Catholicism Project: Filmmaker Mike Leonard
Filmmaker Mike Leonard and his son, director Matt Leonard, played major roles in the production of Catholicism, a 10-part television series about the history of the Catholic Church that aired on PBS stations.
The Leonards were part of a crew that assisted Rev. Robert Barron, a Chicago-area priest and professor, in producing the documentary, which is also available in a 10-DVD set. Described as a “crash course in Catholicism,” it was filmed over two years in the Holy Land, Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and the United States.
“It’s an explanation, beautifully photographed and told, of the Catholic faith from the very beginning,” said Mike Leonard, a veteran correspondent for NBC-TV’s Today show.
The Catholicism project was born three years ago when Father Barron, a professor at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago, spoke at Mike Leonard’s home parish, Sacred Heart in Winnetka, Ill.
Leonard said he was impressed by Father Barron’s “brilliant” speaking style and ability to explain the faith in a clear and illuminating way. Leonard was approached by a parishioner, Nancy Ross, a former TV reporter, who wondered if there was a way for more people to hear Father Barron’s message.
When Leonard, Ross, and Father Barron met to discuss possibilities, the idea for the series took root. Ross began fund raising for the project, which was financed completely with private donations. Father Barron launched Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Mike Leonard came aboard as executive producer and Matt Leonard as director and editor.
“I’m Catholic, but I’m just a regular one,” Mike Leonard said. “This was put together by regular people. It came from the pews.”
During breaks from his work for NBC, Leonard travelled with Father Barron’s crew. He can be heard as “the questioning voice” in the background of some segments, asking Father Barron to further explain Church teachings. Leonard said his own knowledge and understanding of the Church grew as a result, and he found his faith renewed.
“I think those of us who were part of the 1960s and beyond, you sort of took Catholicism for granted. You were born Catholic like you were born Italian or Irish,” Leonard said.
“Incredible” production routine
As the director, Matt Leonard spent two years traveling to Israel, Uganda, Greece, Turkey, Germany, France, Spain, Ireland, Calcutta, Rome, and Florence, and Mexico, along with spots in the United States. He reviewed scripts written by Father Barron, decided what scenes needed to be filmed and coordinated them with the camera crew.
Once home, he edited footage at the Leonard family’s production company, “Picture Show Films,” before leaving again for more travels.
The experience was “incredible,” Matt Leonard said.
“Working for Father Barron, who is this genius priest, really renewed my faith,” Matt Leonard said. “I feel more strongly a Catholic now.”
Matt Leonard studied humanities at the College, focusing on theater, art, and writing. His siblings are also PC alums: Megan ’95 and Kerry ’00, who work for Father Barron’s media company, and Brendan ’07.
“PC played such a huge role in shaping who I was,” Matt Leonard said. “Development of Western Civilization definitely helped me when I went to all these places. I would find myself making connections with what I learned in the classroom.”
Mike Leonard studied economics and played varsity hockey at PC, but his film career was launched here as well. In his senior year, he bought a Super 8 movie camera. Because film was expensive and available only in three-minute reels, Leonard created very short films reflecting college life around him. That ability to present life “as a series of short segments” eventually won him his job at NBC 31 years ago, he said.