The Westminster chapter of the Catholic Evidence Guild, founded in 1918 in London, England, has been active continuously for the past eighty-one years. At the guild’s outset, the best known site for its talks was Hyde Park, where speakers from many non-Catholic groups also held forth on politics and religion. Tower Hill was another favorite location. Weather permitting, the guild was active twice a week except during the coldest months. Members trained two other nights each week, deepening their knowledge of the subject for their talk, gaining a broad perspective of the main points of Catholic teaching, giving practice talks, and learning how to deal with hostile crowds. The objective was not to make converts-only God can do that-but to prepare the way by overcoming incorrect impressions about the Church and its teachings.
The guild in England was primarily composed of dedicated lay people but also included a few priests, such as the colorful Dominican priest, Fr. Vincent McNabb, currently being considered for canonization. Among the lay members was a woman named Maisie Ward, daughter of Wilfrid Ward, who was a biographer of John Henry Newman.
In 1922, Frank Sheed, a young law student from Sydney, Australia, arrived in London. He discovered the Catholic Evidence Guild, became interested in the intellectual approach to Catholic teaching, and decided to give up his dreams of a law career to devote himself instead to Catholic apologetics. Frank became friendly with the Ward family, and in 1926 he and Maisie Ward were married. Together they founded a publishing house for Catholic books, Sheed & Ward, and in 1933 they opened a branch in New York.
Despite the formation of a publishing house, Sheed felt that street-corner apologetics was of paramount importance. He became a guiding light for the training program of the Westminster chapter, which had a tough standard of certification for its speakers. In 1925 he and Maisie Ward published a training outline for this purpose.
The training outline proved to be a practical means of accomplishing the vision Frank Sheed had regarding how to evangelize in England during the 1920s and 1930s. He felt that the proper work of the guild was the “mass production of competent outdoor exponents of Catholicism.” Every member needed to have a solid spiritual life, an in-depth knowledge of his particular topic along with how it fit into the whole of Catholic teaching, and the ability to handle a crowd.
Ongoing spiritual formation was needed because “the tendency is in the heat of battle to forget the prime object of the work.” Guild members were required to attend individual holy hours, monthly days of recollection, and annual retreats.
Knowledge of Catholic teaching came through reading, study, and practice speaking at the meetings, where the speaker would fire questions on the topic to the class and they would fire questions back. When the speaker could handle a topic well, he faced a test on it by knowledgeable priests.
Guild speakers sought to present the faith not as a philosophy or a rule of law, but rather as a way of life whose guiding principle is the will of God and not merely one’s own feelings. Sheed urged the members to devote their speaking time not to what Protestant hearers would accept, such as God and the next life, but to the deeper issues he felt Protestants had little notion of, such as the supernatural and institutional religion. They would talk first about Christ, then go backward to the Trinity and forward to the Church.
Responding to questions is even more important than the talk. A speaker’s aim was not to win an argument, but to win over the person arguing. A favored technique was to show what the questioner and speaker had in common, then how the Church has this to a greater degree. Instead of telling a person his truth is incomplete, the goal was to get him to see the completion of that truth in Catholic teaching. To do this you had to like crowds, even its hostile members, and over time get them to realize the guild was not trying to pounce on them but to invite genuine dialogue.
Much of the discussion at guild meetings centered on the character of the crowds, whose numbers sometimes reached five hundred, about two-thirds of whom were repeaters. Guild members sought to find the unifying force or interest for a particular type of crowd, since truth alone does not provide this. Study of the crowd was needed to find a common interest that the speaker could share with them, and what kind of teaching might have an effect. All ideas were held in common, and “plagiarism” was encouraged.
The guild spirit was “that the work might grow on a foundation of obscure lives well lived.” Westminster had one hundred twenty speakers (one-third of them women) in the mid-1920s, and the rest of England had between twenty and thirty Guilds. In London they were then speaking six days a week, delivering four hundred fifty talks.
