Fr Peter Toner, O.Carm. (1931-2010)

Homily given by G. Galvin, O.Carm., at the Funeral Mass in St. Joseph’s Parish Church, Hatfield, Harare, Zimbabwe, before Fr Peter’s remains were returned to Ireland.

In the Gospel passage of today St Peter asks the Lord, referring to John: “What about him?” As often in the Gospel story Jesus doesn’t always answer directly the question put to him, but he does give us solid teaching. These days we may have many questions about Fr Peter’s leaving us to go to meet his Saviour, and especially, “Why?” We go to God’s Word in Scripture for help and to get some light. Jesus says to Peter, “You follow me.”
Over sixty years ago Fr Peter Toner began to answer the Lord’s call, following his Lord closely and living out more deeply his Baptism vocation when he came to Carmel. Before that he thought that he might become a Cistercian monk at Roscrea in a monastery with a large farm not too far from his home in Co. Meath. But he abandoned that idea when he heard that he would not be allowed to leave the monastery to visit his family. He loved his family too much to live that harsh kind of life. They were always a very close family.
“You follow me.” We recall today Fr Peter’s answer to that call, for the most part lived here in Zimbabwe. He took great joy in telling people that he first came to work in Zimbabwe way back in 1953 – and to tell the present Provincial that he went to the Missions “one month before you were born.” He was forty years older than the young Brother Martin when they were living in Rome, in the big Carmelite house of San Alberto. He used also to say to different people from St. Barbara’s Mission, like Fr. Freddie Chiromba, Camillus Mandeya and Callistus Sambaza, “I knew you first when you were on your mother’s back!”
Following Jesus always means taking the road to Calvary, to death, but beyond that, to glory. We say “Matambudziko” – “suffering” – thinking of the last few weeks of Peter’s life in hospital. It would be good to think of that time as an opportunity for being purified more and more, his purgatory before Heaven.
In celebrating Mass, the priest says, “We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord.” Fr Peter prayed that way often and now his time of waiting is over; his Saviour has come to take him home. The prophet Isaiah has said to us today: “This is the Lord for whom we looked.” Fr Peter encountered the Lord during his journey of faith here on earth. He had a special love for Jesus in the Mass, and in the tabernacle in the oratory, or chapel, wherever he lived. My vivid memory of him is seeing him walking round our oratory at St Joseph’s, rosary in hand, praying with Mary in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus.
After the Consecration we often say, “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory.” If we think deeply about this, we might be inviting our Lord to come to us in death. For St John, the death of Jesus meant glory for Him. We trust that this will also be so for our brother Peter.
I’m sure that Peter knew this Irish rhyme: “Every time I pass a church, I stop and pay a visit; so that when I die and go up high, He won’t say: “Who is it?” Yes, the Lord certainly knows him, we would say – so much time together in prayer over the years, Peter and his Lord. We are not here trying to canonise him. Faithful as he was, we ask for his failings to be forgiven.
Each of you may have your own particular memory of Peter. One of my earliest memories was his joking about his duty of 15 minutes of daily spiritual reading. He would come to St Barbara’s sometimes from Triashill riding his ex-police motorbike (a Matchless 650) with his beard flying in the wind. He was very faithful to his daily meditation and spiritual reading. He would say to me: “I still have three-and-half-minutes of spiritual reading to do.” His practice of doing faithfully every day the religious exercises and his great devotion to the Eucharistic Lord can be an example to us in our daily lives. We might also ask the Lord for a favour: as Elijah was going upwards to heaven, his disciple Elisha asked for a double share of his spirit. We could ask for some of Fr Peter’s spirit, something of his good nature and perhaps his great sense of humour.
St Paul, who was to suffer a horrible death, wrote, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ.” Nothing, not even death, nor matambudziko. God’s love is always there, in living and in death.
In his short time here in Hatfield, a number of people were touched by Peter’s witness and ministry as also happened in Mount Carmel, Nazareth House, and before that in Manicaland. His earthly life is over, but we have good memories of him to recall, and of course his jokes. We, who are still waiting, can believe that the love of God will always be available to us too, as we encounter our Saviour in faith, in the Sacraments, that same Saviour who died for Peter and for us all.
Come Lord Jesus!

Homily given by the Prior Provincial, M. Kilmurray, O.Carm., at the Funeral Mass celebrated in Ballivor Parish Church, Co. Meath.

