Book review: What Does It All Mean?

Fr Richard Leonard SJ specialises in provocatively asking huge questions. His latest book is no exception.

Richard Leonard, What Does It All Mean? A Guide To Being More Faithful, Hopeful and Loving, Paulist Press, ISBN 9780809106417

ResizeImageHandlerFr Richard Leonard, SJ specialises in provocatively asking huge questions. His earlier book, dealing with suffering and evil, asked Where the Hell is God? Having found God, he keeps on punching with Why Bother Praying?  and What are We Doing for Christ’s Sake? And now he takes on the universe with, What does it all mean?

In this latest work he puts together in a revised form the heart of his previous three previous books. As his titles show he asks all the big, hard questions, introducing  his enquiry with the in-your-face, I’m-out-of-here, slightly exasperated questions of a wary reader ready to give away the conversation at the slightest sign of a defensive or magisterial tone. He responds by taking his conversation partners seriously, acknowledges the truth in their criticisms of church, Catholics and weak arguments, but he also criticises weak and unfair treatment of Catholic life and faith by hostile critics. His conversation is never all give and no take.

He also deploys a wide range of stories, some funny and others very moving. Many are drawn from his own experience, some told against himself and others of encounters in which he was the catalyst of great change in people. Many of the humorous anecdotes are placed in a way that betrays the part that encounters with live audiences in lectures and seminars have played in crystallising his thoughts. The light touches occur at exactly the time when the audience’s attention might be slipping. They are the work of a skilled communicator.

But the value of the book lies in its exploration of faith, the Christian life and the Catholic Church at a time of critical self-reflection and external criticism. He deals honestly with the contemporary challenges to faith from scientific discovery, from the shameful criminal behaviour by priests and religious in the Catholic Church and its cover-up, and from diminishing and ageing parish congregations.

He commends ways of thinking about faith and living that are realistic, that focus firmly on what matters most and not on peripheral matters, that are open to challenge and confident, and that are grounded in the faith of the Church. At a time when many Catholics speak of losing heart, the openness and assurance of the writer’s address to his readers offer much-needed reassurance.

One waits eagerly to see into what stratospheric heights the title of Fr Leonard’s next book might lead us.

Review by Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ.