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[Renowned in their day as the names behind the publisher’s imprint “Sheed & Ward,” Frank Sheed met his wife Maisie Ward at a London meeting of the Catholic Evidence Guild shortly after it had been founded in 1918—members of the Westminster branch of the Guild have spoken regularly at “Speakers’ Corner” ever since. Street preaching is a peculiar activity, and perhaps not the most effective approach to winning converts. So, at least, Frank and Maisie’s son Wilfrid (a lapsed Catholic) felt from a very early age:

They were very hard parents to explain. To take just one thing: whenever they were in England, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward trudged off every single Sunday afternoon—my father moaning to beat the band and praying for rain—to preach the Faith from soapboxes; and not just in glamour spots like Hyde Park, but in backwaters like Clapham and Pimlico and other places that properly belong in English comic monologues.

At first, the only thing that really struck me as strange was the sound of a man praying for rain in England: then again perhaps he was the cause of it all, and was doing a bang-up job. What does one know at five? Only slowly did I begin to realize that other people thought my parents were a little crazy. Soapbox oratory is by definition crazy. And when I attended my first meetings I saw little to shake the definition.

But let’s hear from Frank.]

The principal fact of life I did not know when I began is that one must never talk for victory—to show oneself right and the other person wrong. An immediate reason is that, if you talk for victory, sooner or later you will cheat. All polemic, religious or other, is stained with cheating. You may not actually lie, but you will be tempted to shade such facts as might seem to weaken your case, soft-pedal them, divert the discussion away from them. This sort of cheating or near-cheating goes with talking for victory. Whereas, if your sole aim is to show what you hold, and what are its effects upon life as it is lived, there is no temptation to cheat; there is quite literally nothing to cheat about. You open your mind, you ask your hearers for their comments. You are not trying for a decision. The questions under discussion are too serious for that sort of quick settlement, their roots lie too deep in the person. . . .

It took us a while to grow into this knowledge. At the beginning we had a general notion that there had been some morally eccentric popes (but they had never defined anything!). We had not a notion of the tidal wave of papal and hierarchical ill-doing that was to break over us. I smile when I think of how we plunged to the defense of Christ’s vicars with as little actual knowledge of papal history as our objectors had. I don’t think I ever used the apologetical cliché of the time—there were only six bad popes out of 260, and that the Apostles had a far worse average, one traitor in twelve. The number six was arrived at by ignoring all the Commandments save one—the Sixth as it chanced—and assuming that only six popes had ever sinned against that one. There are of course other sins and worse sins. We learned soon enough that one cannot list good popes and bad popes in two columns, gratified that the bad column is so much shorter. . . .

We used to give a splendid talk on the glory of the papacy: and we gave it hoping no one in the crowd would remind us of one of the handful of popes we and they had heard of as having had trouble with the Sixth Commandment. The mere raising of the question (however well we might deal with it) would smudge the idyllic picture we had painted.

Invariably someone did raise it. A questioner would say, for instance, that Pope Alexander VI had four children. At first, our speakers usually reacted in one of two ways. The diffident ones would say, “Oh no, only three were ever proved”; the truculent would say, “What if he had? Henry VIII had six wives” (the odds clearly in our favour six to four). It took us a while to realize that we were missing the point totally.

Frank Sheed (from The Church and I, 1974)

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