by LYNDSAY FREER
The Papal Nuncio to New Zealand from 1989 to 1995, Archbishop Thomas White, has died in Ireland.
Born in Durrow in County Laois, Ireland, Fr White studied Canon Law in Rome with a view to returning to pastoral duties in Ireland. Much against the wishes of the Irish bishops who had plans for his return as a canon lawyer, he was headhunted to join the diplomatic service of the Holy See because of his fluency in several languages, his knowledge of canon law and his ability to interact with a wide range of people.
Archbishop White served as a Vatican diplomat in many countries around the world, his diplomatic duties covering countries from Eastern Africa, South and Central America to Europe, China and in the Pacific.
Much of his time on the African continent was taken up with preparing for decolonisation in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and the Seychelles, and the establishment of nunciatures in each country.
In 1965, he was transferred to Guatemala with duties also in El Salvador. In 1967, as Msgr White, he moved to Colombia and in 1970 he was posted to Switzerland where he also acted as Holy See observer at the UN and other international agencies in Geneva.
In 1974 he was appointed Charge d’Affaires at the nunciature for China where he ministered to the underground Catholic Church there from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
Ordained Archbishop in 1977, he was appointed Papal Nuncio to Rwanda, transferring to Ethiopia in 1983 where he spent six years helping to deal with three major famines, working with a number of international aid agencies there.
In 1989, he was appointed Papal Nuncio to New Zealand, which also covered all of Oceania including Tonga, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Western Samoa, Vanuatu and Kiribati.
Because of his wide-ranging appointments around the globe, he once described himself as “a gypsy for the sake of the Kingdom”.
Bishop Denis Browne of Hamilton, who was a good friend and close associate of Archbishop White, said that one of his most amazing attributes was his ability to quickly get a feel for the pastoral situation in this country. “He was a man with a great sense of humour and an ability, not only to be sensitive to the pastoral needs of the Church here, but also to get to know many of the priests throughout the country as he regularly visited the different dioceses,” Bishop Browne said.
Archbishop White retired in 1996 while still continuing to do some diplomatic work for the Vatican. He died on “Good Shepherd” Sunday (May 7) at a nursing home in Kilkenny where he had retired to be closer to his family.
In 1990, New Zealandia reported the occasion when Archbishop White paid his first public visit to Auckland. He accepted an invitation to celebrate the St Patricks’ Day Mass at the cathedral.
There was reportedly standing room only at St Patrick’s Cathedral as a large congregation, including members of the Irish society, clergy and religious gathered for the Mass.
As he entered the church, Archbishop White received a Māori welcome, led by Pa Henare Tate (who died on April 1 this year). The archbishop was formally welcomed by the then Bishop of Auckland, Bishop Denis Browne.
In his homily, Archbishop White compared St Patrick’s role in the evangelisation of Ireland 1500 years ago to that of Bishop Pompallier, at that time 150 years ago in New Zealand.
The natural outcome of receiving the faith was to want to share it with others, as Ireland’s missionary history testified.
It was vital to this whole process, then and now, said Archbishop White, that the basic doctrines of the faith were understood so that they could be passed on to others. Central to this body of doctrine was the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which St Patrick had been able to express visually to people with the aid of the shamrock.