Throwaway line leads to new publication on the why of faith

Fr Richard Leonard, SJ

A throwaway cuss line resulted in a book that deals with the question young Catholics are grappling with today: the why of Faith. 

Sydney-based Jesuit priest and author Richard Leonard, known for his interdisciplinary work in theology, education and culture, said he got the title of his book after an intense discussion on a plane with a 30-year-old Ivy league graduate. Fr Leonard spoke at the Open Lecture hosted by The Catholic Institute and Good Shepherd College on May 16.

From left, Fr Merv Duffy, SM, discusses a point with Fr Richard Leonard, SJ.

From left, Fr Merv Duffy, SM, discusses a point with Fr
Richard Leonard, SJ.

The young man, Thomas, was having a crisis of faith.

He told Fr Leonard that the Catholic Church had made it very easy to leave in recent years.

“We just get worn down by the growing chorus of people, especially our friends, who say ‘Religion is all nuts and you can be a good person and make a difference in the world and not believe anything more than that’.

“I guess what I am struggling with is what are we actually doing on Earth, for Christ’s sake?” Thomas said.

The young man quickly apologised for swearing but Fr Leonard took the question seriously enough to write a book with that title: What are we doing on Earth for Christ’s sake? 

“Everything that every baptised person does is meant to be ‘for Christ’s sake’,”  said Fr Leonard. “The fact that it became a throwaway cuss line does not rob it of its deep original meaning.”

Fr Leonard looked into some of the questions that turned young adults off the faith.

He said their questions include why a loving God would want Jesus to suffer and die on the cross, why the Church covered up the clerical sexual abuse cases, why Christians impose their values on society and why Christians believe in the Bible, which is full of inconsistencies.

He said the question on clerical sexual abuse is one that is always brought up in a conversation.

“The problem is sometimes, if I am the first priest they have spoken to about this, is that one would think I have abused every one of those children and I am responsible for covering up all the cases of abuse. Pent-up rage can be indiscriminate,” he said.

Fr Leonard said he tried to give brief answers in the book and hoped that the book can become a resource for those who want to respond to critics.

For example, he said, when people complain that the Church has too much influence on public policy, it would be good if the same critics recognise that outside of government, the Catholic Church and other Christian churches are the biggest contributors to welfare, healthcare and education in New Zealand and Australia.

“If we stopped tomorrow, those sectors would implode,” he noted.

He added that Catholics don’t take the Bible literally. “We have always known that the Bible needs careful interpretation,” he said.

But all other points aside, he said, the best argument for faith is not what we say but what we do.

“The two biggest sins for Jesus are hypocrisy and not forgiving sins. The challenge to practise what we preach is absolutely important,” he said.

He pointed to the lives of the saints who continue to inspire us to this day, as well as the young Mercy sisters who came to New Zealand in the 1850s.

“We are told about how 15- to 16-year-old girls in the 1850s have gone on a boat and went to Auckland and they never went home, ever. And their family didn’t come to New Zealand,” he said.

“When people tell me does what we are doing on Earth for Christ’s sake mean anything, I think it does,” he concluded.

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Rowena Orejana

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