams ONZ ChStJ Emeritus Archbishop of Wellington

Cardinal Thomas Stafford Williams, ONZ, Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Wellington has died, aged 93. He passed away peacefully on 22 December 2023 at Charles Fleming Retirement Village, Waikanae, north of Wellington. Cardinal Tom lived in Waikanae since his retirement in 2005. 

RIP Thomas Cardinal Williams 20 March 1930–22 December 2023

WelCom February 2024

20 March 1930 – 22 December 2023

Cardinal Thomas Stafford Williams, ONZ, Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Wellington has died, aged 93. He passed away peacefully on 22 December 2023 at Charles Fleming Retirement Village, Waikanae, north of Wellington. Cardinal Tom lived in Waikanae since his retirement in 2005. 

A much-loved member of the Catholic priesthood renowned for his service and community work, Cardinal Tom Williams was a well-known figure in the New Zealand Catholic community and had worked as parish priests at multiple churches in the Wellington region and Samoa.

The Cardinal had a strong interest in the wellbeing of his fellow men and women and was a ‘passionate’ advocate for the local churches he served.

Two decades after his priestly ordination in 1959, he was consecrated 6th Archbishop on Wellington 20 December 1979, following the death of Cardinal Reginald Delargey. 

Cardinal Tom was Archbishop of Wellington from 1979 until his retirement in 2005. 

He was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II on 2 February 1983.

He was the third New Zealander to hold the rank of cardinal.

Cardinal Tom 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.

At the time, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet called him ‘the voice of the New Zealand Catholic community,’ being well known for his interest in social justice and welfare issues.

Thomas Stafford Williams was born on 20 March 1930 in Wellington. He attended Holy Cross Primary School, Wellington; Ss 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 fulltime 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.’

As an active bishop for 25 years I was called to ordain some 40 men to priesthood. In my ordination homilies I emphasised 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 only to please God, to imitate Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, and to commit himself unreservedly to his pastoral responsibilities. 

– Cardinal Tom Williams at his 60th jubilee, 2019

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.

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 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 60th 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, 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.’

Over the past six decades I have come to the conviction that my vocation to priesthood, seeking to serve as Christ served, although it has inevitably involved sacrifice and commitment, has been an incredibly rich source of fulfilment and deep-down happiness because it is rooted in love – Christ’s love.

Cardinal Tom Williams

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 [in the archdiocese].

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, 22 December 2023.

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.’

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Source: NZCBC

Requiem for Cardinal Thomas Williams 

Cardinal Thomas Williams ONZ ChStJ Archbishop Emeritus of Wellington died on 22 December 2023 peacefully at Charles Fleming Retirement Village, Waikanae, aged 93 years.

Respected priest and Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Wellington, Cardinal Tom was a loved brother and brother-in-law of Maureen, the late Veronica, Kathleen and the late Tony, the late Pat and Ann, Michael and Charlotte, Laurie and Alice, and a much-loved uncle to his nieces and nephews. 

A Mass was held at Our Lady of Kāpiti, Paraparaumu on 27 December and a Vigil at St Teresa’s Church, Karori, Wellington. 

A Requiem Mass was celebrated for Cardinal Tom at St Teresa’s Church on 28 December 2023 followed by an interment at the Karori Cemetery.

Cardinal Tom’s brother Laurie Williams welcomed mourners to St Teresa’s Church, packed with hundreds of friends, supporters, family members and priests. All New Zealand’s bishops participated.

Archbishop Paul Martin sm presided at the Mass, during which he read messages of condolence from Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State. Members of Cardinal Tom’s family, Joanne Williams and Christine Malone, led the Prayers of the Faithful. Emeritus Bishop Peter Cullinane gave the homily and the Samoan Community sang hymns as a tribute to Cardinal Tom.

We give thanks for Cardinal Tom Williams’ ministry and witness to the Archdiocese of Wellington and the Church of New Zealand and we pray eternal rest for his soul and consolation for those who mourn him.

Requiescat in Pace.

Archbishop Martin read the following messages of condolence from Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin addressed to him ‘on the mournful occasion of Cardinal Thomas Stafford Williams’ passing’.

To the Most Reverend Paul Martin
Archbishop of Wellington

Saddened to hear of the death of Cardinal Thomas Stafford Williams, Archbishop Emeritus of Wellington, I send prayerful condolences to you and to the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Archdiocese recalling with immense gratitude the late Cardinal’s many years of priestly and episcopal ministry among Christ’s flock in New Zealand and his contribution to the Church throughout Oceania. I willingly join you in commending his noble soul to the love and mercy of our Heavenly Father. To all who mourn Cardinal Willams in the sure hope of the Resurrection, I cordially impart my blessing as a pledge of consolation and peace in the Risen Lord.


