Issue 3: 19 Jan

A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ 

Most of us have seen those Christian billboards, often outside of churches, which try and catch the attention of the passer-by.
Among some of the ones I have seen:

Free Trip to Heaven.  Details Inside!

C’mon over and bring the kids.

Searching for a new look?  Have your faith lifted here!

Loved the wedding, invite me to the marriage.

The Ten Commandments - for fast relief, take two tablets.

Will the road you’re on get you to my place?

If you’re headed in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns.

Come work for the Lord.  The work is hard, the hours are long and the pay is low.  But the retirement benefits are out of this world.

What are you doing on earth – for Christ’s sake?

Christian billboards are a novel way of calling people to make some form of response to the life of faith, even if that is to reject it. Often through humor, they try and present a welcoming and engaging face for the church to the wider public. 

During the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, the readings from the First Book of Samuel and the Gospel of John all involve call and response. Samuel plays out what many people think the call of God is like - a booming voice telling us what to do. John’s Gospel is more subtle. The earliest apostles are called in two ways and neither of them involves loud voices with grand requests. Andrew follows Jesus because of what John the Baptist says. Simon Peter comes to Jesus through word-of-mouth, his brother Andrew’s recommendation.

What these readings collectively indicate is the various ways in which people are drawn into the life and service of God. Sometimes, because we want certainty, we hope and long for a more dramatic indication of God’s will. Some people get it. Mostly, however, the experience of Andrew and Simon Peter is the more common one. We follow our desires, play our hunches and pursue that which intrigues us. As time goes on, our experience indicates the path that will lead to the most hopeful, faithful and loving choice. What is especially encouraging about the Gospel is that Andrew goes after whatever it is that Jesus has. He lives with, or experiences, Jesus’ company for a day and then becomes his recruiting officer.

In so many ways, of course, things are different for us now. Rather than us seeking out where Jesus lives, we are given opportunities to experience his life, and invite him to come and make a home with us. But whatever of the differences in the process, the end result is the same. Just as Samuel, Andrew and Peter could have no idea where their response to God’s call would lead them, so we cannot either. All we know is that it will cost us something, maybe everything.

Responding to God’s call in Christ is not for the faint-hearted and we shouldn’t pretend it is. It involves loving our enemies, working for peace, forgiving those who have wronged us, and making the world a just place for all God’s children. If these charges make no claim on us in our daily lives, then, chances are, we are listening to voices that endlessly give us the run-around, rather than being hooked up to the source of life which makes sense and gives meaning to all our connections in this world and the next.

Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments. Paulist Press. 2019.



Issue 2: 12 Jan


A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ – Vol 2: Issue 2: 12:1:2021


The Baptism of the Lord and the watery grave

I like doing baptisms. It is a very special event in the life of a family, always a happy occasion, usually without the drama that often surrounds weddings. Sometimes, however, I am the second priest the parents come to see about doing the ceremony. The first priest has given the parents a grilling: are you going to return to the practice of the faith? Are you going to become registered and a paid-up member of the parish? Will you be sending the child to a Catholic school? Some parents are even told that unless you attend the parish’s baptismal course or preparation evening then you cannot have your baby baptized. Nonsense!

While formation is desirable, even the Church’s law states that Catholic parents have a right to have their children baptized if they reasonably ask for it, have the right intention, are not prohibited from receiving this Sacrament because they have been baptized before, for example, and that there is a “realistic hope” that the children will be brought up in the Catholic faith.  

Sometimes some parents are not very articulate about why they want to have their baby baptized is insufficient grounds for them to be rejected. They may have a vague sense that it is a good idea, or be sincere in doing their best in raising the child Catholic, or doing it because Nana said they had to! Regardless of where you start the process does not matter; it is all about where God can finish it.

Sometimes I am also the second priest seen by a couple who wants to get married. The first priest has for example found out that they are living together and so gives them a hard time, saying, “Well, we cannot do your wedding until you stop living together, stop having sexual intercourse and make a good Confession.” Some of those couples walk out of that parish office right into the arms of a civil marriage celebrant. Sometimes they come and see me. I see these parents and couples because I live by a very easy principle: I baptize anything that moves; I marry anything that moves, and I bury anything that doesn’t! 

