The Right Reverend Francis Thomson
Bishop Emeritus of Motherwell – 4th December 1987.
The Right Reverend Francis Alexander
Thomson Bishop of Motherwell from 1965 to 1982, died in
the Bon Secours Hospital Glasgow on Sunday 6th December
1987.At the funeral Mass in the Cathedral Church of Our
Lady of Good Aid, Motherwell on Friday 11th December following,
prior to the interment in the Cathedral Precincts, the
following homily was delivered by the Right Reverend
Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell.
"His Eminence springs readily to mind, the Cardinal
in whose former Archdiocese the Bishop was a priest for
eighteen years, and for whom the Cardinal was his Ordinary
for fourteen of them. From Lanarkshire there are Archbishop
Winning for whom Bishop Thomson was the Ordinary for six
years or Bishop Taylor for seven years. Others too from
the Bishop’s Conference like Bishop McGill or Bishop
McPherson who worked with him and knew him well for quarter
of a century. And then there are the priests, men like
John Rogerson, a friend for almost half a century, as
well as men from here who go back to days in Blairs with
Conscious of all that and still more besides, I offer
what I can, in appreciation, admiration and affection,
for those were the ways in which I came to know him. Each
of us will remember him best , according to circumstances
and opportunity, for he was a shy man, not easily given
to small talk and even less readily given to that kind
of big talk which seeks to make an impression for impression’s
sake. Francis Thomson was a big man physically but also
in the important sense of the word.
He also had a big heart and a great love for the Church,
for the priesthood and for people. But he never wore his
heart on his sleeve or sought to win popularity by subterfuge.
Those were utterly foreign to his personality. Instead
his was the kind of sincerity of approach and direct straightforwardness
which could be mistaken for aloofness, even the kind of
cool detachment which we associate with the intellectual.
He assuredly had a powerful intelligence, a sharpness
of mind which went directly to the heart of issues, more
readily than to the vagaries of human nature. His then
was a remarkable simplicity of approach in regard to issues
which he saw with a ready case. But he knew that people,
especially priests, were not issues. Hence his diffidence
in human relationships. That is why he found the worst
day of his working year to be the day when he needed to
change the pastoral assignments of some priests. He dreaded
that day, agonised over it in ways which were never obvious
to the clergy. It was his greatest cross as a Bishop,
made still more difficult by the fact that he suspected
that he never managed to convey to the priests that he
was acting out of an equal respect for their need as well
as the pastoral needs of the diocese as a whole. Almost
in proof of what I am saying, I suspect that I have expressed
that agony for him more clearly than he would if he were
here today. But I know it to be true since it was the
subject which arose most frequently in quiet conversations
over the past four years.
That is why I have dwelt upon it today, I do so in the
form of an apologia to the priests of this diocese
in the meaning of Cardinal Newman’s apologia
pro vita sua – but in the name of Francis Thomson.
He was born in Edinburgh on the 15th May 1917. After his
early education in the city, on the death of his parents,
he was entrusted to the care of two aunts who sent him
to George Watson’s from where he went to Edinburgh
University graduating M.A in 1938. At that point the Lord’s
call was already clear to him, but Archbishop McDonald
required of him a period of further studies at Cambridge
University from which he graduated B.A. in 1940. He proceeded
to St Edmund’s College Ware being ordained for the
Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh in the city on
the 15th June 1946.
His first assignment was in St Patrick’s
Kilsyth from 1946 to 1948. As a primary school
boy in Kirkintilloch at that time, and those who knew
the geography will recognise that the two towns are not
that far apart, I recall hearing of the fine new curate,
'big Francis Thomson', from married relatives in Kilsyth.
In 1948 he was sent to Rome for further studies in Theology
at the Pontifical University of St Thomas, from which
he returned in the following year with the degree S.T.L
magna cum laude. It was then to Fife, where else
but St Andrews, for the next three years. After a short
stay at St Cuthbert’s in the city for about a year,
a decisive appointment was made. The Cardinal opened a
new Seminary at Drygrange in 1953 and Francis Thomson
was appointed as a founder member of staff, first to teach
philosophy to the new student community before continuing
with them into the theological disciplines.
There he remained for seven years. In 1960 the Rectorship
of Blairs became vacant and the choice of the bishops
fell on him. He was a great rector though only there for
four years. That was the verdict of the staff at the time,
especially one who is with us today, Bishop Renfrew. By
a great rector I mean a great educationalist in the setting
of the early sixties. Education was his metier and teaching
was in his blood. If I call him a great rector, it is
particularly, but not exclusively, in the context of the
rector/headmaster concept. He instilled, he inspired and
he shone in all of the requirements of that role. It was
a role which appealed to his intellectual gifts as well
as to his nature. He was thoroughly at ease in that environment
and rose with vision and determination to the challenge.
