“Eff the pope!” the bull voice shouted at me – only he did not confine himself to the initial letter. Standing on my soapbox in Leicester Court, on the north side of Leicester Square, I fortunately remembered my training: repeat the question for clarification and get a moment to think. I came back with: “Are you asking me if I would invite the pope to indulge in an intimate activity of which he would disapprove?” Silence in the crowd. Then his voice boomed again: ”Nah. I said Eff the pope” You can’t win them all.
This was the Catholic Evidence Guild back in the 1950s when I was a young man cutting my teeth as a Catholic in public. Speaker’s Corner, Tower Hill and Leicester Court were among the places where Catholics stood up to explain and defend Catholic belief. The Guild started in 1918 in Westminster, and was to spawn other branches, including overseas. The doyen in my time was the lay theologian, Frank Sheed, once described as the greatest Catholic apologist of the last hundred years. Few people can hold a crowd with an explanation of the Trinity or the Incarnation – but Sheed could. His great book, among others, “Theology and Sanity” still stands alone.
I had come to the Guild via my Jesuit education, which had involved a good deal of public speaking. Not for nothing the senior Jesuit class was called Rhetoric – the skill need to take part in public affairs. But I was quickly to learn that I was a mere amateur in front of a hostile and often well briefed crowd. The training I was to receive was remorseless.
We were licensed to speak only on specific subjects. Not for me the Hypostatic Union or the Mystical Body – papal infallibility or confession were more my mark. Again and again I had to rehearse my chosen topic in front of my peers in the Guild. They knew from experience every tricky question, every vulnerable point, and they battered me down again and again. I saw several hopeful speakers choke into confused tears. At last I was allowed to attend the panel of senior members, including a theologian, and I was able to qualify to speak on my subject.
This gave me great confidence as I set out for my pitch – clearly I would be more than a match for the crowd. Except that they did not know the subjects in which I was qualified, so their questions ranged beyond my knowledge. At Speakers Corner there was a solid opposition group who specialised in difficult Catholic questions. But they meant no harm, and ironically some would coach me when I descended from my box. Sometimes the discussion was too quiet, Frank Sheed once left the platform with the remark that a good drunk would have helped.
Leicester Court provided a different problem. This was passing trade, and the first challenge was to build a crowd at all. It seemed weird to be earnestly addressing no one. The odd person would stop, occasionally mock, and wander off. Then you could strike lucky – a good heckler. With tactful management one would become two, two become four and, before long, there was a decent, vocal, crowd. Occasionally I was helped by a queue for the adjacent cinema – the poor dears were trapped, but they listened. I did not always surmount the temptation to entertain the crowd rather than do my job. There’s no business like show business…
For self-protection I needed to extend my knowledge. By the time I finished I knew about most alleged Catholic rogues in history, the basis and the problems of every denomination of consequence and nigh every common criticism likely to come up. In this I was greatly helped by Radio Replies, a three volume work which dealt with over 4000 questions from an attacking public. Somewhat updated, it remains available on the internet (http://tinyurl.com/hwpcppr ). And still lives in my upstairs loo.
Did we do any good? I have no proof, but I like to think that we clarified the truth, perhaps started some new thoughts which could lead somewhere, and conveyed to some that the Catholic Church had worthwhile approaches to the meaning of life. No doubt the greats, like Frank Sheed, got much further than most of us. But the banner is still being carried in this digital age by the organisation, Catholic Voices, who, through the media, carries the message to a larger audience than we could ever have addressed.
As for me, the benefits are all one way. No audience can frighten me, and I flourish on questions and attack. But, above all, I have been tempered by the fire of opposition. Not only do I believe but I know why I believe because I have been obliged to engage every criticism which the crowd can muster.