Obituary of Father Tom Cullinan

By Steve Atherton

For 40 years, Father Tom lived a life of prayer and meditation at Ince Benet, the house designed by his brother and built by Tom and friends from recycled materials in the old walled garden of Ince Blundell Hall, just north of Crosby. Although his vision of a monastic community on the edge of the city was never fully realised, Ince Benet was always a place where Eucharist opened a gateway into eternity and where prayer seemed the most obvious response to hours of discussion of social issues.

Tom’s simple way of life (never a life-style) was based on a sophisticated understanding of humanity’s place as a part of God’s creation, where the human person is integrated into the rest of creation and lives the Christian life in community with the rest of the planet. He could see a bird’s nest as technology; he could see an aeroplane as nature. His awareness of the dangers of consumerism was spiritual, economic and ecological. Anyone who ever received a card or letter from him will know that he took recycling to new heights.

Tom’s conversion to radical Christianity began at an early age. As he pondered (an important word in his vocabulary) whether Jesus’ death would have been salvific had he been run over by a chariot, he began a lifelong meditation on the significance of His life, which gets passed over in the Creed and the Eucharistic prayer by the comma between ‘born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate’. Tom explained that the Passion and Resurrection were the culmination of the life of Christ rather than an additional, incidental or separate part. 

Tom was educated at Ampleforth. His lifelong journey of conversion included a visit to Rio de Janeiro during his national service where he was moved by the sight of the Christ statue’s arms stretched over rich and poor alike. A few years later, as a young Benedictine monk studying mathematics at Oxford, he escaped academia by spending time in the offices of the Oxford Committee for Famine relief, which later became known as Oxfam.

This potent mix of rigorous Benedictine prayer routine and socially aware consciousness fuelled his need to contribute to society. Uncomfortably aware that he lived in the rich world, he became, in the language of Catholic Social Teaching, an advocate of the option for the poor. Tom identified our most pressing and challenging agendas as the accumulation of wealth into the hands of a few (typically international capital and agribusiness); consumerism as a form of idolatry; and humanity’s presumption that it is separate from the processes of ecology.

His social conscience and his developing theology of the life of Christ led Tom to see the Church as the faithful presence of Christ in the world and in the here and now of our lives. As his theological understanding led him deeper into reflection on the way we live our lives, he became an increasingly significant national figure and a popular speaker across the country – for the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS), National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) and Cafod – communicating his prophetic understanding that in the face of wealth we must resist giving allegiance to a God-who-provides-the-goods and a politics that ignores the poor.

His trajectory away from privilege led him to the outskirts of Liverpool where, with three brother Benedictines, he set up a house of prayer. As with many trajectories, as the journey went on the gap grew wider and his version of simplicity became increasingly difficult for others to survive. By the time Ince Benet was finished he was the only resident which, though unintended, had many benefits to those of us gathered around him for prayer, conversation and stimulus.

Tom’s life was full of prayer, scripture, reflection, study and service to the community. He introduced us to a world that is utterly simple yet breathtakingly complex, where everything that is experienced as self-sufficiency is the gratuitous gift of God, where brokenness is replaced by wholeness, where future promise becomes present reality and where death leads to resurrection.   

Tom’s break with Ampleforth continued to cause him great pain but his community was now in Liverpool where he was eventually incardinated into the Archdiocese, keeping the designation of ‘monk-priest’. His last public engagement was at the Eucharistic Congress fringe programme when he spoke about Eucharist at an event titled ‘On the Altar of the World’. 

He treasured his relationship with the parish of St Helen’s in Crosby where, for 40 years, he celebrated Mass on Sunday evening. It was there that his funeral was held on 1 February. Tom spent his life calling people back to God. Now he has been called back and we can say, ‘Thanks be to God’.

Thomas Anthony Cullinan, born 7 February 1935, died 18 January 2019

• Fr Tom’s talks from the Upholland Northern Institute (UNI) are available to download at
www.unitapes.org (Catalogue numbers 414, 432–5, 731)