All too soon for him, I suspect, the needs of the Church
in Scotland was to require of him a rather different service.
On the 8th of December 1964, the anniversary of the dedication
of the Cathedral here, he was appointed to the diocese
of Motherwell, being consecrated here by Archbishop Scanlan
on the 24th February 1965. Many of you will recall that
day. Some will be equally vivid in their memory of the
reception in the Civic Centre in Hamilton, at which, in
his speech, the then Provost of Hamilton, who did not
know Bishop Thomson, but knew His Grace of Glasgow, referring
to him consistently as Archbishop Scanlan.
The diocese was soon to get to know their new Bishop.
In his first 6 months here he confirmed over 6000 children
before leaving for the final session of the Second Vatican
Council. Now only His Eminence, Bishop Hart and Bishop
McGill remain with that memory. Perhaps, predictably at
the first Synod which followed the council in 1968, Bishop
Thomson was the representative of the Scottish Bishops.
At the Synod which concluded only six weeks ago I was
touched by the fact that some of the oldest of those attending
asked me about the very tall Bishop from Scotland whom
they had remembered from 20 years ago.
In the wake of the Council Bishop Thomson initiated a
whole series of consultations through temporary Commissions,
on some of the major themes of Vatican II – the
Sacraments of Initiation, Catechetics, Liturgy and Youth.
The outcome was less fruitful then he had anticipated
– as was to be the case elsewhere. Perhaps it was
a case of too much too soon. Whatever the reason there
was one area in which he made and abiding commitment –
that of the teaching of religious education in schools.
Motherwell was one of the first to establish an RE Centre
– in the very house where I now live. The work of
Father Tom McGurk and Father Paddy Purnell was of a high
order and continues to deserve our thanks.
The seventies everywhere was a difficult decade for the
Church. Bishop Thomson saw it through better than most.
I refer here to the painful loss of priests. He was saddened
by that but bore the loss without recrimination. There
were of course compensating joys. He opened 13 new parishes
and provided 6 replacement churches in others –
the bulk of that work being in the seventies.
Throughout much of that same decade he was the founder
President of the Catholic Education Commission. Having
served for a time on that same commission under Archbishop
Winning at a later date, I know it’s value to us.
It is one of the most powerful agencies we have in the
defence and development of the separate Catholic school
system. I really doubt if that system would be as intact
as it is today had we not had the protection of the Commission.
With the dawn of the eighties the rumour of a Papal visit
was in the air. This was confirmed in early ’81
for the June of the following year. It was to be an immense
undertaking. Someone had to be at the centre of all the
planning. Really without hesitation the Episcopal conference
looked to Bishop Thomson. He put up a brave fight against
his selection for that task, pleading that he was aging
fast and that it took all his energies to look after a
large diocese like Motherwell. It was a very great commitment.
Some of us were involved in some way or another and were
privileged to be so. Bishop Thomson was involved with
everything, endless meetings of the core group which co-ordinated
the work of fourteen subgroups. If he were with us today
he would point us away to Father Dan and the late John
Tully. I am no less sure that they would direct us back
to Bishop Thomson. It really was a masterpiece of detailed
planning, execution and then disengagement. He found the
way to free sub-groups to get the best out of them. All
of his strength came to the fore in that great enterprise.
Should a future Pope, or dare I even say it the present
Holy Father, decide to visit Scotland again, then Bishop
Thomson’s blue print is there to provide the guideline.
That is not the only way which in death, he continues
to live on. But more of that in a moment.
Just before the Papal visit was announced, Bishop Thomson
moved to Motherwell, assigning the Bothwell House to the
work of the Innocents. Shortly thereafter his housekeeper,
Miss Nan Mothersole from Kirkintilloch suffered a further
setback to her health and retired to Bothwell. I thank
her for all her devoted service to him as I do Mrs Mullen
who succeeded her on a daily basis.
The Papal visits took a great deal out of Bishop Thomson.
Even as the Holy Father left our shores he requested that
his resignation should be accepted. I recall how stunned
we were to hear of this at the autumn meeting of the Conference.
His explanation was very typical of the man. He simply
said, “Physically I am slowing down, mentally I
am unsure that I have the drive that the diocese now needs.”
His resignation was accepted on the 14th December, on
which same date he was made Apostolic Administrator until
a successor would be appointed.
On the 13th May 1983 that took place. I will never forget
the simple warmth of his welcome. He was rejuvenated by
the lifting of the burden of office. He made a great bonfire
of all personal correspondence with the clergy as well
as all out of date diocesan files. It was the first thing
he told me, not for his sake, but for mine. I recall asking
him what he wanted to do. He said that he wanted to offer
his services as a priest for another five years. After
that I would put him out to grass. You will recognise
the authentic voice of Francis Thomson in that statement!
