The awakening of Frank Sheed

The autumn feasts of the archangels and the guardian angels always remind me of the apologist Frank Sheed’s take on Catholic anthropology. If we are to understand man clearly, he says, we must see as the Church does: ‘‘The individual human person born into the life of nature, reborn into the life of grace, united with Christ in the Church which is his mystical body, aided by angels, hindered by devils, destined for heaven, in peril of hell.” It was such a view of man, this conviction that the Christian revelation is not a truth supplementing what everyone believes about the universe, but the only true way of seeing that universe correctly which led him to want to live it fully and with integrity. He believed that “The luxury of knowing what life is all about, what we are, why we are here, where we are supposed to be going, is all grounded in Christ.”

This vision of man comes from his most enduring work, Theology and Sanity, which was first published in 1947 and then revised by him in 1980 shortly before his death. Sheed was Australian by birth, converted to Catholicism at 16 and spent his life as an apologist for the faith, first in England and then in the US. On arriving in London in 1920, he attended a training session with the newly founded Catholic Evidence Guild to prepare him to become what today we would call a street evangelist. His natural gifts made him suitable to volunteer.

He had trained as a lawyer and was used to the cut and thrust of debate. But his upbringing had also given him a wide exposure to the kind of Protestant thought and polemic he would need to counter. But it was not merely a matter of technique which gave his evangelisation its thrust. It was his own realisation of the reality of supernatural life in Christ which became the motive force for his desiring to bring others to the fullness of the Catholic faith.

One can, as he put it, will to do the good enjoined by the Gospel, but the motive for this good comes from seeing reality in the light of Revelation; one is sanctity, the other sanity. He describes the moment he came to this realisation: “Maisie Ward gave us newcomers a class on the Supernatural Life. Quite literally, I had never heard the two words uttered together.

Supernatural had meant ghosts, life I had enjoyed without reflection. I already knew that Christ had said, ‘Unless a man be born again of water and of the Holy Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.’ I had not grasped that he was saying that merely by birth into the life of the human race we are unfit for salvation: we must have a second birth, a birth into the life of Jesus himself … I found this new vision of reality intoxicating as I first heard it. It is intoxicating still.”

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