Fr Thomas Cullinan's Requiem Eucharist

  • Ellen Teague
  • (Updated )

Fr Tom Cullinan was given a great send off at his Requiem Mass yesterday at St Helen's in Crosby. Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool was the main celebrant. The church was packed with parishioners, for whom he celebrated a weekly Mass, and with family and friends from the many circles he engaged with throughout his life. Particularly prominent were Benedictines from Ampleforth, Liverpool clergy, Liverpool Justice and Peace, the L'Arche community, Pax Christi and CAFOD, including Christine Allen, CAFOD's new Director. Also, lay people who shared in the monastic life and chores at Ince Benet, where he lived, over the last four decades.

The following homily was given by Passionist Fr Nicholas Postlethwaite.


Gone but not gone,
Quietly as a spent leaf
Falling away in an autumn breeze
Letting space for tomorrow: your spirit
Will whisper forever among the trees….

From a poem by Phoebe Caldwell


Since time immemorial, a desert is symbolically a place where human littleness is keenly felt. It was to a desert after four years of stretcher-bearing through the horrors of 1st World War trenches that Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin went searching to recover inner peace. In that desert he began to glimpse more clearly how God holds the entire Universe in one transcendent Eucharistic embrace.

Deserts come in many guises and are places for letting space for tomorrow - as perhaps Phoebe's poem suggests. On cold dark January mornings in Ince Blundell woods in a breeze block chapel built by him - the man who's Requiem we celebrate - like Teilhard - discovered an inner peace opening glimpses of the cosmic panorama that reveals the Eucharistic embrace of all creation, whole and entire. Holds each created being - whole and entire - holds and embraces every unique human person - whole and entire. Pondering in the woods and deep with the recesses of his own heart Thomas Cullinan - mystic - poet - prophet - monk and priest - day by day was becoming ever more open to a divine secret that would sustain him in this world until 18th January 2019 - and now beyond into eternity - held - whole and entire.

Teilhard de Chardin struggled with so many words in attempts to articulate the vision. Perhaps he came closest in what was his shortest - his simple two word aphorism: UNION DIFFERENTIATES! Bringing together two densely packed words, Teilhard de Chardin was trying to point towards the unfathomable Mystery who is God our Creator. Tom Cullinan recognised and borrowed both words - inadequate though they are - as he too struggled to articulate dawning realisation of the wonder of God integrally UNITED - IN UNION - at the heart of all existence. But the paradox is that God's UNION DIFFERENTIATES - it sets us free - it is a UNION liberating us to enter to become ever more fully into each of our own unique human mysteries. The closer our UNION the closer we are to becoming our true selves - and very importantly, the closer the UNION the more we will learn to reverence the self-same mystery at play in the life of every person around us. Tom dared to focus his entire life on this paradox which Teilhard de Chardin first voiced in his desert. Is Tom's challenge to us asking if we dare focus similarly?

But is it true? Does UNION really DIFFERENTIATE - is it merely romantic imagery of a Jesuit poet in a desert in China - or the musings of a wandering monk living isolated in Ince Blundell woods? It is easy to validate it. Simply look around right now! I am surely not alone experiencing a deep sense of UNION as we gather to thank God for all Father Tom has given us and to pray for him? And now look at our neighbours sitting close around us. Surely we see there such wonderful diversity -UNION truly DIFFERENTIATES here, now in our moment of shared community? The faith of a man whose life and death we are celebrating testifies that yes, truly UNION DIFFERENTIATES!


Today we are all, family and friends, saddened saying goodbye to Father Tom. But those here who shared your weekly Sunday Eucharist celebrations with him - for you the sadness and loss must be particularly poignant. Each week Tom cycled here to be with you - cycled alarmingly of late. Just eight days before he died he solemnly promised me he would dismount to push his bike to avoid falling off into a Cross Barn Lane pot hole! What drove him weekly to make this journey? Frequently he would say how your liturgies lifted him - renewing his strength cycling home and energising him for the rest of the week? Why was this?

An answer is found in a beautiful meditation Tom wrote. As we know he wrote a great deal. It has also been a comfort to listen to his voice again on lectures accessible on the Upholland Northern Institute catalogue. One reflection stands out pre-eminently: he calls it: "Eucharist - with help from Teilhard de Chardin". If you have not read it - or watched it on the internet - try to do so because you will find there why your Sunday evening Eucharist here was so crucially important for him - and for all of you who shared it with him.

Father Tom saw your liturgy as a Jacob's ladder - a ladder rooted firmly in the actual earth of his world and yours, - a Jacob's ladder providing access to enable transactions between the Son of Man offering the Bread of Life and the cup of salvation. A place in which all sit around Jesus as he asked his Gospel crowds to do as they listen to his words and wait to be fed with bread and with wine to satisfy hunger and quench thirst as nothing else can. This is the reason Tom precariously wobbled along the bypass ever Sunday on his bike to be with you. It is why now you must mourn him with particular poignancy.

Let me share a section - what Tom calls the Overture - from his Eucharist reflection. He focuses on the offertory and the raw material necessary to make the Eucharistic meal. Tom borrows from a poem by John Deane that expresses again the paradox in the Eucharist of UNION DIFFERENTIATING:

This plough and plod, soft coaxing, collecting, the mixing and moulding
O Lord, accept this bread. We offer you, Lord, in our soil-cracked, our swollen hands.

From our weary, weary hearts, O Lord; accept this wine.

