An interview with Fr.Paul Leonard.
Vocation is what God calls you to do with your life. Everybody is called by God to know, love and serve him. The difference is how each one of us does this. In the one life God gave you to live, you have one overriding purpose, to fulfil the will of God.
So we thought we would speak to three people who have answered YES to God’s call and have taken up their vocation. Our first interview is with our very own Fr.Paul.
“I was really impressed with how some priests I knew seemed deeply happy despite the challenges of their vocation and state in life.”
Fr. Paul Leonard.
Tell us briefly about where you grew up, your family i.e. do you have brothers and sisters?
I was born and grew up in Reading, Berkshire. I was the youngest of three children. My mum’s first born, my sister Sheila, died as a baby. She was four weeks old. Sadly, my brother also died recently, at the beginning of this year. Despite the obvious pain and searing loss for my parents, our take on this now is that we have two saints in heaven who are interceding for us here on earth!
My parents grew up in Northern Ireland. Like many, they came across to England looking for work and opportunity. There certainly wasn’t much opportunity for Catholics in Northern Ireland when they were growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s. I am very proud of my working class Irish roots. My dad worked as a labourer all his life on building sites. My mum worked as a cleaner doing night shifts in a local hospital until she was made redundant.
What was the name of your school and were you a good student? Which subjects interested you in particular?
I went to the local Catholic primary school, English Martyrs. I took the 11+ exam and managed to scrape into the local grammar school on appeal! As far as the teachers were concerned I wasn’t regarded as a good student because I struggled academically. However, I certainly wasn’t a trouble maker! I did enjoy History and French, but was pretty hopeless at the natural sciences.
What were your interests and hobbies at that time?
I started martial arts (karate) pretty much the same day as I started secondary school. I did this for a number of years and got to a pretty advanced level. I also enjoyed running and was one of the strongest runners at school. So I enjoyed my fitness and sport.
When did you begin to explore more deeply the possibility of seeking life as a priest?
I’d say that it was in my late teens that I really began to think about the priesthood as a possibility of a life-choice. I was asked, at the age of 17, to become a Eucharistic Minister. This was quite novel as at the time there were no young Eucharistic Ministers in my parish. Then when I went onto Uni and after four years I graduated with a degree in Sociology, Psychology and also became a qualified Social Worker. I guess my journey continued and deepened from then onwards. I began to pray a bit more seriously and actually started asking God what was His plan for me.
Were you influenced by a speaker or a particular book that sparked further interest in finding out more about becoming a priest?
It wasn’t so much a particular speaker or book but I was blessed to have known some really good and wise priests who encouraged me and, to some degree, mentored me. I was really impressed with how some priests I knew seemed deeply happy despite the challenges of their vocation and state in life. There was something alluring and attractive about that.
Describe a typical day or week for you.
Blimey! I’m not sure there is a typical day or week! I’m not the earliest riser and in my current assignment (priest in charge in Hook, Hampshire) I don’t have a parish weekday Mass. Daily Mass in my parish is said next door in the convent where several retired priests reside. First things first, I need coffee in the morning, at least two cups before I can function! I start the day in prayer with coffee in hand (as a priest I made a promise to say what is called the Divine Office, or Breviary or sometimes called, the prayer of the church). Basically, prayer punctuates my day so I pray the Divine Office about four times a day (morning, lunchtime or afternoon, evening and night prayer). After praying in the morning I might have some appointments mid-morning. It could be someone coming to see me to plan a baptism, wedding or funeral or just to chat about a personal issue. Then there’s always the challenge of trying to keep on top of e-mails. This dimension of work takes up a lot of time of priests. I’m not on my phone/laptop all the time checking e-mails, but I do have to check them regularly. I might visit some of our parishioners who are in local care or nursing homes. I often visit parishioners in the evenings. Being a priest is a great privilege as you get invited out a lot to peoples’ homes, for a cuppa and/or a meal. It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my ministry. When people open up their house to you, they almost invariably open up their hearts as well.
As well as all the above (and what I’ve described doesn’t even come close to covering all the aspects of my ministry!), I am also a carer for my elderly parents. The parish I look after is only about 30 minutes drive (or an hour cycling) from where my parents live so I am fortunate to be able to visit them most days. In the measure that I can (if my schedule/workload allows me), I bracket off several hours during the day to visit them. One thing I missed out from the last question was cooking, cleaning and laundry, basically all the domestic chores that anyone running a household has to do. Well, I do that for myself in the presbytery (the priest’s house) and I do the same for my parents. I return to the parish in the early evening, sometimes to evening appointments.
When you go on hols, are you able to go where you like?
All things being equal, yes! But with my role as a carer, I haven’t really been able to take any extended time off to travel in the last few years. That’s not to say that I don’t take time off, I do but shorter periods. Last May I travelled up to Scotland to go hiking in the Highlands for a few days, but I was always conscious of time and how long I’d be away from my parents.
What are your duties as a priest – examples of what comes across your desk?
Luckily I have an excellent Parish Administrator who deals with a lot of the paperwork/admin side of things! I made reference earlier to preparation for the Sacraments. This is a big part of my workload – a parent asking for baptism (or another Sacrament) on behalf of their child. Planning weddings and funerals takes time and multiple visits to meet up and plan the Order of Service. I am also quite intentional in being proactive and reaching out to my parishioners. So, visits, phone calls and e-mails from me are important. Some parishioners will ask to meet with me to talk about personal issues – relationship struggles, family issues marital breakdown. I am a Spiritual Director to two people, so that involves meeting up to guide them on their faith journey. I am on the rota for a local Catholic school to say Mass regularly. I may get called out to the local hospital to anoint someone who is sick.
We have been blessed with a growing parish so I decided to establish a parish council to help me take the parish to even greater heights and lead more people to a relationship with the Lord. It’s lots of work but I’ve been blessed with a parish council chair and team that helps do the heavy lifting and I’m grateful that we are already seeing much fruit from this initiative.
What are your hobbies today?
I still enjoy my sports and fitness very much. I am a keen triathlete so I run, swim and cycle. I try to integrate my training with my everyday life so I often cycle to go to visit my parents. It’s important to stay fit and healthy as much as possible. As someone who has suffered with depression in the past, it is also really good for my mental well-being. I still have a goal of qualifying for team GB in triathlon for my age group!
What are the types of things you do during “down time”?
Apart from the above, I like to meet with friends, enjoy a nice meal and maybe the odd glass of wine. I watch films for a bit of healthy escapism and I even play the Play Station or Xbox with friends for a really good de-stress!
I give thanks to God for my vocation. I know that He guides me everyday in my pastoral and personal life. I am never alone, because He walks by my side steering me along the path He wants me to follow.