On this June afternoon we are gathered as family, friends, Carmelites and neighbours to bid an earthly farewell to Father Peter Gerald Toner. We are making this farewell in a celebration of the Eucharist, the greatest act of thanks­giving that we can render to God, our Creator and Father.
When Gerald Toner joined the Carmelite Order in 1950 it was customary to be given a new name to mark the beginning of a new way of life. He was given ‘Peter’ and since then he has been known as Peter among the Carmelites and his friends in Zimbabwe but he continued as Ger or Gerald among family, friends and neighbours in Robinstown. Gerald Peter Toner made his First Profession as a Carmelite at the Friary in Kinsale on September 2, 1951 — almost fifty-nine years ago! On that day he pledged himself, in the words of the Carmelite Rule, to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ and serve him zealously with a pure heart and a good conscience.
Within three years Gerald Peter would leave Ireland for Southern Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – where the Irish Province of Carmelites had established a Mission in 1947. Indeed it must have been a daunting prospect for the young man from Robinstown but he embraced it with enthusiasm. It was an exciting challenge — and he had skills which he could share with the people to whom he would minister.
Christian missionaries have never confined themselves to talking about Jesus and administering the sacraments. This would not fulfil the mandate of Jesus himself to his disciples. The good news of his Gospel is for the whole person — body, mind and spirit — and, therefore, has to include the physical and social well being of people. Jesus not only talked about God’s love for us but he healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he comforted the bereaved, he forgave sinners.
Gerald Peter answered the call to live the Gospel of Christ as a Carmelite among the people of the then Southern Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe. He was concerned for their physical and social as well as their spiritual well-being. He used his particular talents and skills in doing this. Gerald Peter loved the land and his interest and skills in farming made him a highly effective and influential presence at Triashill and St Barbara’s Missions, deep in the beautiful Zimbabwean countryside. He was destined to spend the next twenty years between those two Missions.
There were many small farm holdings around those Missions. The Carmelites wanted to help the farmers to improve their ways or methods of farming, especially in the care of animals and the growing of crops. Peter was the one who could head up this project. He became a much valued instructor and supervisor. For example, warble fly was affecting the small herds of cattle so Peter organised the building of dipping centres throughout the area and encouraged and helped the farmers to drive their cattle to these centres. This entailed a good deal of travel on his motorbike or in his land rover cajoling the farmers to avail of this new idea! He also advised and instructed them on the planting and watering of crops – introducing contoured ridges or terracing so that crops on sloping land would not be swept away when the heavy rains came. He also contributed to the work of the schools by instructing the older pupils on the planting and growing of vegetables. He supervised the maintenance of the dirt roads around the Missions.
Gerald Peter’s inspiration for this hard work came from his farming background in Robinstown, his natural intelligence, his Carmelite life and his faith in Jesus Christ who, as the Gospel reading reminded us, is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Gerald Peter was led by Jesus Christ on the journey of life.
In the early nineteen seventies Peter, after twenty years of service to the people of Triashill and St Barbara’s Missions, felt called to priestly ministry within the Order. This meant studies at the Beda College in Rome for four years. Quite a change from the deep Zimbabwean countryside but Peter took it in his stride. Some of us were younger students in the Carmelite International House at the same time and he told us fantastic stories about Africa and even Meath. But he did tell us that we didn’t have to believe all of the details!
Gerald Peter was ordained priest on July 20, 1975 and returned to Zimbabwe the following year. He went to St Thérèse Mission as priest-in-charge. It was a difficult and dangerous time in the country because of the Liberation Struggle. Due to Peter’s bravery and diplomacy the Principal of the Mission School and some other men were spared certain death.
In 1977 he was appointed Administrator of the Cathedral in Mutare where he would remain until 2001. Gerald Peter was loved by the parishioners of the Cathedral. He had a friendly greeting, an encouraging word, a story for each one he met. He had a fund of stories and anecdotes which he oftentimes wove into his homilies – making them a bit long even by African standards!
Our second reading from St Paul to the Romans reminded us that the life and death of each of us has its influence on others. As pastor in Mutare, Peter touched the lives of many people from different backgrounds. He listened to their concerns and their questions, he guided them, and he helped to sustain their faith in Jesus Christ in sometimes difficult circumstances. At the Cathedral he showed a deep devotion to the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary, Mother of Carmel, through the praying of the Rosary. When his ministry at the Cathedral ended he was succeeded by Zimbabwean-born Father Frederick Chiromba, a sign of the growing confidence of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe; a confidence to which Gerald Peter and many other Irish Carmelites, some of whom are here today, contributed much.
Gerald Peter moved to the Carmelite Formation House in Harare as Spiritual Director where he helped young Zimbabwean Carmelites at the beginning of their journey. To them, with his white beard, he was something of a grandfather figure with many stories to tell. He was now contributing in a new way to the rooting of the Carmelite presence in Zimbabwe.
Last autumn Peter moved to the Priory at Hatfield, Harare, and sadly this was to be his last move on his Carmelite journey. The motor accident – six weeks ago to this day – left him critically ill and in a twilight zone. He moved into the peace of God on Friday, June 11.
In this Eucharist we are giving thanks for and celebrating a life lived to the fullest. As Father Norbert Heaslip remarked during this homily at the Mass in Mutare Cathedral on Wednesday evening last, Peter truly loved Africa.
Zimbabwe was his life but he loved Ireland too and Meath especially. He loved his family and despite the years away from Ireland he kept close to you all. When he wanted a break from ministry, or a rest due to health problems, he always came back to Robinstown to be with Nancy and the family. I know that Nancy’s death last year left a big gap in the family but especially for Ger and Joe (his brother).
Peter liked to poke fun at nearby counties but especially Westmeath. At Nancy’s Funeral Mass he told us that when she came to this church she always lit two candles: one for his safety in Zimbabwe and another that Westmeath would never beat Meath in football – his sentiments too.
We are bidding farewell to a beloved brother, brother-in­law, uncle, granduncle and friend, to a Carmelite friar who spent himself in the service of Jesus Christ: “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Peter Gerald may you rest in Peace and rise in glory to life everlasting. Amen.