WHO IS FRANK SHEED?
Francis Joseph Sheed (1897-1981) was a Catholic publisher, author and street orator. In 1920, Sheed travelled to London… Soapbox oratory was a significant element of popular culture and the [Catholic Evidence Guild for which he was a speaker] maintained a pitch at Speakers’ Corner in London, where lay Catholics expounded the faith. It has been estimated that he gave seven thousand speeches from a soapbox. He wrote sixteen books and many smaller works, edited half a dozen collections and translated Christian classics. (BIO FROM AUSTRALIAN DICTIONARY OF BIOGRAPHY)
An Imaginary Interview With Frank Sheed
If I were to interview Sheed about evangelization today, I would think the dialogue might go something like this:
Mr. Sheed, I have to admit that I am confused about my personal role in the New Evangelization. Since you are one of the greatest Catholic evangelists of modern times, I would be deeply honored if you could give me some guidance. Could you spare a few minutes?
“I would be happy to.”
What is my first function as a lay Christian?
“Offering the Sacrifice of the Mass. Nothing else that any layman does can compare with that for greatness.”
I’ve also heard that all Christians have a duty to evangelize—or spread the Gospel; particularly to those who do not believe in Jesus Christ.
“The Church on earth is at war, an army therefore. Its officers are the clergy, we are the rank and file, the simple soldiery…To begin with we must understand what the warfare is. It is being fought not simply to enlarge the Church, but to bring souls into union with Christ.”
Why should we bother with unbelievers? We’ve often got enough spiritual issues among ourselves and the rest of our Christian family!
“Every unbeliever is, as every Catholic is, a being with an immortal spirit, made in the image of God, for whom Christ died. However violently hostile to the Church or to Christ he may be, our aim is to convert him, not simply to defeat him, still less to destroy him. We must never forget that the Devil wants his soul in hell as he wants ours, and we must fight the Devil for him.”
Unbelievers—atheists, agnostics, skeptics, anti-Catholics, the indifferent—can be so difficult to speak with about religion. Their hearts often seem so hardened. How can these hearts be converted?
“It is in the power of the Holy Ghost that we must fight, and He is the Love of the Father and the Son.”
I know I must pray for these people. Thank God this task is not all up to me. Besides prayer, how else can I lead others to turn their lives to Christ?
“The war is fought with many weapons, but the principal one is Truth. For truth means seeing reality as it is. Men who do not know what God is, what man’s soul is, what the purpose of life is and what follows death, are simply not living in the real world. And this is the condition of the great mass of the human race…Above all they must come to see and know Christ Our Lord, in whom all truth is contained and by whom it is announced to men.”
I’ve heard preaching and teaching the Faith are mainly the responsibilities of the pope, the bishops and the priests?
“We have a great Pope, who utters truth profoundly, but the great mass of people never hear what he says, simply cannot hear what he says. So it is with our Bishops, our great preachers and writers — their voice can reach only a small minority, for the rest they are lost in the whirlwind.”
So evangelization—speaking the truth in a world of confusion and inviting people to a relationship with Christ in His Church—is my responsibility too?
“There is only one voice that can be heard, apart from the voice of conscience, the voice of a man speaking to his friend — speaking to the man next door, the man he works with, plays with, travels with…It is upon that voice that the winning of the war in our time and place depends.”
Many people are not comfortable with debate—including myself. Is this a problem?
“It is not necessary that he should be trained in argument, able to prove the existence of God, for instance, or the spirituality of the soul. What is essential is that he know what the truths themselves mean, and what difference they make; and not only know these things, but be able to utter them…But the mode of utterance is not the immediate problem: too many laymen do not know these great truths well enough to utter them even badly.”
You have trained many Catholics in evangelization. Can you give me an example of a common theological mistake made by your students?
“The trainee is asked if God died on the Cross. He instantly answers, correctly, “Yes”. He is then asked “What happened to the universe while God was dead?” In almost all instances, the answer is that it was not God who died upon the Cross, but the human nature of Christ. This is a form of the Nestorian heresy. It was condemned fifteen hundred years ago at the Council of Ephesus, but even educated Catholics still fall back upon it under pressure.
The Blessed Trinity is so difficult to understand, a mystery of infinite depth. How important is it for the average Catholic layperson to be able to explain such a mystery?
“The Trinity is God; what is not the Trinity is not God. The soldier of the Church is almost incapable of effective fighting unless [he can].”
But I think most Catholics are uncomfortable with explaining the Trinity—even though it is the central Christian mystery. In your experience, what usually occurs when a non-Christian challenges the average Catholic to explain the Trinity?
“If he asks his Catholic friends about it either they refuse to say anything at all; or else they embark upon an explanation which leaves him convinced that Catholics do in fact believe in three Gods, since they call the Father God, and the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God, while being totally unable to shed any light at all upon how these three can be one God.”
