‘F*** the Pope!” shouted the bullvoiced man from the crowd.
Remembering my training, I re-phrased the question and played it back to him: “Do you mean that you would like me to involve His Holiness in some sexual activity he would find personally repugnant?” I asked.
The crowd was silent, waiting for the heckler’s crushing riposte. Then it came: “Nah. I mean f*** the Pope!” Well, you can’t win them all.
That was back in the 1950s when the Catholic Evidence Guild (CEG) was in full flow, and I was speaking in Leicester Court just off Leicester Square.
I had lugged my soap box, adorned with its crucifix, down from Soho Square. Passing each strip club, a hustler would step forward in order to waft me into his particular den of iniquity. Then he would see the crucifix and retreat, like a snake before St Patrick himself.
I would climb up on the stand and look down with evangelical vigour on an empty pavement. There is no lonelier place on earth than a soapbox; a speaker and no crowd.
The CEG had started in 1918 as a lay organisation, but under diocesan affiliation, to provide a public voice at spots like Speakers Corner, near Marble Arch, where the Catholic Church was reg ularly vilified. It seemed wiser to counter the general impression that every convent was a cover for a brothel, and Confession no more than an extremely efficient channel for depriving superstitious Catholics of their funds. It was very professional. Any aspiring speaker had to study his subject in depth, and then rehearse again and again in front of other Guild members who knew from personal experience the cruelty of the crowd and the whole range of tricky, obscure and simply darned difficult questions which could be thrown.
And throw them the Guild members did. Many a neophyte tear was shed as rehearsal followed rehearsal until one was finally officially interrogated in the, often frustrated, hope of obtaining a licence.
For new members like me the licence would be for a relatively simple subject like papal infallibility, although even that required an encyclopedic knowledge of every papal incident over 2000 years which could be cited in opposition. The advanced would be licensed in, say, the Incarnation.
The aristocracy alone was permitted to speak on the Trinity. But the crowd did not know the limitation of the speaker’s remit; in emergencies you had at least to be able to hold the whole huge fort of Catholic teaching. It was a tough school in which to learn one’s theology.
But I loved my heckler. I loved all hecklers because, without a heckler, you would get no crowd. The natural instinct of the passerby is to veer away from a lone soapbox speaker like someone avoiding a charity box collector at a station entrance. But if there’s an argument, and if one or two stop momentarily to watch the exchange of arms, then others will come, the crowd will form, and you’re in business.
I was often lucky. If there was a good film at the adjacent cinema the queue would stretch around the corner into Leicester Court. It seemed to me only good manners to help them pass their time by giving them a quick run down on indulgences. Sadly, the cinema box office would open and the queue could not be persuaded to exchange their film for my incisive presentation.
I imagine that a crowd today would be very different from the crowd of 50 years ago. Then, many of its members were motivated by some knowledge and adherence to Christianity: their feelings were often fierce and bitter. And if they did not carry the anti-Catholic ammunition around with them – and some of them did, like a ball of lead in their hearts – then there was plenty to be had in the booklets of the Protestant Truth Society, where I would often browse, a short walk away in Fleet Street.
There was hatred, confusion and ignorance even curiosity – but there was not indifference. Today, apart from the stick of current scandals to beat us with, religion is little more than an archaic eccentricity.
Many of those who admit to denominational adherence, and I exclude neither Protestants nor Catholics, would find it hard to put together a coherent religious statement of any kind (let alone be prepared to argue the toss).
There would be no one to rival the most celebrated heckler of all, the lifelong sceptic EA Siderman. When I spoke at Marble Arch it would be Siderman who would always pose the question just beyond my competence. But he would not follow up his advantage; instead, he would take me to one side afterwards and tell me what I should have answered. Then the next time his question would be a degree harder. He was a regular at Marble Arch, and perhaps the best coach we ever had.
In 1950 he wrote A Saint in Hyde Park, a memory of Father Vincent McNabb OP (one of the pantheon of CEG speakers).
High in that pantheon was Maisie Ward, Chesterton’s great biographer, and Frank Sheed, who wrote Theology and Sanity, still in print, and still a classic account of Catholic belief.
They were to marry, and to found the publishers, Sheed and Ward. Frank was the driving force behind the CEG, a witty and trenchant Australian, who, with his booming voice, could hold a crowd on the most abstruse of subjects. He simply saw the universe through the eye of faith, and taught me and many others to do the same.
For him, a mystery was not something to be neglected because it could not be understood, but to be continually explored because it was so deep.
He told me how he had been advised in his early days to catch the eye of people in the crowd in order to draw them in. So, on the next occasion, when he happened to be talking about Hell he focused on a random man to receive his message personally. The man’s expression gradually changed as Frank warmed eloquently to the subject, until his unfortunate target fought his way out of the crowd and ran off gibbering into the distance.
The mistake was not repeated. On a happier occasion, when he was talking about the modern obsession with pleasure, a pretty young lady chose to dance a high-kicking can-can in front of his stand. What would you have done?
Frank just applauded the performance and remarked,“There are plenty of legs in London.” Perhaps she was left more comfortable than the heckler who claimed he could make a better universe than God. “Why not” said Frank, “start off by just making a rabbit – to give us confidence?” Siderman, McNabb, Ward and Sheed are all in heaven now, where, no doubt, the Blessed occasionally take a break from perpetual adoration just to listen to them speak.
Tower Hill was another venue, and a difficult one because of the powerful draw of the brilliant Methodist minister, Dr Donald Soper.
But Seymour Jonas, another CEG luminary knew a trick or two. He would start his address by saying in a loud voice: “Catholics have to pay good money to have their sins forgiven...” Then he would pause, as the crowd turned their attention to this repentant admission. And he would continue his sentence “...exactly what the Catholic Church does not do.” Compared to these great speakers, I was small fry. Frank suggested that I wore my bowler hat (by Lock’s of St James, naturally) to lend me substance. But I knew that my strong points were a loud voice and a turn of phrase honed by a Jesuit education.
Yet I always found it nerve-racking, even when the crowd was with me.
I have spoken to large audiences at Wembley and the Barbican without a tremor, but a street cor ner and a casual crowd looking for a fight was something different. I felt like a Roman Christian trying to talk the lions out of their dinner.
Sadly the Catholic Evidence Guild in London, and in other cities like Manchester and Birmingham, fell out of fashion in the years following Vatican II. Perhaps it was the ecumenical climate which made such public and Catholic-based evangelisation seem rather bad form.
Perhaps the blurring of the neat cut edges of Catholic apologetics made the simple explanations of the 1950s too unsophisticated for the subtleties of today. But I doubt it. I see that the Guild in America (in which Frank Sheed also played a part) is undergoing a renaissance.
They believe that if we have a vital message of good news we should declare it in the highways and the byways, and be prepared to defend it (brickbats and all).
As for the Westminster CEG, I can tell you nothing. They have an address in the Yearbook but they do not answer letters. Is there anybody there today?
Will there be anybody there tomorrow?