Providence, R.I. — Together, veteran filmmaker Mike Leonard ’70 & ’00Hon. and Chicago-area priest Rev. Robert Barron traveled thousands of miles to produce the new documentary series Catholicism.
But when a snowstorm prevented Father Barron from reaching Providence College in time for Alumni & Family Weekend, it was Leonard who stepped up. The NBC Today show correspondent delivered an inspiring solo performance, sharing his personal faith journey through anecdotes, photographs, and film clips, and winning a standing ovation from an audience of 1,000 in the Peterson Recreation Center.
Leonard presented the keynote address during the College’s first Alumni & Family Weekend on February 10-12, a combined celebration for alumni, upper-class students and their families, and for accepted and prospective students.
Sponsored by the offices of alumni relations and college events, the weekend drew more than 1,600 people to campus for programs and events that included basketball and hockey games, a comedy show, a reception celebrating the 40th anniversary of PC women’s athletics, presentations on study abroad and career services, and the painting of a community mural.
When Leonard finished speaking on Saturday morning, College President Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 told him, “I can’t get over how powerful and moving your talk was.”
“Mike’s ability to preach is part of the reason he came to PC and got the education that he did,” said Father Shanley. “It’s a lot about telling a good story, isn’t it? And you have that Irish gift of telling a good story.”
Leonard told the crowd that he was reluctant at first to join Father Barron’s Catholicism project because he considered himself “a lazy Catholic, a cruise-control Catholic.”
Nevertheless, Father Barron told him, “We want you because of who you are,” Leonard said.
A reaffirmation of faith
The Catholicism project, made possible through private fund-raising, was produced by the Leonard family’s Chicago-area film studio, Picture Show Films. Leonard’s son, Matt Leonard ’93, who edited and directed the series, and his son, Brendan ’07, who also worked on the project, both attended their father’s talk. His daughters, Megan ’95 and Kerry ’00, work for Father Barron’s media company, Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Leonard said his work on the Catholicism series, and the lessons he learned along the way from Father Barron, reaffirmed his faith, reminding him that while people may have made mistakes in representing the Church, their errors should never detract from the central truth of Jesus.
“The Church’s flaws are to be expected. What’s to be revered and followed is the message,” said Leonard.
Since his involvement with the Catholicism series, Leonard said he has tried to produce television segments that focus on people who “do the right thing” in small ways. He showed a clip about a couple who bought a house in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago after its elderly owner died.
Clearing furniture, the couple discovered $23,840 hidden under a mattress and took pains to return it to the women’s son, who never knew she had saved it in the first place.
Doing the right thing in small ways was a lesson Leonard said he learned at PC from his hockey coach, Lou Lamoriello ’63 & ’01Hon., now the CEO, president, and general manager of the New Jersey Devils in the National Hockey League. Lamoriello stressed the importance of “winning the little battles” — the small fights to gain the puck or to block for a teammate, Leonard said.
Such battles “never end up on a stat sheet or make you a star, but if you do that as a team, you win,” said Leonard. “You do that as a society, you win.”
Once, Leonard had the opportunity to send footage he shot in a small town in Ireland to an elderly monk living in Iowa who had not been home since he was 17. The monk later thanked Leonard, writing that “God sent me an angel.”
“I’m not an angel. I’m a delivery boy,” said Leonard. “Even though I’m an imperfect messenger, I’ll gladly serve as a delivery boy. I’m just a flawed character trying to pass this message on to people.”
At PC, “I grew in the knowledge of what I could do,” said Leonard. “My ship was set sail. I knew I was bound for something bigger than I could imagine. I knew I’d have the wind at my back.”
In thanking Leonard for his talk, Father Shanley said the College would invite Father Barron to speak again in the future.
“Mike was phenomenal,” said Rich Pumple ’71, Leonard’s former PC hockey teammate, after the talk. “It just kind of fit. It was very personal for us as alumni. It came from the heart.”