Exclusive interview with Archbishop Frank Leo, Pope Francis’ ally in Toronto
The new archbishop of Toronto, Francis “Frank” Leo, 52, is one of several significant appointments that Pope Francis has made this year. Others include the diocesan archbishops of Buenos Aires, Madrid and Brussels, and the prefects of the Vatican dicasteries (departments) for bishops and for the doctrine of the faith. All are bishops that share Francis’ vision of a synodal church and are likely to ensure that vision continues into the next pontificate.
Pope Francis, 86, gave Archbishop Leo and 31 other new diocesan archbishops the pallium at the end of the Mass that he presided over in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. The Vatican ambassador to Canada, Archbishop Ivan Jurkvič, will place the pallium on Archbishop Leo’s shoulders at a ceremony in Toronto’s cathedral in the fall; the date has yet to be decided.
I sat down with Archbishop Leo at the Domus Romana Sacerdotalis, one of the Vatican’s guesthouses for clergy, a five minutes’ walk from St. Peter’s Basilica, on June 27. The following article, published in two parts, is based on our hour-long conversation. (Read Part II here.)
PART I: Archbishop Frank Leo talks about his life from early childhood to his work as secretary general of the Canadian Catholic bishops’ conference.
Archbishop Leo was born in Montreal on June 30, 1971, the second son of Italian immigrant parents. He has an older brother who is married with children and living in Canada. Both his mother and father came to Canada at the age of 12 with their families, not knowing French or English. His father arrived in 1953 and has not returned to Italy since then. Lacking higher education, “he got the jobs that you can,” Archbishop Leo said. His mother arrived in Canada in 1960, went to high school and became a bookkeeper and controller.
The new archbishop of Toronto, Francis “Frank” Leo, 52, is one of several significant appointments that Pope Francis has made this year.
“Notwithstanding the difficulties of being immigrants in a new country with all that this means, they did well. They worked at the ‘schmatta’ business, the needle trade, textile importing and exporting, and doing some local work. They put money together, bought a house and helped their children get a good education,” the archbishop said.
“I felt the call to the priesthood and said ‘yes’ when I was 15,” he recalled. Two things contributed to his vocation. First, “my involvement in the parish community: getting involved in serving God. I felt called to be an altar server. And then the scouting movement, choir and all of that.” The second, “the key moment,” was “prayer and accompaniment.”
He was accompanied by a priest who told him: “‘We all have two vocations: the first to holiness and service—which is the universal call to holiness and service. The second is the personal [vocation].’ So, it’s not me trying to figure it out all by myself; Jesus already has it figured out. So the path was to let me tap into him and ask him. And so my prayer changed. No longer self-centered but Christ-centered, seeking his will for me.”
He recalled that “at 15, my vocation became clear. It wasn’t a St. Paul on the road to Damascus thing, but it was a big realization. I would see the priest and say [to myself]: ‘I want to do that. I want to be like that.’ And so this sentiment of fullness, of deep joy when you find your place, the right peg into the right hole. It fits.”
The parish was “fundamental” to his vocation, he stated. “I praise God that I grew up in a parish community and for all the ministries in the parish. That for me was key. It hurts my heart sometimes that the guys that come into the seminary oftentimes don’t have that parish connection, not having grown up as a child of the parish. I think that’s lacking because you learn how to live in community, you learn about ministries, you learn about the liturgy, you learn about different vocations that are out there, and you grow up serving God in this community in different ways.”
He recalled that “at 15, my vocation became clear. It wasn’t a St. Paul on the road to Damascus thing, but it was a big realization.”
“I know the Lord reaches out to people in a million ways, but if you have to figure [your vocation] out on your own, or when there’s no real larger community beyond the family unit, it makes it more difficult.”
Archbishop Leo said he has “a great appreciation of religious life.” As a teenager he had to discern whether to apply for the diocesan priesthood or join a religious order. He used to read the lives of the saints and often wanted to join a particular religious order after reading the life of the founder. He was particularly attracted to the Dominicans but finally opted for the secular priesthood.
“I like the Dominicans because I find that they’re sort of like the Jesuits: a good mixture of contemplative and active,” he said. He said he also likes “Thomas Aquinas and his reasonableness. Faith and reason, they are not enemies, they work together.” And he was impressed by “the witness of St. Dominic, a man who answered the needs of the time,” and by St. Catherine of Siena, an Italian member of the Third Order of St. Dominic, and her work for “the renewal in the church.”
Life as a Vatican diplomat
He entered the Grand Séminaire de Montréal in 1990, was ordained a priest for the Montreal archdiocese in 1996 and served in different parish assignments in the archdiocese until 2006 when he was asked by the nuncio, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, to join the Holy See’s diplomatic service. He admits he had “some hesitation.” He said: “I was loving pastoral work, especially with the families, with the young people. My two loves were the parish and teaching. Besides, I didn’t know Rome, I had never studied there. But I was told it’s a service to the wider church that the Lord is asking of you, with the caveat that if it doesn’t work out, you just come back home. So I said, ‘O.K., I’ll try it out.’”
