NEW YORK-Hundreds of people were hanging out in New York's Washington Square Park on a recent Saturday, watching street performers, enjoying the sunshine ... and debating with the Catholic Evidence Guild.
That's right, the Catholic Evidence Guild — the lay organization dedicated to teaching the faith on street corners. The guild has been enjoying a revival in the 1990s after a hiatus of some 20 years.
The late Frank Sheed, who was a member of both the London and New York chapters, called it “teaching the faith under the open sky.”
“They are trying to do what the Church has always encouraged, which is to share the faith with others,” observed Karl Keating, president of Catholic Answers, the apologetics apostolate based in San Diego.
Chapters are flourishing in New York, Michigan and Arizona, while others are being started around the country.
The six speakers who took to the podium recently in New York gave 15-minute presentations on subjects such as original sin, salvation and the Mass. Each one entertained questions from listeners, keeping as much as possible to his topic.
That's not always easy. Misconceptions about Catholic teaching and personal agendas abound, and New Yorkers want answers now.
So Greg Kelly's talk about Mary was largely lost on a group of smart teen-agers from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science who were more interested in challenging the Church on premarital sex and the more embarrassing moments of papal history, such as Avignon.
And Christian Leth, a tourist from Copenhagen, Denmark, did not have the patience for Don Murray's talk on hell and God's mercy. Leth had already accepted the Catholic interpretation of the Bible and was not interested in hearing “from the basic word up.”
The current guild revival began in Ann Arbor, Mich., by Thomas O'Brien and Joseph Campbell. O'Brien and London Guild master Leonard Sullivan reprinted Sheed's “Catholic Evidence Training Outlines,” which members rely on heavily for training and preparation of talks.
Soon after, Friar of the Renewal Father Benedict Groeschel, noted preacher and author, got a group started again in New York.
Cardinal John O'Connor, who had been a guild member in Philadelphia in his seminary days, gave his approval for the move. And two years ago, Deacon Bill Starrs of Sacred Heart parish in Prescott, Ariz., started a chapter in that predominantly Mormon town.
Father Robert Quarato, who assisted in the New York revival, has received inquiries from all over the country for help in starting new chapters. He warns that since the guild is a public apostolate, it needs the guidance of a pastor and approval of the bishop. “People shouldn't go out and try to represent the Church in some way without some oversight,” he said.
Members are given intensive training in theology and apologetics and give practice talks in front of classmates, who pepper them with tough questions. They have to speak before a certification board before being allowed to teach on the street.
The guild has always laid a heavy emphasis on spiritual preparation, and members are required to spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament before
Speakers have found that, as much as people stop and listen to the talks, the really interesting things happen in oneon-one conversations after the formal presentations.
“The real work of the guild is not in giving talks,” said Lucy Tucker of New York. “They're the bait. We are fishers of men. What we hope will happen is that people come over and ask questions and be interested enough so they really want to stay and talk to us.”
Such encounters have led to confessions with a priest on the scene, and people have been directed to their parishes to have marriages reconciled.
In Michigan and Arizona, too, members find that one-on-one encounters are more effective. Joseph Campbell mans a free literature stand in front of the graduate library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor every Wednesday for three hours and is ready to dialogue with any interested student or professor.
Wherever it operates, the guild's street style has made a difference in the lives of people who went out for a walk and never thought they would see such a group.
“It's opened up my eyes,” said William Barrera, an unemployed furniture mover who hangs out in Washington Square Park and has heard the guild there for the past two years. They've opened up my eyes to more things about the Church. They've enhanced my life, helped me understand why I'm here and what life is all about.”
John Burger writes from New York.
The guild's Web site is www.catholicevidence.org.