In the fourth edition of the training outlines, published in 1935, Frank Sheed took note of a major shift in non-Catholic England. People were far less knowledgeable about religion and mostly indifferent to it. What was needed were techniques for gaining the initial interest of the crowd. This required not so much the proof for a given Church teaching as an explanation of what the teaching is and why it is important to the listeners. Members were to talk as they would to totally uninstructed Catholics and speak about man, his nature and purpose, and what God is. They would then go on to the divinity of Christ, the meaning of suffering and the supernatural life, both on earth and in heaven. Scripture was to be used in a way that demonstrated the doctrine in action, to give a better idea of what the doctrine is.
In 1928 a chapter of the Guild was founded in New York City by a group of students at Fordham University Law School. This group spent eight years organizing and training before commencing their street-corner activities under the guidance of Fr. Francis LeBuffe, S.J. Frank Sheed was involved in the training, and later both he and Maisie participated in the street talks. Chapters also grew up in other U.S. cities, such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo.
In New York City the speakers were active every day of the week from June to September, weather permitting, giving about one hundred fifty talks a season. They had six different locations and were at the same location the same evening each week, usually from eight to ten o’clock, although at Wall Street the talks were from noon to two o’clock. A member would be on the stand for an hour, giving the talk on his or her chosen subject and then answering questions or defending against objections from the crowd.
Since the guild was constituted as a lay organization, members of the clergy could not belong, but seminarians would join and participate up to the time of their tonsure, which designated them clerics under canon law at the time. Names of former members over the years include Msgr. Anthony Dalla Villa (Rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City); Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR; Msgr. George Kelly, author of The Battle for the American Church; Msgr. Michael Wrenn, author of Catechisms and Controversies; and Cardinal John O’Connor, who had belonged to the group in Philadelphia. In the 1950s the New York City chapter had about forty active members, roughly half lay people and half seminarians.
In New York City, and elsewhere in the United States, the guild became inactive in the early 1970s, largely due to an exaggerated ecumenism following Vatican Council II, which contributed to a lowered sense of urgency to present the Catholic faith against the teachings of other religions. More than twenty years later, in 1994, a guild chapter was founded at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Shortly thereafter Fr. Groeschel conceived the idea of resurrecting the group in New York City and approached Cardinal O’Connor (as one former member to another) for permission to start again. Cardinal O’Connor gave his approval, and designated Fr. Robert Quarato to get it started, with about a dozen other priests of the archdiocese as consultors.
The first meeting of laypeople took place at St. Joseph’s Seminary inYonkers, New York, in February 1995. About thirty people were present. Next, classes were held every two weeks, initially based on the newly published Catechism of the Catholic Church, plus a reprint of Catholic Evidence Training Outlines by Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward. Later the training was broadened to include highly qualified outside speakers on other topics, such as: apologetics, speaking techniques, natural law, conscience, salvation outside the Church, contemporary life issues, authority and freedom, Judaism, Freemasonry, and the occult.
Meetings also began to include practice talks, with the presenters facing the most difficult questions the other members could fire at them. The rules preserved a very important requirement dating from the earliest days of guild history: For every hour they are to spend before an audience, members must spend an hour praying before the Blessed Sacrament.
About twenty months after the resurrected guild’s first meeting, street talks were held on Friday, October 25, 1996, from noon to two o’clock on Broadway just south of 37th Street, around the corner from Holy Innocents Church. Father Quarato and about four lay speakers took part that first day. It was a noisy location, with trucks and buses making it difficult to be heard, and not many jaded New Yorkers were willing to spend part of their lunch hour listening to a bunch of amateurs. But each Friday and Saturday for the next four or five weeks there were speakers on the platform at that location.
In the summer of 1997 the group changed the time and places of its presentations, speaking Saturday from two to four p.m. on 42nd Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Again it was noisy and, even though the weather was better, it was a location where people were mostly passing through bent on some planned destination. Usually it was only late in the session, when some people might have time to kill before catching a bus back home, that a few would stop, listen, and talk with us.
