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50 years a priest, but there's much more to Mons

By any reckoniong, Monsignor Tony Toms has led an extraordinary life.

CHALPAT SONTI July 23, 2014 3:48am

Monsignor Tony Toms will celebrate 50 years as a priest on Sunday. He is pictured here with a copy of a painting hanging in Canberra which he called "The Friar's Dilemma" and it nicely illustrates "Mons's" own sense of humour.


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So what’s the secret of longevity for Monsignor Tony Toms, as he prepares to celebrate 50 years as a priest?

In a life where you’ve played cards with the Pope (and future Saint), carried weapons on public transport, tried to enlist for the Suez Canal crisis, survived assassination attempts in Thailand, been the senior priest in the Australian Defence Force and are a descendant of the founder of a hallowed football club there must be a few juicy tips, surely?

Well, no. The answer is as remarkable as the story itself.

‘‘I’ve always kept a low profile,’’ the 76-year-old, widely and affectionately known as ‘‘Mons’’, said.

Surely that’s a contradiction if ever there was one? Again, no.

In this remarkable story, let’s go back to the beginning.The Army or the Church?

Mons was born in Melbourne, the son of devout and traditional Catholics. Brought up in St Kilda, family life rotated around the Church.

And that extended to schooling which reinforced the religion at home. Being educated in schools such as the Presentation Convent at Windsor and Xavier College, it is easy to think that the priesthood was always the course. But there was a conflict in the young mind.

‘‘I couldn’t decide upon whether to be a priest or join the Australian Army,’’ he said.

‘‘Down the track I was able to do both. But in 1957 I had an opportunity to go to Rome and study and I thought ‘well, if that doesn’t pan out I can come back and go to the Royal Military College at Duntroon the following year’ because I had also passed the enrolment there.

‘‘I think the strong Catholicity of our family probably won the day. After the evening meal we had our Rosary and my parents gave us every opportunity to practice and live our religion (a brother, Christopher, is also a priest in the Jordanville parish in Melbourne).

‘‘At Xavier the Jesuits had a great influence on my life and I think that’s where the thoughts were born to become a priest. I owe a lot to the Jesuit fathers for my education, both at Xavier and in Rome.’’

Mons was offered a scholarship to go to Rome as an 18-year-old to further his education en route to the priesthood and he said ‘‘I couldn’t believe the opportunity that was coming’’.

‘‘That really shaped my whole outlook because it was very narrow in Australia but studying in a college of 250 students from 48 countries broadened my outlook and my concept of the universality of the Catholic Church.’’

That said, it was still a wrench to pass up the military. Mons was in the cadets at school and it was a time of heightened tensions in the decade following World War II.

‘‘We were virtually boy soldiers,’’ he said.

‘‘We were proficient in all the attributes of the Bren gun, the Vickers (World War I) machine gun and the three-inch mortars and orienteering. As 14-year-olds we were issued with .303 rifles and we would take the rifle home in the trams.

‘‘Quite often on a Monday morning you would have, on the 69 tram going up Glenferrie Rd, 30 or 40 .303 rifles which is quite extraordinary today.

‘‘I rose through the ranks of the cadets and went to different courses in the holidays and became a sergeant.’’

It was 1956, the time of the Suez crisis. A young Mons was eager for some action.

‘‘Myself and a couple of others went to see if we could join up to go there,’’ he said.

‘‘But we were advised to stay in school and finish our studies. The Colonel said the war was going to last about two weeks. But there was enthusiasm for those adventures then, the Malayan conflict was just beginning, Korea had just ended and we were very war-orientated.’’

READ THE REST OF MONS’ REMARKABLE LIFE STORY IN THIS WEEK’S TELEGRAPH

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