MONSIGNOR TOM TONER
Monsignor Tom Toner of Belfast died this week at the age of 76. When I came to Belfast in 1978 he was secretary to Bishop William Philbin, the then Roman Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor.
Within a year or two he was chaplain to Long Kesh Prison near Lisburn just outside Belfast.
I went into Long Kesh every Sunday morning to say Mass for the prisoners. During one of those visits I was asked to bring Holy Communion to a prisoner in the hospital wing of the prison. That prisoner turned out to be Bobby Sands the leader of the historic 1981 Hunger Strike when Maggie Thatcher allowed ten Republican prisoners to die of starvation.
After that, at Sands request, I went and said Mass every Sunday morning in the hospital wing of the prison for the Hunger Strikers. After Mass we had many conversations.
Tom Toner was not liked by the Republican prisoners at Long Kesh. He was regarded as an establishment figure and as a chaplain who was more likely to be on the side of the prison governors and prison officers than on the side of the prisoners.
This was perfectly in line with Toner's Roman Catholic conservatism and fundamentalism.
When the Hunger Strikers died I was determined to attend all ten of their funerals. Toner told me not to attend those funerals as it would be seen as my supporting the Republican cause. I ignored Toner and went to all the funerals - not because I was a "Republican" - in fact I wasn't - but because I was a priest and I had ministered to the Hunger Strikers as they died.
At the time my boss was the Administrator of St peter's Cathedral in Belfast - Father Vincent McKinley. McKinley also tried to forbid me attending the funerals and even told me I was not allowed to pray for the Hunger Strikers at Mass or in church. I did not obey those orders. It was one of the causes for McKinley later attacking my physically and beating me up in the priest's house behind the cathedral.
Tom Toner later became the administrator of St Peter's Cathedral and a monsignor.
This week Toner was praised by Dr Joe Hendron of the political party the SDLP as a holy man and a man of the people. The SDLP is made up of middle class Catholics and is really the political wing of the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland.
My experience of Toner would not lead to say at all that he was holy man and a man of the people. He was a conservative Roman Catholic priest with right wing political views.
The last time I met Toner was at the wake of a lady in a house in Andersonstown in Belfast. When Toner entered say say the prayers over the coffin I said: "Hello Tom". His response was to give me a look of contempt as he grunted something unpleasant.
As a Christian I hope that Tom has had his sins forgiven and has been allowed into Heaven.
But I imagine he now understands that God is not the God of the powerful and the elite but the God of the poor and the powerless.
I would not be at all surprised at all if God has handed Tom Toner into the care of the prisoners to whom he used to "minister" who will have a lot to teach him about justice, self-sacrifice and perhaps Tom is now a student of the Theology of Liberation under the watchful eye of Professor Bobby Sands.
Bishop Pat Buckley