Vatican diplomat who served all over the world

Obituary: Archbishop Thomas White – Born: August 12th, 1931 – Died: May 7th, 2017

Archbishop Thomas White was only the second Irish man in the history of the Catholic Church to have served as a Papal Nuncio in a country where he did not already hold a bishopric.

Archbishop Thomas White, who has died aged 85, had a long and distinguished career in the Vatican diplomatic corps and served in Africa, Asia, the Americas, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. He was only the second Irish man in the history of the Catholic Church to have served as a Papal Nuncio in a country where he did not already hold a bishopric.

He spent six years co-ordinating efforts to help the suffering in famine-ravaged Ethiopia in the 1980s, as a result of which his health suffered. Msgr Michael Ryan, administrator of the diocese of Ossory, said he "lived out his life and ministry in service of the gospel" and that the details of that life and ministry show that "he gave much to the church in the world".

Archbishop White was reared in Durrow, Co Laois, one of five children of William and Bridget White, who operated a hotel, grocery and bar in the town. After attending Cullohill National School, he went to St Kieran's College, Kilkenny, where he enjoyed outstanding academic and sporting success.

He won Leinster hurling championship medals with the school in 1949 and 1950 and played for the Leinster interprovincial hurling team in 1950.


He studied for the priesthood in St Kieran’s College and later in Rome and was ordained in February 1956. Having initially taught Canon Law at St Kieran’s, he spent two years at the Pontificia Accademia Ecclesiastica in preparation for a career in the Vatican diplomatic service.

His first posting, in 1960, was as secretary to the Apostolic Delegation of Eastern Africa, covering from Kuwait to the Zambezi, with headquarters in Nairobi. Most of his work involved preparing for decolonisation in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and the Seychelles; papal nunciatures were established in each of these countries after independence.

In 1965, he moved to the nunciature in Guatemala, which also had responsibility for El Salvador. Central America was undergoing great political upheaval at the time and the local church campaigned for fairer treatment for smallholders and landless labourers. Two years later, Archbishop White moved to Colombia where he spent his first year mainly arranging for the visit of Pope Paul VI in 1968 for the Eucharistic Congress in Bogotá and the meeting of the Latin American bishops in Medellín. In 1970, he was posted to Switzerland as counsellor to the Berne nunciature and he also acted as a papal observer at various UN and other international agencies in Geneva.

He became Chargé d'Affaires in the Apostolic Nunciature for China in 1974. Because of the cultural revolution that was happening in China at the time, the nunciature had to leave the mainland and Archbishop White fulfilled his obligations to the underground Chinese Catholic Church from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Appointed titular Archbishop of Sabiona in 1978, he returned to Africa as Apostolic Nuncio in Rwanda.


He became the nuncio in Ethiopia in 1983 and spent the next six years co-ordinating the contributions of many Catholic countries and charities to counter the effects of the three terrible famines that ravaged the country. He suffered a heart attack in 1988 and was transferred to New Zealand, with responsibility for the vast Oceania territory, involving practically all the island states of the Pacific Ocean. He continued this work until 1996 and was succeeded on his retirement by Archbishop Patrick Coveney, brother of the late Fine Gael minister Hugh and uncle of Minister for Housing Simon.

Although officially retired and living in Blackrock, Co Dublin, he continued to carry out several important missions for the Vatican Secretariat of State, including liaison work with the church of the Syro-Malabar rite in India (one of 23 eastern churches in the Catholic communion). More recently, he moved back to St Kieran's College to be close to his remaining family.

He was predeceased by his sister May McKenna and brother Seán J White and is survived by his sister Alice O’Byrne, brother Liam, brother-in-law Edward, nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces.