Homily of Bishop Patrick Walsh at the Requiem Mass for Monsignor Tom Toner RIP, Saint Teresa’s Church, Glen Road, Belfast
At a funeral Mass we reflect on life and on death – in our Mass today on the life and death of a priest, one who is called by God to a particular way of life, to a particular way of following Christ, to a particular path of holiness so as to lead others to holiness, to lead them to Christ.
That path for a priest is the path of pastoral charity, the path of love, of care, of concern, for the people entrusted to him. It is a path of lifelong commitment, of single minded dedication in the service of the Lord.
How well Monsignor Tom lived that life of pastoral charity in his priestly ministry in St. Agnes’, in the Cathedral, and finally in St. Teresa’s. The Cure d’Ars said “a good pastor, a pastor after the heart of Christ is the greatest treasure that the Lord can give to a parish”. Those three parishes certainly received a treasure in the person of Monsignor Tom.
But before that parish ministry while he was Diocesan Secretary he ministered with Monsignor John Murphy in the Maze Prison or as it was called then the Kesh. In the last few days much has been said in the media about this ministry but let me say that during all those dreadful and harrowing years neither Monsignor Tom nor Monsignor John gave any interviews to the media for they knew that to do so would eschew the effectiveness of their ministry, a ministry that was marked by total integrity, an integrity which was their strength, recognised and appreciated by the prisoners, their families, and the prison authorities.
And in their prison ministry they received great support from Bishop Dermot O’Mahony, the Chair of the Irish Bishops Commission for Justice & Peace who has travelled from Dublin to be with us today.
A priest exercises his pastoral ministry in union with the Bishop of the diocese and his fellow priests. No priest is alone, even if he is the only priest in a parish. No priest ploughs a lone furrow. He is one of the priests of the diocese with whom he must have a spirit of co-operation and solidarity, for the priests of the diocese are bound together with their Bishop in a sacramental fraternity. Monsignor Tom was very conscious of that. He served our diocese with total loyalty under four bishops – Bishop Philbin, Bishop (Cardinal) Daly, myself and now Bishop Treanor.
His ministry in the Cathedral must be highlighted. A Cathedral holds a very special place in a diocese and our Cathedral and its parishioners were battered and bruised from all sides during the years of violent conflict. The Cathedral itself was in need of a major restoration, the parishioners needed to be lifted up, and so in 1994, with violence ebbing, it was the time to begin. The priest to do it was the parish priest of St. Agnes’, Fr. Tom Toner, and he willingly agreed to my request even though it meant uprooting himself from his home parish. You all know the fruits of his ministry in the Cathedral parish and it was a measure of the commitment of Monsignor Tom that he spearheaded the restoration of the Cathedral; but first things first, he lifted up the people, gave them a pride in their Cathedral and he did this by himself and his curates walking the streets, knocking the doors, being with the people, sharing their joys and their sorrows – and at the same time he formed a strong partnership twinning our Cathedral with the Church of Ireland Cathedral, St. Anne’s so that Belfast is now a two-Cathedral city.
A priest must have a truly human heart, a heart filled with those human qualities which endear one to people. That is why for example an interest in sport, going to matches where the local club is involved, can be a very powerful aid to pastoral ministry. A priest’s spirituality must be underpinned and grounded in a genuine humanity, those human qualities which are Christ-like qualities, empathy, sincerity, respect.
For Monsignor Tom we can now say, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman “the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and his work is done”.
May the Lord now take this good and faithful pastor to the eternal glory where, as St. Augustine says, “We shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end”.
Notes for Editors:
Short Biography of Monsignor Tom Toner:
- Monsignor Tom Toner was born on 3rd September 1936.
- He was educated at St Malachy’s College, Belfast (1948-1954).
- After a year of undergraduate studies in law at QUB, Belfast, he commenced philosophical studies for the priesthood at QUB, Belfast. (1954-1958)
- He completed his theological studies and formation at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. (1958-1962)
- He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Down and Connor on 17th June 1962.
- Diocesan secretary and Chaplain to the Maze prison (1962-1982)
- Curate in St Agnes’ Parish, Belfast (1982-1989)
- Parish Priest of St Agnes’ Parish (1989-1994)
- Administrator of St Peter’s Cathedral (1994-2006)
- Prelate of Honour with the title of Monsignor (August 1994)
- He established in 1998, along with Dean John Shearer, the Belfast Cathedral Partnership between St Anne’s and St Peter’s.
- In August 2006, Monsignor Toner retired from St Peter’s Cathedral on grounds of health and was appointed as a curate in his home parish of St Teresa’s.
Media contact: Father Edward McGee, Tel. 078111 44268