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Catholic apologist says go out to highways and byways

Fr Henry Whisenant reflects on a famous apologist who took the Catholic faith into the public arena.


I’ve been having a whale of a time reading The Church and I, by Frank Sheed, the famous Catholic publisher, apologist and lay theologian. It recounts his experiences of growing up in the Catholic Church in the first half of the 20th century, and living through the days of the Council.

Sheed and his wife, Maisie Ward, met through their involvement in the Catholic Evidence Guild in the 1920s, an organisation established for men and women to be formed in their faith so that they could go out and speak about it in public places to gathered crowds.

This meant several nights a week listening to lectures on Catholicism, giving practice talks, and being grilled with practice questions that hecklers might ask. It meant having the nerve to stand up (after some preparatory prayer!) on Tower Hill or on Hyde Park Corner, to speak about the faith, in the hope of drawing a crowd and keeping them. It meant dealing with listeners and hecklers of all sorts: drunks and vagrants, intelligent academics, regular objectors, and passers-by in search of amusement.

All this in the hope that those listening might be disarmed of their prejudices towards religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, and be launched – who knows? – on an eventual journey into the Church. A noble endeavour, but nerve-wracking as well… Sheed admits that often on the way to an afternoon session in the park he hoped that it might rain!

The first half of the book, with various anecdotes that Sheed recalls, is highly entertaining. He recounts once being interrupted by a heckler in Hyde Park Corner who got onto the topic of suffering. “I could make a better universe than your God!” said the heckler derisively. “Well,” Sheed responded, almost as quick as thinking, “I wouldn’t ask you to create a universe, but could you make a rabbit just to establish confidence?”

There is, in Sheed’s memoirs, a wonderful mix of confidence in, and reverence for, the Catholic faith, balanced by an irreverent realism concerning the sins and foibles of her members – laity and ecclesiastics alike! The guild speakers’ apologetics was shot through with a great sense of humour, and a real love of their audience, as varied as its members were.

Sadly the original guild is now moribund, though the New York offshoot was re-established in recent years, at the instigation of Fr Benedict Groeschel, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who himself used to speak on street corners before being ordained.

I don’t know if something like the Guild would work today, and if people would look up long enough from their phones to listen to what was being said. But perhaps there are Sheeds and Wards in our congregations, able to bring this baton somehow into the 21st century!

Picture courtesy of: FreeImages.com/JohnBoyer

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