Then give into our hands Christ's flesh
To melt and merge with the soil and the stones,
And give our hearts Christ's blood to seep through the sweat when the world groans
That our earth may grow through its brightest blackest parts.

Is this Tom's whispered legacy in the trees to us all - but a legacy particularly in thanksgiving to you his beloved Crosby community who weekly shared with him?


Thomas Cullinan never hesitated about borrowing to borrow good words and poetry. But then neither did Jesus. In his first Nazareth sermon Jesus simply borrowed Isaiah's sermon about setting the downtrodden free. We likewise recall the many time we heard the prophetic echo of Thomas Cullinan following the example of Jesus. That is why it seemed appropriate to include as Jesus did, a reading from the prophet Isaiah for the prophet who was Tom Cullinan. Religion should never be reduced to sentimental pious spirituality he believed. He writes: "The Eucharist of Easter resurrection reveals the Son of Man glorified at three o'clock on Good Friday. And his body continues to be broken and his blood poured out to this day". He warns us lest we remain fair-weather Christians - 'all things bright and beautiful',' count your blessings, dear', 'always look on the bright side' As the prophet Isaiah voices the command of God: "…the fast that I choose and which pleases me is - loose the chains of injustice - undo the burdensome yoke - let the oppressed go free - share your bread with the hungry - bring the poor into your house….

Tom writes: "We do not need to stand in Auschwitz to cry out: Lord why are you silent? Where are you? From the centre of a contemplative heart, vulnerable to the malign powers of our world, to our communion with the innocent suffering of people and to our complicity part in injustice and violence, LORD WHY ARE YOU SILENT?" We will honour your memory Tom as stumblingly we try to follow where you led. We promise we will try always to seek God's justice.


Tom was a wonderful - but not always easy friend to cope with. He was complex in his demands and challenges - and never backed off asking penetrating questions. I am sure I am not alone in sometimes finding him intimidating. I cannot recall a single conversation that could be described as superficial! Perhaps it was because at heart Tom Cullinan remained till the end a monk! And monks are often quite troubling people!

For what turned out to be my last but one conversation with him I had only just negotiated his cluttered Ince Benet staircase to find Tom seated at the table waiting and without any pause even for greeting asking: "Nicholas - what would you say today if tomorrow you knew you were going to die?" No pressure then Tom - good morning to you too! He assisted my stumbling response by suggesting: "perhaps we just keep doing what God is enabling us to do today?"

Deep down Thomas Cullinan remained always a monk - and further I suspect, always remained Benedictine. Canonically he has been so grateful for the welcome Bishop Kelly and brother priests in this Archdiocese have provided - to the very end - valuing and concerned for a unique priest-monk brother. Benedictines take a vow of stability. Vows are made to God - and I believe God called Thomas Cullinan to keep to and live out that vow of stability but in a radically unique and prophetic way that would bring him - and many of us - a little closer to God's Kingdom. As Tom would often say prayer - in his inimitable deliberate monk sort of way: "Thanks Be to God". I am sure it would be a sign of blessing and consolation to Tom to have here today for his Requiem fellow-Benedictines come to honour their maverick but so authentic Benedictine brother.


My last conversation with him was on 10th January - eight days before he died. Towards the end of a precious half hour together Tom began chuckling as we envisaged imaginary younger versions of himself, chasing after him down all his eighty plus years: but now they were become exhausted, out of breath and falling back- falling way behind this finally older wiser Tom who found himself now walking gently forward, despite arthritis and waiting for Someone whose warm breath he could feel approaching closer and closer, flowing around and within him. For me this was a final precious moment as I witnessed living in his a tangible beauty sustaining Tom to the end -confirming really that UNION truly does DIFFERENTIATE in a life dedicated entirely to God.

Leading the funeral for his brother Tim years before he recalled the effect an African priest had on Tim on learning he was dying of cancer: "Ah my friend, you are the happiest person in the whole world!" Tim looked quizzical. "Because, my friend, you now have a direct route to God and there are no detours left". Tom comments: "There is nothing facile there, and no denial. Just the profound 'knowing' that in the heart of God acute suffering and acute joy co-exist."


Phoebe's poem speaks of Tom's spirit whispering among the trees. Perhaps Tom's spirit will also continue its Easter walk along the beach at Crosby - which is Another Place - encouraging us all to look outwards towards the seas and horizons of God's Kingdom which is near now, but not yet

And where all will be well and all manner of things will be well in -

A foolish, reckless 'Amen' of abandonment
To God's Holy Spirit
To be freed from the confines of the false ego
And domestic idols of wealth, power and learning
To be incorporated as a member of the divine milieu.
Only in losing self-independence do we discover
that 'unity differentiates'
not in isolation but integration
for 'unity differentiates.'

Thank you Thomas Cullinan for letting God's goodness channel through you to all of us and to countless others too. We love you and already we miss you.

Thank you Phoebe for your poem - you are speaking for all of us:


Gone but not gone,
quietly as a spent leaf
falling away in an autumn breeze,
letting space for tomorrow; your spirit
will whisper forever among the trees,
the beech and oak hardwoods
you rooted in the hearts
of those who love you. New life
for a new season, time now friend
to rest in peace.

Eternal Rest Grant unto Father Thomas Cullinan O Lord - and may he rest in peace.


Tags: Fr Thomas Cullinan, Requiem, Passionist, Fr Nicholas Postlethwaite, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon

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