When I asked him where he would like to go he said, “Oh
that is not a problem. The clergy have made the appointment
for you. Apparently I am going to Biggar.”,
“I’d love it!” And love it
he did. And love him they did. I hope that I dishonour
him in no way by saying that among the happiest of his
70 years were the last four in Biggar and Forth. The rural
setting, that pastoral immediacy, the contact with a real
parochial community again, gave him such pleasure. They
called him Father and he responded with a will and a way.
He found it easy to adapt to the simplicity of lifestyle
of a country Parish Priest, for Francis Thomson was an
utterly simple man at heart, He looked after himself in
the main and rejoiced in everything except occasionally
the task of cooking rather than washing up.
He continued to play a full part in the Episcopal Conference
and was a great support to me with advice in our regular
phone calls and more occasional quiet meals together.
Nor will the clergy here be surprized to learn that his
was always the first parochial return in the annual financial
Then came 1987. In late ’86 he began to allude to
a growing discomfort in his leg. Initial investigations
showed nothing other than circulation problems, probably
due to age. Even before that he had already written to
the Chancellor here a most amusing letter, that high point
of 1987, in the diocese of Motherwell, would be the 15th
May, the feast of St Isidore the Farmer, patron of Biggar,
being also the Golden Jubilee of the parish.
Characteristically he concealed the fact that on the same
day he would be celebrating his 70th birthday. What an
evening in Biggar it was made all the more enjoyable by
the presence of the Cardinal. The Bishop was in terrific
form, despite that fact that he was due for surgery, the
excision of a tumour in the lower bowel, within a few
days. Completely in character he drove himself to the
Law Hospital within the week. The operation within the
general context of his condition at the time was very
successful, although it was to leave him with a colostomy
to the end. Throughout late July and all of August he
recuperated at the Cathedral before returning to Biggar
in early September, more or less four years to the time
when he first arrived.
By mid-September he was re-admitted to Law Hospital where
major problems in his peripheral vascular system were
detected. He was then transferred to the Royal Infirmary
in Glasgow and a series of amputations took place. The
rest I think you know. The amputations were necessary
to sustain his life, as indeed they did. However the original
operation in May, whilst successful could not protect
him from secondary cancer. With the developments of this
already advancing fast, he was transferred to Bon Secours
on Sunday 29th November. There he died, exactly one week
later, 6th November, the feast of St Nicholas.
I do not know how you capture the life of 70 years in
20 minutes – except superficially. So finally I
want to concentrate, albeit briefly, on something more
substantial. The life and death of each of us has an effect
upon the other, so writes St Paul. The life of Francis
Thomson affected many people. As a priest it touched with
significance people in parishes and students in seminaries.
As a Bishop it affected profoundly the church locally
and nationally. Francis Thomson was proud of this land,
proud of it’s capital city, proud of Lanarkshire,
proud of Biggar and Forth. He was interested neither in
possessions or fame. But he was interested in that kind
of service of Christ which calls for a total commitment
of discipleship. In the end, the Lord took him, literally
testing him like gold in a furnace under the refiner’s
eye. For the Lord demanded everything from him, like the
grain of wheat which must die if new life is to be enjoyed
in hundredfold measure.
In that process the Lord took his privacy, from this most
private of men, in the way that the Bishop had to become
dependent increasingly on others, even for the smallest
of things. The Lord took his intellect, for in the end
he was reduced to using a word or a phrase for a sentence.
And the Lord even demanded of him his height as well!
Bishop Thomson never crouched. Did you ever notice that?
He once told me how he saw that exceptionally tall people
sometime tried to make themselves look smaller by a kind
of stoop. Francis Thomson stood tall. In that, as in everything
else, he was as straight as a die.
Today we bid farewell to his mortal terms. For at least
a month in a variety of ways, to those who called to see
him, he said his goodbyes. In our last meeting on the
day before he died, it was clear that death was nigh.
I invited him to recognise this by saying to him, that
though he felt very weak, he was alright where it mattered.
He nodded and said “in every important way.”
There was nothing else to say. What do you need to say
I am delighted that all the members of the Episcopal Conference
are here. No less are we delighted that such a great number
of priests have joined us from this diocese and elsewhere,
joined by many community representatives from many other
sister churches, from diocesan agencies and organisations,
as well as from civic life in the Region of Strathclyde
and the local districts in Lanarkshire. That will be a
happy memory, on this sad day, for his few remaining relatives,
to whom I offer, in the name of all, our sincerest condolences.
As Bishop here in Motherwell for over eighteen years his
motto was “Sperans in Domino”. In
that surest of hopes, do we now commend him to the Lord!
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and let perpetual
light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace. Amen."