But surely you cannot expect every Christian man and woman to be a theologian!
“I am not suggesting, of course, that every Catholic layman should be able to give a full theological exposition of either this or any other of the Church’s dogmas. But he is failing as a soldier if he cannot talk of them intelligently, conveying enough of their meaning and their importance at least to arouse the other man’s interest…”
I have heard theology is for the clergy only; that the responsibility of the layperson is to “set a good Christian example.”
“We are apt, we of the laity, to console ourselves with the assurance that theology is for the clergy, and that we do our duty by setting a good example…It is of enormous value that we should do so, but by itself it is not sufficient.”
But isn’t goodness and kindness enough to attract the unbeliever to Christianity?
“Unbelievers are frequently impressed by the goodness and kindness and unselfishness of some Catholic who has come their way — impressed to the point where they wonder if his excellence may be due to something in his religion. So they ask him to explain his religion to them. If he answers intelligently and winningly then the result is all good, the episode may end with the unbeliever receiving instruction from a priest. But if he talks nonsense, then the unbeliever can but depart, as sure as ever of that one Catholic’s goodness, but convinced that his religion has nothing to do with it.”
Wait a second here. Based on your explanations, it seems that there is not much difference between a clergy and laypeople…
“Every man is a union of spirit and matter, of soul and body. So far there is no distinction between the layman and the priest, each has the same human structure, the same human needs…Each needs food, and will perish without it; each needs light and cannot see without it.”
So what is the difference?
“The priest has an office which the layman has not, and powers and duties that go with the office.”
Do priests have the same spiritual needs as laypeople? Like the sacraments and such?
“All souls, lay and clerical, need Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist, Extreme Unction. To fulfil his special function in the Church, the priest needed Holy Orders; to fulfil that other, lesser, function, on which all the same the continuance of the Church depends, the layman needs Matrimony. And all souls, simply because they are human souls, need truth, revealed truth.”
You keep mentioning “truth”. It seems—according to what you are telling me—truth is as important to our minds as food is to our bodies?
“It is food. To the Devil Our Lord quoted Deuteronomy — “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. The words God utters — commands for our action, truths for our seeing — are more life-giving, more nourishing, even than the bread which nourishes the body. For the intellect exists to know truth, and nothing else can nourish it…Truth is light too: possessing it, we see reality as it is, we live mentally in the real world.”
Is it enough to say “yes” to a particular religious truth without actually knowing what it means? Is belief without knowledge sufficient?
“To accept the doctrine as true — and even to be devoted to it — but with no real grasp on what it means, makes it impossible to be nourished by it, impossible to gain light from it.”
But didn’t St. Paul teach that love is all that matters?
“It is not strictly necessary, we say defensively, for the layman to know theology. Only love is essential. But how can one love God and not want to know all one can about Him? Love desires knowledge, and knowledge serves love. Each truth that we learn about God is a new reason for loving Him…He is lovable, only by knowing what He is. Love should flow into the emotions, it must not have its root in them.”
I remember you saying that the first function of the Christian is to participate in the Holy Mass. Can you please tell me how all this stuff about knowledge and love relates to the Mass?
“What applies to love of God applies to all love — of Our Lord and His Mother, for instance. It applies to love of the Mass. The supreme function of the layman, we have noted, is the part he has — small compared with the priest’s, but real — in offering the Mass. But how many of us see it as the supreme thing we do?
I need one more clarification. You say our supreme function is in “offering” the Mass. Your wording seems very intentional. How is “offering” Mass different from “going to” Mass?
“Observe the phrase “going to Mass”. It is miserably inadequate: it suggests that we do all, that is required of us by being there. But we are not meant simply to sit and stand and kneel devoutly during the offering of Mass. We are meant to offer. And if we have not grasped what the Church has to teach upon the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation and the Redemption, we do not know what is being offered in the Mass, or to whom the offering is made, or why. We do not know what we are doing — an incredible condition for any offerer.”
It appears clear to me that an effective evangelist must seek two things above all: truth and Christ, especially in the Eucharist. Otherwise, it seems we would fall way short of fulfilling our duties to God and neighbour. The prospect of a life without truth and Truth is a sobering reality.
“Stumbling along in the dark not even aware that it is dark, half-fed and not even hungry for more, he is in no state to show others reality. Only a laity living wholly in reality is equipped to show it to others and win them to want to live in it too.”
You’ve shed a brand new light on how I’m to live out my life as a Catholic Christian. Thank you so much, Mr. Sheed.
“It’s been my pleasure. I’ll be praying for you.”
***All of Sheed’s words in this post [except the first and last lines] are excerpts from his article at CatholicCulture.org.