GEORGE LEONARD played an important and influential role in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales as a man of ideas, a counsellor, an organiser and, last but not least, a powerful wielder of the pen.
He will be particularly remembered as a persuasive advocate for, and a successful practitioner of, glasnost in church affairs who devoted two decades of his church career to showing his initially reluctant church how to become more open and transparent. That earned him increasing appreciation and gratitude from his church's hierarchy and other fellow-Catholics but also much admiration outside the church, particularly in the world of the media, where he was regarded as a man of integrity and a fellow-professional. But he never ceased to be what he was primarily trained for - a pastor of souls - and ended his church career as he had begun it, working as a parish priest in an ordinary country parish.
George Leonard was the eldest of three brothers of a Catholic family with roots both in Ireland and in the East End of London. One of his brothers is a priest; the other, married, brother died in 1983. George was educated at Ushaw College, Durham, and studied for the priesthood at the English College in Rome. Because of ill-health, he had to return home and completed his studies at Oscott College, Birmingham. He was ordained priest in 1957 and was for seven years in Chester, two years at Wythenshawe and then at Ellesmere Port. He had shown interest in, and talent for, writing and editing while still at the seminary and did a lot of writing in Chester. A colleague from seminary days recommended him for a post in the newly created Catholic Information Office under David Miles Board, a former BBC producer. In 1975 he succeeded David Miles Board as Chief Information Officer.
I first met Leonard in Rome in 1974 while researching a story about the Vatican for the Economist and was struck by his fine sense of humour, his good knowledge of the Church, his shrewdness and his total lack of clerical stuffiness. He was immensely helpful to me and other correspondents writing about church affairs at what was a turbulent period in the Roman Catholic Church at the end of Pope Paul VI's pontificate, with both the traditionalist and liberal wings of the church slugging it out. Leonard's guidance was always fair and factual. He deliberately set out to teach the senior people in the church how to treat the media; fairly, openly and without manipulation. I remember speaking at a seminar on the subject of church- media relations he organised in the mid-1970s. I was not at all surprised when Leonard was invited to work for Cardinal Hume shortly after the latter's appointment as Archbishop of Westminster.
During that period he worked with a like-minded and appreciative Cardinal to stimulate an awareness of the European dimension in the church in England and Wales and travelled with the Cardinal, who was then President of the European Council of Catholic Bishops' Conferences, to the Continent to foster contacts with the Catholic Church as well as other religious bodies both in Eastern and Western Europe. He led a party of pilgrims, of which I was privileged to be a member, to Poland in June 1979 for Pope Paul's historic visit there. He was one of the key people in the organisation of the media aspects of Pope John Paul's visit to Britain in 1982. His subsequent media work included the editing of Briefing, the documentation service of the Catholic Bishops. He was also closely involved in the Catholic Media Trust and as such was appointed to the Board of Gabriel Communications, which run the Universe, the popular Catholic weekly newspaper, for which he regularly wrote leaders and other articles.
In 1989 Leonard returned to parish work, not reluctantly or grudgingly but with real enthusiasm for pastoral work. However his health deteriorated in 1991 and 1992 and he had to spend time in hospital. He died while walking to an ecumenical meeting in his parish.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content