We don’t hand out Freedoms of Liverpool like a bag of sweeties. Instead, what we do is to give them to Men and Women whose service has been so special and great to our city that we can conceive of no greater honour.
That was what we did last Thursday when we awarded the honour to Bishop Tom Williams who is known by everyone just as Bishop Tom. The great and the good of Liverpool poured into the Town Hall (numbers only subject to Coronavirus requirements) to witness the award of this honour.
Apart from a brief spell when he was away at the seminaries, he has lived all his life within 4 miles of the place that he was born in the North End of Liverpool just by the docks. His grandfather was in the Orange Lodge and his Grandmother was a Catholic – perhaps this is why he has always favoured an ecumenical approach to religion!
He was inspired to become a Priest by a teacher for all the wrong reasons. One day a teacher told the class that Tom was in, “Why do we bother when you’re only going to be dockers or binmen”. That made Tom very angry. He didn’t look down on working class people. After all he had been born into a working-class Irish family, or as the famous song puts it,
“I was born in Liverpool down by the docks,
Me religion was Catholic,
Occupation, hard knocks!”
But Tom aspired for more than that for the people he lived amongst and his family. Within days he had talked his way into a junior seminary, although at 13 he was a little old for it, because he had realised that his calling was to become a Priest to deal with the attitudes of that teacher and the needs of the people amongst whom he had been brought up.
Anyway, as his mother told him, “you’ve got a good face to be a priest!”
When at the age of 25 he was appointed to be the Priest in a Parish he said, “I kept asking myself, ‘am I good enough to be a Priest’”. This is a question he continues to ask himself on a regular basis. It was as a ‘Priest’ and not a Bishop that he responded to a request to visit a seriously ill person during the early stages of the pandemic. Tom checked the ground ahead of him and was assured, “Oh no Father it’s not Covid!”.
Two weeks later he himself had Covid from which he made a complete recovery. He said this gave him a renewed view of the problems of the sick.
What many people don’t know is his long commitment to health and social care. He was the Chaplain to the Royal Liverpool Hospital firstly at the old Royal and then at the new Royal shortly to be the demolished Royal!
His work, he told us, was to listen without judgement. We heard testimonies last Thursday from people who have been helped by this marvellous approach and who mediated between and inside families to ease tensions and provide support and relief.
He made no less than 40 trips at Easter to Lourdes taking with him disabled children to revive their spirits and raise hopes of a cure. This was a huge commitment of time and energy which, as we could tell from the pictures, he really loved doing.
I am unable to comment on his religious beliefs. Having none myself I can only recognise a true person of faith from any religion and of none. Tom Williams has huge faith, huge integrity and uses that faith, not inwardly to enrich himself, but externally to enrich the people around him and the community at large particularly in the North End of Liverpool.
Such people are rare and to encounter it in someone who is so self-effacing is even rarer.
Tom, you continually ask yourself, “Am I good enough?” The people of Liverpool relied as one on Thursday and said, “yes you are. You are more than good you are an example to us all from different faiths and none as to how to live our lives in the service of others”
I don’t know what the process is of making a Saint but the views of many of us Tom already is one.
May Tom’s God continue to bless and support him in the work that he does for all of us.