Canon John O’Toole – 40 Years of Discipleship

From ‘The Evangelist’ published by St John’s Seminary, Wonersh

Interview with Deacon Peter Sebastian

Canon John was ordained priest on the Feast of All Saints 1978 having been an alumnus of both St John’s, Wonersh and the junior seminary at Mark Cross, Sussex. I first met Canon John in 2018 when he came to St John’s to brief us on ecumenical relations and was struck by how much he enjoyed and was at peace in his priesthood. Given his wealth of priestly experience — in parish life, in Catholic education, in building ecumenical relationships, in mission work – I resolved to interview him for The Evangelist. I caught up with him just as he was beginning his appointment as Episcopal Vicar for Kent……

YOU HAVE A RICH EXPERIENCE IN FORGING ECUMENICAL RELATIONSHIPS AND FRIENDSHIPS IN PARISH LIFE AND AT NATIONAL LEVEL. HOW HAVE YOU REMAINED HOPEFUL AMID THE UPS AND DOWNS?

The late Bishop Michael Evans, a fellow member of my year at Wonersh who became Bishop of East Anglia, used to say that “Unity is a gift before it is a task.” It is a gift of the Spirit, not our doing. What we can do is share in the gifts we have in common; we are brother and sister in the one body of Christ. Let’s celebrate that. We are in real but imperfect communion. The task is to work for the full communion. We should not get disheartened.

And let me crib the words of our new Archbishop John Wilson – we can learn from other Christians, particularly from the Pentecostal tradition. Why are they doing so well? Three things: the quality of their preaching, the clarity of their teaching and their sense of belonging. Archbishop John concluded that we as Catholics should excel at all three – and so we should. We should have the humility to realise that we can learn from others.

DID YOU TRY TO SHAPE YOUR PRIESTLY CAREER?

I go where I am sent – the promise of obedience is important to me. Dr Freddie Broomfield at St John’s taught us that obedience means you can have every word except the last! – The Holy Spirit is at work. Every posting has its advantages. The priesthood is a joyous calling with a rich variety of roles and work. We priests are privileged to have access to people’s lives and to see the action of the Spirit.

IS THERE ANYTHING YOU KNOW NOW THAT YOU MIGHT HAVE WANTED TO KNOW AT THE BEGINNING?

Probably not. There is no substitute for experience. Arriving at Lewisham hospital as a new chaplain on a sick call and being told that your parishioner has just died — who can prepare you for that? It is probably better not to know too much too soon!

Deacon Peter was ordained to the Priesthood on 25th July