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August 10, 2009

The Prophet of Hyde Park (Secrets of a Streetcorner Apologist)

One brisk, gray afternoon in London, I stood on a corner of Hyde Park with one of Frank Sheed's old friends.

"That's the spot where he used to stand and preach," she said with a wistful smile. Now an elderly widow, in the 1940s and 1950s she had worked in the London Catholic Evidence Guild with Frank and his wife, Maisie.

It was easy to imagine the scene: a portly, smiling, middle-aged fellow, who looked a lot like W.C. Fields, evangelizing anyone who stopped in front of his speaker's platform.

— By Patrick Madrid —

Over afternoon tea, Sheed's friend described what it was like to watch Frank manage the crowd. He worked on hecklers and skeptics and scoffers the way a chiropractor works on a bad back-probing, searching for the tensed-up muscle, finding it, and going to work on it with precision. He massaged the minds of his audiences, breaking down hardened prejudices against Catholicism, kneading the "God does not exist!" arguments until they crumbled, and showing atheists the folly of their denials. He made countless converts on the stump.

Frank Sheed was one of the 20th-century's greatest apologists. Some-especially those who knew him personally and saw him in action-say he was the greatest Catholic apologist of the last 100 years, maybe longer. One thing is certain: Few people of any era have been endowed with his unique, powerful combination of gifts-including a rare talent for expressing complex theological concepts, such as the Trinity or the Hypostatic Union, in words that were understandable and compelling to the average reader. His style was clear and luminous; it had the power to persuade as well as to inform.

Sheed was also an accomplished speaker. He preached the Catholic faith under the open sky to any and all who would listen-often in unforgiving and even hostile locations, such as New York's Time Square and London's Hyde Park (stomping ground of Communist firebrands, Protestant preachers, and agitators for every kind of cause and "-ism").

He believed the Catholic faith to his core, and that belief impelled him to share the gospel with all those around him. For many of us, his "taking it to the streets" approach to Christianity might seem extreme or fanatical. But it shouldn't. Frank Sheed understood that for Christians, public testimony about Christ should be the norm. "You are the light of the world," Christ told us. "A city set on a hill cannot . . . (continue reading)