Don’t tell some priests this, but they do not own the Sacraments. Christ does. This is rock-solid Catholic sacramental theology. Christ baptizes, marries, confirms, forgives, ordains, anoints, and hosts us all at the Eucharist. I may be administering the Sacrament in Christ’s name, but Christ is the actor. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the good order of Sacraments. I am not liturgically cavalier, but last time I checked the Gospels, Jesus was never stingy with his presence and went after those who lived at the fringe of his society drawing them into the life and mercy of God through an encounter with this presence. That’s one of the things Sacraments are a direct encounter with the presence of Christ, who went to those who did not fit the neat religious categories of his day. If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!

Because of the Baptism of the Lord, we are all baptized into the life of Christ, and there are three things I think we should celebrate in regard to this great feast.

Even though it is often our Catholic instinct to say that the Eucharist is our most important Sacrament, it is in fact Baptism. Done only once in a lifetime, baptism is the gate through which we are offered all other sacramental encounters with Christ and initiates us into the life of the Church, for it is one Christ, one Faith, and one Baptism.

Baptism is also our most ecumenical sacrament. If you ever wanted to belong to the Orthodox, Episcopalian or Anglican, Lutheran, United and Uniting, Continuing Presbyterian or Methodist churches, you will never be re-baptized, and even in the worst days of sectarianism, the Catholic Church never re-baptized anyone. We received other Christians into full communion with the Catholic Church. The only two mainstream Christian denominations who will re-baptize are the Baptists because they do not hold to infant baptism. They dedicate children and argue that baptism should be an adult decision. The other group is the Pentecostal Christians because they argue that only a full immersion baptism is valid.

It is true that the Greek word, bapto, or baptizo, means to “to wash” or “to immerse” and so full immersion better represents what it intends, namely representing Jesus’ tomb. We now encourage the full immersion of adults and children. In this context, we can see that the deeper the font and the fuller the immersion, the more easily everyone present understands the power of the symbols. That said, it is strange that groups who want to be so biblically literal about the amount of water used at baptism are not literal about the place of the water: the River Jordan. So volume matters, geography doesn’t.

The third stunning element of baptism is related to the second: the action of plunging our adults and children into the watery tomb of the font three times. And as we do we call on the Trinity to enable them to die to sin and rise to the freedom of Christ’s life. Understandably, many people think that, because we call on the Trinity while we do the action with the water, the triple movement is all about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In fact, the triple movement symbolizes the three days Jesus spent in the tomb.

We are the only world religion to believe that God took our flesh and died. For just as Jesus went down into the water and rose out of it into a fresh outpouring of the Father’s love for him, and, later as he goes down into the tomb of human death and the Father raises him to new life, then so we go down into the watery grave so as to rise to a life of being both loved by God and being invited to live a life worthy of eternal life.

The first baptism at which I presided was for my niece Emily. I was fresh out of theological college and gung-ho for full immersion baptism. My uncle, who was a priest, and my family’s local pastor, had recently built a new parish church with a full immersion font. My mother did not think it was a great idea. “Why would you distress that child so much with this unnecessary fuss? You always go overboard!” she said. That night, while doing some baptismal preparation at my brother and sister-in-law’s home, I got the sense they did not think full immersion was necessary either, so I played dirty. “Peter,” I said, “you have to know that Mother thinks full immersion is a terrible idea.” “Good,” he replied, “we’ll do it then!”

On the day, at the big moment, I took Emily in my arms and said, “Emily Therese, I baptize you in the Name of the Father” and lowered her in and out of the warm water. She thought it was a bath. “And of the Son,” repeating the action. “And of the Holy Spirit,” but this time I cupped my hand and gently poured some water over her head as well and with that, a little of the water went into her eye and she let out a huge scream. My mother jumped up from the first pew, “I told you this was a stupid idea.” To which my brother sharply retorted, “Mum, will you please sit down and shut up.” I tell that story to console you just in case you think you have a dysfunctional family. We have family fights at baptisms.

There are no half measures about immersion, we are in their boots and all. Because of the Incarnation and the Lord’s baptism by John at the Jordan we don’t have a detached God, who only presides over us. We don’t have a coaching God, who sits on the sidelines barking orders at us on the field of life. And we don’t have a policeman God, who wants to catch us breaking the rules. We have a God who, in Jesus the Lord, immersed himself in our world, heart and mind, soul and divinity, boots and all.

For all those baptized in Christ, a curious thing happens. As Jesus fully immersed himself in our world, so we are fully immersed in Christ. But we are not spared from the world as if we are initiated into a reclusive religious sect. Just as Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his public ministry, so too, we are sent out to the world knowing that even though we sin, we are loved by a merciful God and are pleasing to him. We are sent out to immerse ourselves in the world and discover that Christ has gone ahead of us and dwells there too.

Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments. Paulist Press. 2019.  


Issue 1: 5 Jan 2021

A New Year Epiphany – Choose Wonder Over Fear

When we go to the cinema, we have to suspend our critical sensibilities to enter into the full power of the story. A similar concession is necessary to reap the full benefit of the story of the first Epiphany. Have you ever wondered, for example, why the wise men, who have been guided from the East to Jerusalem, stop there and ask directions from Herod? Surely the star could have kept doing its job and taken them all the way to Bethlehem. And why didn’t Herod follow the wise men, or at least send a spy behind them, rather than ask them to send word back to him when they had found him? Furthermore, whatever happened to these wise guys? They are the first in Matthew’s Gospel to recognize who Jesus is, and yet they vanish from Jesus’ life as quickly as they came into it.

Like many screenwriters, Matthew plays with history for another purpose. Like cinemagoers, we’re happy to suspend our questions and look beyond the story’s details so we can enjoy the profound picture that is being painted for us. And profound it is. These dreaming stargazers in Matthew’s Gospel point to the radical nature of the Kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ. This story takes on an even more radical tone when we remember that Matthew is writing for a predominantly Jewish community. The people of Israel considered themselves to be the chosen people, and they hoped and longed to see the Messiah who God had promised to them. Yet here are three Gentiles – in other words, not among those to whom the promise had been made – who are among the first to see and believe in Jesus.

Throughout his Gospel, Matthew is at pains to show how the Jews missed out on recognizing Jesus because they were locked in their fears. King Herod is the first public official to be portrayed in such a way, but he is by no means the last or the least. Pilate is the bookend to Herod, showing a similar blindness. Matthew links these two rulers. Their fear of the threat posed by Jesus, who he is and how he lives, leads in each case to death – Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and Pilate’s murder of Jesus.

Matthew’s story is a wonderful interplay between wonder and fear. We’re told only five things about the wise men from the east: they follow the rising star; they ask directions in a foreign land; they’re overwhelmed with joy at finding the child at Bethlehem; they’re warned in a dream about Herod; and they go home by another road. This last observation is a delicious detail. One path, the familiar route, the way they knew, would have led to death; instead, they trusted their dreams and took a different path. It led to life. Unlike the wise men, Herod is frightened at the prospect of a pretender to his throne. He whips up fear in Jerusalem, and tries to trick the magi into telling him where he can find the child. But his deceit is uncovered, and he is left without knowledge. His fears spiral.

In twelve verses, Matthew paints a portrait of wonder. If we are wise followers of the Babe of Bethlehem, we need to be shrewd in dealing with power; to keep our eyes on the journey, which will bring joy and fulfilment as well as suffering; to believe in dreams; to pray that we will never be so sure of how God works in our world that we miss seeing the very thing we long to behold; and to be prepared to change course so that we can always choose life. 

Matthew also tells us that the enemy of the Christian life is fear. So often our reaction to Jesus can be like Herod’s. We can feel threatened and frightened. We want to silence the voices that call us to live out the reign of God, and listen instead to those that whisper of the costs involved. Fear entraps us and infects those around us. We are often most fearful when we risk losing power and control, so we lie, become deceitful, and cheat to maintain our position at all costs. As with Herod and Pilate, that way ends in death.

So this story is far more than a travel log of exotic Persian kings. It’s the story of the choices that lie before all who want to worship Jesus. Once again, at the dawn of the New Year, the choice is ours: do we want to live in wonder or in fear? 

Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What Does it All Mean? A Guide to Being More Faithful, Hopeful, and Loving (Paulist Press).

This article first appeared on The Tablet. Used with permission.


About the author

Richard Leonard is a Jesuit priest. He has degrees in arts and education, as well as a Master’s degree in theology. Fr Richard did graduate studies at the London Film School and has a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University; has been a visiting scholar within the School of Theatre, Film & Television at UCLA and a Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He directed the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for 22 years. He has served on juries at the Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Warsaw, Hong Kong, Montreal, Brisbane and Melbourne International Film Festivals and he has lectured on faith and culture all over the world. He has been published in America MagazineEureka StreetUS Catholic, is regular columnist with The London Tablet and is a regular guest on ABC Radio.

He is the author of ten books, among the titles are:  

Where the Hell is God?

What does it all mean? A guide to being more faithful, hopeful and loving

His most recent book is Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments.

Richard’s next book The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom, will be released in early 2021.