Please accept my condolences, together with the assurance of my prayers that God will mercifully grant Cardinal Williams the reward promised to those who faithfully labour for the Lord and His Church.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin
Secretary of State
Dal Vatican, 24 December 2023

For Cardinal Tom Williams

Homily at Requiem Mass
Bishop Peter Cullinane

E te hoa pūmau, e Tamati; kia au tō moe; Kia tau te rangimarie ki ā koe. 

Sisters and brothers, 

When I think of Cardinal Tom’s untiring commitment to the work that came his way; when I think of his thoroughness, his efficiency, and that annoyingly tidy desk! When I think of his conscientiousness, and the careful preparation he put into everything, I am left with one impression: Tom gave his all.

So, where does that kind of giving come from? Well, if we hadn’t already noticed a connection between this commemoration and what we commemorate in Christmas, the second scripture reading chosen for this Mass certainly makes the connection, because that reading is emphatically about self-giving – starting with God’s own self-giving. 

In St Paul’s own words: ‘Since God did not spare his son but gave him up to benefit us, after such a gift, is there anything God could refuse us?’ Then, referring to the one God sent: ‘He not only died for us, but rose, and now at God’s right hand pleads for us.’ And then, as if to draw a conclusion from this: ‘There is absolutely nothing that can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Jesus Christ.’

In other words: the meaning, dignity and worthwhileness of our own lives has its origin in the gratuitous giving of a God – who never even needed to create us in the first place – and the self-giving love revealed in the Person and the ministry of Jesus.

During Advent, we allowed ourselves to journey with the Old Testament prophets who visualised us walking ‘in darkness and a land of deep shadow’, but who have ‘now seen a great light’. Their symbolic language is about us emerging from not knowing God’s purposes and the meaning of our own lives, to now knowing, and being overwhelmed by how much we are loved.

Pope St John Paul II put it cogently: ‘deep amazement at the worth and dignity of the human person is another name for the Gospel.’

Cardinal Tom’s own self-giving, expressed in the details of his work, derived from that awareness of God’s self-giving which reveals how much we mean to God.

His commitment to social justice is well known. It would have made complete sense to him to read Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching that gratuitous giving, forgiving and compassion need to be brought even into trading relationships, business practices and industrial life – in that way pre-empting the imbalances and inequities that otherwise need to be redressed afterwards, in various forms of re-distribution. That’s because love for others, modelled on God’s love for us, is compassionate and forgiving, and capable of transforming all human relationships. It is also a circuit-breaker where otherwise tit-for-tat and getting even are as far as we could ever go.

In other words: Tom knew that lives which originate from the gratuitous gift and self-giving of God can be true to themselves only through their own self-giving and being there for others. That is the unfinished work of the gospel; that is what Tom gave his life for, and that is what he would challenge us to continue. 

So, now, let us give thanks to God for Cardinal Tom’s life. But we don’t stop there: in line with our ancient tradition, we also ask God to give him a merciful judgment. 

Eternal rest grant unto him,
O Lord,
and let perpetual light
shine upon him.
May the souls of all the
faithful departed,
through the mercy of God,
rest in peace.

Cardinal Tom Williams was:

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

Conference Deputy for Hospital and Prison Chaplaincies, 1981–2004.

Catholic Communications, 1982–1985.

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

Te Runanga o te Hahi Katorika ki Aotearoa National Catholic Māori body, 1983–1988.

Member of Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, 1983–1988.

Member of Congregation for Divine Worship, 1983–1988.

Member of Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, 1983–2008.

Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace and Development, 1985–1991.

NZ Catholic Education Office and Catholic Schools Catholic Education Council, 1986–2004.

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

Moderator of the Tribunal for the Catholic Church in New Zealand, 1990–2005. 

Appointed Military Ordinary in 1995, responsible for Catholic Chaplains to the Defence Forces, 1995–2005.

Member of Pre-Synodal and Post-Synodal Councils, 1995–2006.

President Delegate of the Synod of Bishops for Oceania, Rome, November–December 1998.

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

Member of Commission of Cardinals for Organisational & Economic Affairs of the Holy See, 2001–2006.

Archbishop Emeritus of Wellington, from 21 March 2005.

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

Participated in the conclave of April 2005, which elected Pope Benedict XVI.