June 2024

Why God? Stories to Inspire Faith, by Richard Leonard SJ

This book is a collection of personal and engaging stories that speak of the power of God working in creation and through unlikely individuals and places. Reviewed by Tracey Edstein.

On the feast of Corpus Christi, I read, “A creative way of celebrating the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood might be to watch Babette’s Feast. This 1986 film is one of the finest contemporary parables about the Eucharist that I know.” You can do an online search for the plot line, but Richard Leonard’s most telling statement for me is, “If you don’t know how to host a dinner party, you have no right to preside at the Eucharist.”*

Why God? Image: Garratt Publishing.

It’s these sit-up-and-take-notice moments that make Why God? Stories to Inspire Faith memorable, quotable reading. The book is a collection of Richard’s columns from The Tablet, one for each week of the year, and could be dipped into at random. Once I began though, I had to keep going!  

While clearly theologically grounded and a fine writer, perhaps Richard’s greatest gift is his ability to glean from his 30-plus years of ministry stories that are entertaining, often quirky and, most importantly, brimming with deep faith.

The collection is divided into sections: Church, Liturgy and Sacraments, Society, Faith, Discipleship and would, I believe, serve as an excellent homiletic aid.

While Richard’s stories are drawn from his Jesuit life, he has an ability to place, centre stage, the least likely people. For example, meet bass-singing Gloria, a choir member in Richard’s inner-city parish. “You realise I’m a trannie don’t ya, Father?” “Yes Gloria … It’s unusual to find  a woman who can sing bass.”

Despite causing a stir in the parish when her friends came to support her, Gloria (Gordon) was changed for the better because of her parish experience. “I know it wasn’t easy for some of you having a drag queen in the choir, but you believed in me even when I didn’t know who I was …” Who would have thought?

Richard shares generously his personal stories and those of his family, including that of his sister, Tracey, who had worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and became a quadriplegic at 28. She lived for another 28 years, cared for by her widowed mother. “Tracey was far from perfect, though I have yet to meet anyone who was dealt such a devastatingly cruel hand and remain as positive, engaged, and encouraging.”

In many ways Why God? leads the reader, gently but firmly, to be ready to question some of the received wisdom of the Church. Memorably, Richard writes, “At the risk of wrecking your Christmas, we need to clear up a few things. I know all our carols and cards say that Jesus was born in December; in a snow-covered stable; was wrapped in swaddling clothes; lay in the manger with the animals; that a star stood vigil; and was later visited by three kings … But the Gospels don’t say any of this – nothing even remotely close to it.”

Richard goes on to explain that the key message of Christmas is “Be not afraid” – an injunction sorely needed every day, not just at Christmas.

On evangelisation, he points out that “Baptisms, weddings, and funerals are three of the greatest tools for evangelisation that we have … Imagine if our liturgies on these occasions were as welcoming and generous as they were well prepared? Imagine if the first words the congregation heard from the celebrant were of compassion and inclusion?”

Many years ago, I participated in a weekend women’s conference in Sydney. A visiting bishop was to preside at Sunday Mass. He was unwell on the day and with little notice, Richard Leonard arrived instead.

I still remember his opening words: “Thank you.”

It’s impossible to convey, as a woman in a congregation of committed and faith-filled women, what that simple acknowledgement meant. The contribution of women who are, by an accident of birth, second class citizens in the Church, is rarely noticed, much less mentioned authentically.

Incidentally, along the way Richard also reclaims Mary Magdalene, purgatory and the communal rite of penance!

I loved the quote from former Jesuit Superior General, Adolfo Nicolás SJ, who said that social media is “the globalisation of superficiality.” Richard says, “It is the very opposite of the approach of St Ignatius of Loyola, who urged us to savour experience and learn from it, to enjoy it, and when appropriate, to repent of it, so that we might make better decisions.”

For readers who know little of the Jesuit way, Richard’s columns are an accessible entry point to the Society of Jesus – to which, of course, Pope Francis belongs.

If you are drawn to a contemporary, highly informed and highly engaging approach to matters of faith, you will be rewarded by reading Why God? Stories to Inspire Faith.

*Yes, a question arises: if you do know how to host a dinner party, do you have the right to preside at the Eucharist? I think we know the answer.

Why God? Stories to Inspire Faith by Richard Leonard SJ is published by Paulist Press, 2024.

Also available from Garratt Publishing.

Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a freelance writer and editor based in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.