Francis Leo prays the Eucharistic Prayer in St. Michael's Cathedral at the his installation Mass as Archbishop of Toronto, March 25, 2023. Michael Swan

Accepting God's call is Leo’s witness of obedience

By  Laura Ieraci, Register Correspondent
  • March 30, 2023

When a new bishop is appointed, people naturally ask, “Who is he? Where does he come from? What’s his story? What makes him tick?” said Toronto’s new archbishop at his installation Mass March 25. 

Archbishop Francis Leo in a joking manner told the congregation at St. Michael’s Cathedral they could find some answers to these questions in his biography in the program booklet. He then proceeded to speak of himself as “a son of Italian immigrants from the old country, where respect, sacrifice, hard work, family, faith and taking care of one another were and remain vital” — a reference he also made in his message accepting his new appointment Feb. 11.

Clearly, coming from an Italian Canadian immigrant family is central to Leo’s “story.” These are the values that make the new archbishop “tick.” 

Faith and family are at the heart of the immigrant Italian Canadian home, where much time is spent around the dining room table, sharing stories about ancestry, the immigrant journey, the struggles and the overcoming. Here, identity is formed and reinforced, week after week, woven in with sincere care for one another and the joy of simply being together. 

Rarely do Italian Canadians in Montreal move to other cities for work or study because of how rooted they are in their families and community. Those who do are more the exception than the rule. Instead, they find ways to make life work in Montreal because being close to family is more important than career. 

Even if they do move away, trips to Montreal for holidays or family occasions are frequent. This commitment to family doesn’t translate into a lack of ambition. Rather it reflects a bloom-where-you-are-planted mentality that drives creativity and ingenuity and prioritizes profound, lifelong relationships. It seems to me these values played an important role in Leo’s decision to become a priest for the Archdiocese of Montreal. 

I first met Frank Leo in the early 1990s at a gathering of young adults from Montreal’s Italian parishes. When he shared that he was studying to become a priest, I asked him which religious order he was planning to join. None, he said. He wanted to become a diocesan priest. 

“Why?” I asked. Didn’t he want to join one of the religious orders serving our Italian Canadian community?

His response was: “Because I want to stay in Montreal.” 

How’s that for irony?

God obviously had other plans for Leo, whose life as a Montreal priest has taken him to Rome, Australia, Hong Kong, Ottawa and now Toronto. 

It is a mystery to me why some conversations are engraved into a person’s memory, but this is one that has stuck with me as I have observed Leo’s life of ministry for 26 years. If I were to hazard a guess, and reflect on it through the lens of Scripture, I would say it serves to remind me that what Proverbs says is true: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (16:9). 

The Yiddish proverb, “We plan, God laughs,” adds a little tongue-in-cheek humour to this profound spiritual truth. But God’s laughter is not mocking laughter, explains Rabbi Sherre Hirsch. Rather, it is intended as an expression of God’s “joy” at the possibilities that open up when a person’s plans cooperate with God’s will. For often times God works for our good and for the good of His people by disrupting our original plans and leading us in ways and places we did not expect.

Ultimately, God is in charge. Submitting ourselves to His ways may not fulfill our plan exactly as we had envisioned it. However, many times, it accomplishes something even greater than we ever could have imagined. 

Three decades on, the disruptions in Leo’s original “plans” to stay in Montreal havebecome a witness of obedience to God’s call, expressed as well in Leo’s episcopal motto, “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5). It is a lesson of trust and faith, of allowing God in His wisdom to establish one’s steps.

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jer 29:11).

In the meantime, Montreal Catholics need not be concerned that they may never see Leo again. While Leo ever serving for the Church in Montreal again is a nonstarter, he will certainly return on visits frequently enough. After all, family will call him back.

(Laura Ieraci, a journalist originally from Montreal, writes for the Catholic press from Chicago.)

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