At this time the guild had only about six regular speakers. The original thirty people were down to ten or twelve, and not all were available for speaking assignments. Since it seemed best to hold a session only when there were a minimum of four members present, including at least three speakers, there were times when the session would be canceled for lack of a quorum. Other times, members would speak twice the same day, sometimes on two different topics. Even though the attracted audience was somewhat minimal, we were getting some actual experience delivering talks and conversing with people about Catholic teaching.
One Saturday in early August, EWTN filmed part of our outdoor session. It aired as a short segment on Raymond Arroyo’s “The World Over” in April 1998.
Meanwhile, a guild member was approached by another group called Project Truth, which had been spending summer afternoons in Washington Square Park, not giving speeches but talking informally to people about the abortion issue. Members of the group were getting questions from the crowd that they could not handle themselves, and they wondered if the Catholic Evidence Guild would be interested in coming to that location.
After spending a Saturday in reconnaissance for other locations, we concluded that Washington Square Park-close to Greenwich Village and New York University-was indeed the place to be. On October 4, 1997 we held a session on the steps of the Catholic Center at NYU, across the street from the park. It wasn’t the same as being in the park; people were hurrying by just as they had on 42nd Street. Even though Fr. Groeschel made a guest appearance that day, few people were attracted by his gray Franciscan habit or by his words.
Then another decision was made: to speak in public less frequently but with a larger group. So, for the winter months of 1997-98, we held sessions in Grand Central Station once a month on Saturday afternoons from one to four p.m. These were a bit more successful at drawing a few listeners than were sessions at the other locations. Three additional speakers were ready now, so we were able to bring a few more faces and with them a few more topics.
Finally, we arranged to speak in Washington Square Park four Saturday afternoons during the summer of 1998. On June 6 we made our first appearance there from one to four p.m. with a total of seven speakers. Since the park is a large Saturday afternoon hangout, more people did stop to listen, although not nearly as many as stopped for the regular entertainers around the fountain. At one point during our talks a wannabe rapper with a microphone and a loudspeaker (but no permit) set up shop about forty feet away from our location; we had to call the police to chase him. Overall, from the standpoint of audience contact, this session was as valuable as four or five sessions at our earlier locations.
The guild in New York has also been involved in other related activities:
Several members have had their talks recorded by a Legion of Mary group in Hastings, New York, for broadcast over a small Westchester radio station on Sunday mornings.
For a couple of days after Christmas, members accompanied Fr. Groeschel and his friars to the crèche at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to speak in sound bites to the huge crowds coming through during the holidays.
Members have also made appearances before youth groups in three parishes in the Bronx and Westchester and to an adult group at a parish on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Two members have set up a Web site to make Catholic information available on the Internet, to respond to questions, and to do recruiting. Others are proclaiming the faith through Internet chat rooms.
New York in the 1990s is obviously quite different from the London of the 1920s or even the London of today. The city has no favored site for outdoor talks on politics and religion, and the spectrum of non-Catholics is broader now, consisting of not only mainline Protestants but also Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, and Confucians, plus adherents of African and Caribbean religions. And now there are the poorly catechized Catholics who have naively joined the secular humanists. Finding a common interest is a constant challenge.
The objectives and the principles remain the same: to proclaim Catholic truth to as many people as possible and to try to overcome the misunderstanding that passes for knowledge of what Christ and his Church are all about. There is the same need as of old for a solid spiritual foundation, in-depth knowledge of the faith, and the ability to present it to a group.
Dialogue is still an essential element, and street-corner work is by nature a long-term proposition. The Westminster guild saw people who had been hecklers for twenty years eventually become Catholics. The resurrected New York chapter is now just over four years old. With the example of those who have labored in the past, and with the firm conviction that the work is that of Christ, we are also in there for the long haul.