He studied for two years (2006-08) at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome, the Vatican school for diplomats. While there, he made contact with the Dominicans, who had a church—the Basilica of Sopra Minerva—and a house in front of the academy. “I was entering the diplomatic service, and I knew that I needed something to ground me even more spiritually, and I knew I could bring this spirituality with me and enter into contact with local Dominicans wherever I am sent, which I did.”
“I praise God that I grew up in a parish community and for all the ministries in the parish. That for me was key.”
He became a member of the third order of the priestly fraternity, but because he was traveling so much, he wasn’t able to be part of a stable chapter. Now in Toronto, he says, “I have been able to reconnect with the Dominicans, and so I’ll hopefully be working with that.”
After graduating from the academy, he joined the Vatican diplomatic service and was first sent for a three-month internship at the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in Bangkok, Thailand. He was subsequently sent to Australia, where they needed an English-speaking diplomat. He interpreted the Australian posting as “an act of Christian charity” because “it came soon after my mother’s death at the age of 61 and I was very close to her” and because they sent him to “a place I could connect easily with.” He described his time in Australia as “absolutely wonderful.”
“I miss it so much,” Archbishop Leo said. “I felt as if I was a member of the local church. I would do daily Mass at the convent, weekend Mass at the parishes, part-time teaching at the A.C.U. [Australian Catholic University], and youth-group retreats. So besides doing the diplomatic work, I got really involved in the life of the local church.”
He was next assigned to the Holy See’s study mission in Hong Kong, where he spent a year and a half (2011-12). “It gave me an exposure to China, which I had not had before. A little glimpse into the difficulties, the challenges of being Christian in China. What stands out to me is the dedication and the attachment of Chinese Christians to the faith, notwithstanding the persecutions…. They want to transmit the faith to the next generation, while always having to look over their shoulder. I celebrate that dedication.”
Returning to Canada
In 2012, however, his life changed again. He returned home to Montreal for vacation, as he did every year, but in March of that year his bishop, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, had retired and was succeeded by Archbishop Christian Lépine. When he met the new archbishop, “We spoke about the needs of the diocese, and something rekindled in my heart.” Referring to his life in the diplomatic service, “I said, ‘I’ve been doing this and I asked myself do I want to do this for the rest of my life?’” Archbishop Lépine told him, “There’s a seminary across the street that really needs you.”
“I really believe in the power of prayer and discernment and think that God will show up at the occasion to tell me,” Archbishop Leo said. “It was a difficult discernment to do. So I spoke with people of faith and wise in the ways of the Lord, and with my spiritual director—he was a Jesuit. And then it became clear! It became clear, and so I was happy.”
Upon his return home, then-Monsignor Leo joined the formation team of the Grand Séminaire de Montréal, teaching theology and philosophy while providing spiritual direction, training and accompaniment to candidates for the priesthood. He also did parish work. “A wonderful mix,” he remarked.
“I find there’s a great need to get to know the Mother of Christ, for our own personal journey of faith and for the good of the church.”
As a priest, Archbishop Leo has always had a great devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and he did his doctorate in Mariology. He founded the Canadian Mariological Society after returning to Montreal because, he said, “I find there’s a great need to get to know the Mother of Christ, for our own personal journey of faith and for the good of the church.”
In the fall of 2015, he was appointed general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and went to live in Ottawa, where the head office was. Commenting on his time in that role he said: “It was a tremendous experience…. I had the perspective of the global church, I had the perspective of diocesan church and formation, and now I gained a national perspective.”
“We worked hard,” he said, “and there were difficult issues,” including whether the church in Canada should formally apologize to the Indigenous peoples for its involvement in the residential school system and whether Pope Francis should visit the country to apologize.
Many in Rome knew that Pope Francis showed great patience as the Canadian bishops struggled to reach a consensus about the visit and the apology. Archbishop Leo acknowledged this and remarked, “It speaks to his humility as well as to his ecclesiology of respect for the local bishops as successors of the apostles and legitimate leaders in the country and in their churches. He was very, very patient, and loving. He didn’t push. He was collaborative and consultative. Is it ready? Is the Holy Spirit telling us this? What do you think?”
During his visit to Canada, conversing with the Jesuits in Quebec, Pope Francis publicly praised the Canadian bishops for reaching unanimity on those crucial questions of the apology and the visit. Commenting on this, Archbishop Leo said: “We were very proud of our conference. We stayed away from the polarization that we see in other places. Even if at the beginning we did not see how this would be possible.” He recalled that “everyday we have a lot of meetings, a lot of meetings with the three national Indigenous groups.”
Archbishop Leo admitted it was not easy and there were tensions, but he praised the bishops because “they kept it fraternal and ‘ad intra’ because they knew we needed to work this out…so it wasn’t publicly one against another. ‘We’re not agreeing on this. O.K., the time isn’t right. Let’s keep working and discerning, talking and seeing.’ And so it came about that at the most opportune time, at the right time, the Kairos, people were all on the same page. The bishops reached unity.” He said this “was very important for us not only to have a united front but to be truly one in this. It was also so important for Canada because you can’t be divided on such crucial issues.”