by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you received your vocation, with whom did you first discuss it, and what was their advice?
Father Leo: I was about 26 years old when I first felt this restlessness deep within. I had traveled through Church as an altar server and later Acolyte and by this stage, I was not as faithful as I could have been. So, a calling toward priestly ministry was far from my thoughts.
After a few conversations, dinners, and a couple of wines with priest friends, my calling seemed to grow stronger. Although the most loving conversation was with a very close friend and she smiled and said to continue to listen to that gentle voice in my heart and prayers.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was your favourite course, and why was it your favourite?
Father Leo: After about 12 months of discernment, prayer, and evaluation I was accepted to begin seminary studies at St Patrick's College in Manly NSW. I never entered as an academic, so studies were a certain learning curve. However that my favourite courses were Systematic theology, Ecclesiology, Spirituality, and Pastoral Ministry. Most of my subjects opened a deeper faith and a spiritual maturity which guides me in many ways today.
Gordon: What was your first assignment and what are some of your favourite memories there?
Father Leo: Communio Theology of Vatican II was the first major assignment. The lecturer was Fr Dr. David Coffey, a renowned Systematic Theologian. I remember working well into the late evening when one of my learned classmates asked to look at what I had written so far and he suggested that I was “grabbing the cat from the wrong tail!” So, I scrapped it all and worked on it till about 3 am on the day it was due and to my enormous surprise, I was credited with a High Distinction. Fr David’s remarks simply stated “ a great start to your theological studies”. Not all other assignments were as glorified!
Gordon: What were your primary responsibilities when you were Branch Manager at Service Corporation International?
Father Leo: In taking a step back in this question, I was ordained in 1995 which was a time of joy and love for ministry. Although God’s plans may sometimes be mysterious and not always my plans, in 1996 a felt a deep sense of calling again this time was to leave the active ministry and lead into married life. I married Anne in 1997 we the blessing of the late Bishop Bede Heather. This was my first role post-active ministry and it was in the funeral industry where my pastoral ministry and compassion care were most needed. My primary responsibility was to assist grieving families to celebrate and farewell loved ones. I assisted with the loss of babies, young children, young adults, and of course those who had lived very full lives.
Gordon: What were some of the challenges when you served as Regional Centres Manager at the Society of St Vincent de Paul?
Father Leo: This was my second role where I returned to a Catholic ministry and to working with St Vincent de Paul Society. I had worked throughout my time in Seminary in the ’80s and 90’s. This role was looking after five retail Vinnies shops across the Campbelltown NSW region. It was hard work but very engaging, especially with the over 120 volunteers across the five sites. The challenge was tough but very rewarding.
Gordon: What did you enjoy most when you were Program Manager at St. Vincent de Paul Society?
Father Leo: This role was offered to me not for my expertise in working with people in addictions but for my guidance pastorally and for the mission and spirit of St Vincent de Paul Society. At Mayfield's Day Recovery Centre, we work with people in addiction struggles with alcohol, other drugs, and gambling. I was once asked why would you work with such people with no hope as they will only go back to the addiction and I would say that if we could offer just one person an avenue of hope and light in their dark places then we have done a wonderful job!
Gordon: What were your primary responsibilities when you served as Mission Executive Team Regional Manager Pastoral & Chaplaincy Services at St Vincent's & Mater Health Sydney?
Father Leo: This was a role which I enjoyed very much. Moving from the Mission and spirit of SVDP to a similar spirit found in the works of St Vincent’s Hospital was life-giving. To was a role managing and supporting the ministry of pastoral, sacramental, and spiritual care to all patients, staff and at times volunteers across four hospitals in Sydney. Through this work, I met many remarkable people highly invested in the healing ministry of Jesus. Our teams ran retreats and reflection days as well as Masses across the group. There were many times of liturgical celebrations.
Gordon: What are some of your fondest memories of when you served as National Director of Mission at Little Company of Mary Health Care Ltd in Calvary?
Father Leo: Moving from the St Vincent’s health group to the Calvary Health group was far more difficult than I had first perceived. I struggled with the politics of Catholic health and seemed to get caught in the crossfire. However, I have many fond memories of learning about the life and faith of founder Mary Potter and the deep sense of “being there” presence for patients, especially in palliative care. The Board, Trustees, and Executives taught me much and although we parted company after only three years I deepen my love for mission work and valued its fuller understanding in aspects of ministry.
Gordon: You are currently hold two positions as Executive Director of Mission & Spirituality at St Vincent de Paul Society New South Wales and State Spiritual Advisor St Vincent de Paul Society. Please share with our readers an overview of your responsibilities.
Father Leo: And so, I returned to The St Vincent de Paul Society…! This is a remarkable role that has two aspects to it. One, Executive Director's Mission and Spirituality, is an Executive leadership role in guiding the Society in alignment with its mission, purpose, values, ethics, and Catholic identity and culture. The other, Spiritual Adviser, is the role of the Rule of the St Vincent de Paul Society which is a role of developing faith and spirituality for our Members. The role is present at all Trustees, Board, and Executive meetings opening and closing with prayer and reflection and contributing to all conversations aligning deliberations, discernments, and decisions to our deeply held mission and Vincentian spirit. Both hold a mentoring and pastoral counsel presence.
Other roles not mentioned are that I am a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council for the Diocese of Parramatta NSW as well as a member of the St Nicholas of Myra parish Pastoral Council in Penrith NSW. I am also a community pastoral member of the University of Western Sydney Human Research Ethics Committee.
With the loss of my wife to leukemia in 2016, I learned that one thing you lose, apart from the physical presence of someone you love, is your life dreams. The night Anne returned to our God was a night I lost all our dreams. One needs time to accept and understand that but then to begin the slow process of rebuilding life’s dreams. Sometimes this is with another partner but not always. For me, Anne still walks with me, and our now adult children. She is still a deep part of our lives and I know will always be. In fact, I keep falling more in love with her even in this separated and spiritual way. My next dream, listening to her, is to return in some way to active priestly ministry. In this way, I hope to be able to share with people this unique faith-filled journey and to offer life to the very Church that I love.
Gordon: Who is your favorite saint and why is that saint your favourite?
Father Leo: St Vincent de Paul! Vincent's faith and spirit were grounded in practical love for all. He saw Christ as all people, serving always Christ in the poor. For Vincent faith was crowned in action and service. Vincent was a great model of servant leadership a model which I hope to always be.
Gordon: Thank you for an inspirational interview.