It was perhaps more than a little symbolic that Fr Michael Toomey should be ordained on June 14 in 2009, the feast of Corpus Christi. It makes sense that a man who would do so much to bring communities together should enter his ministry on the day celebrating the oneness of those in the Church.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, the Tipperary based Fr Toomey said: “I was ordained on Corpus Christi, which was Sunday the 14th of June, 2009, here in Ss Peter and Paul’s. My first appointment was in Tramore, and I replaced Fr Colm who sadly died three months afterwards. Fr Colm’s last public engagement was my first Mass here in Clonmel.
“Back in 2003, I was very good friends with Fr Colm O’Brien, who was just a legend. He was only 36 when he died of cancer. A lot of people would know Colm around the country, he was big into Focolare.”
Fr Colm proved important in pushing Fr Michael definitively into the priesthood: “We had a conversation where he basically just said, ‘Are you going to do it or not?’”
As Fr Colm passed away, Fr Michael picked up and continued his ministry in Tramore, which got off to a rough start: “So I was in Tramore where Colm had been. My first year was a shock, in one way, because I was actually knocked down here in Clonmel and I ended up with two broken arms, so I was out of ministry for about four months. I ended up in a nursing home and a hospital. It was just a pure, freak accident; knocked down crossing the road one evening.”
Despite the blunt nature of his introduction to the priestly life, he took it in good humour: “A very heavy start to the ministry, but the thing was there’s a humorous side to it as well. There’s a big statue in Tramore on the beach called ‘The Metal Man’, and of course I have plates and pins in now so I say that Tramore now has two metal men when I came back. I lightened it as best I could.”
And so, Fr Michael’s ministry began with six years in Tramore, involving extensive work in the local community and schools. “I still connect with Tramore,” he says. “You make the connections and you never really leave a place. There’s always that connection there.” The six years soared past, and then in 2015, he was sent to Clonmel: “A very unusual appointment, to come home.” He wasted no time and set about bringing the church forward into the world of today: “We set up Church Services TV, which is an absolute Godsend in the last few months with the pandemic.” He couldn’t have predicted at the time what an important role this innovation would come to play. “With the pandemic, the big thing has been Church Services TV. I have Mass every Monday now on RTÉ as well, so I’m doing that every week,” he tells me.
Connection has been a cornerstone throughout Fr Michael’s ministry, and technology has only made those links easier to establish: “It’s been amazing the way we’ve reached out. It’s not been the same, obviously. It’s better to have people, but it’s been a way of reaching out and it’s the new evangelisation in one way.
“I know people are saying it’s not the same thing, of course it’s not the same thing, but we’ve been able to reach out to people that we wouldn’t normally have reached. The figures we were getting on the Church Services TV were in their thousands every day, which we’d never seen before because people were actually tuning in.”
It’s quite possible that this Easter touched more people than ever before, despite the obvious drawbacks. To back up this point, Fr Michael points to his Easter Sunday broadcast: “Over 7000 people on Easter Sunday were watching Mass in St Patrick’s cemetery from around the world, so we’re going to do that again.” This deeper engagement with technology has not been lost on the priests: “I think the funny thing has been, between myself and the priests who’ve been doing this, is that we’re all up for the best director award this year, and sound engineers and producers, because we’re all learning these different things,” he says.
Despite the overwhelming presence of technology and online connection, the profundity and depth of the lockdown experience was an opportunity for reflection: “During the lockdown, the most striking thing was I said Mass on St Patrick’s Day with just the mayor. It really summed it up. That was the start of the pandemic; where you only had the mayor representing the whole of the town in a church that would have been full,” he says.
“It’s great to welcome people back but it’s an experience I, or any of us, will never forget.” Despite the harm the virus did, and the unpleasant side effects that followed it, Fr Michael sees growth and renewal having the last word here: “It’s a community spirit. I’ve seen the community spirit in Clonmel increase about a 1000 percent, with different people looking out for one another and helping one another. Not just religious-wise but community-wise, and I think that’s been the biggest plus of the lockdown.” He added: “I think we’ve reached out and connected with a lot of people than we would have done, but for the lockdown.”