Filial piety

So many matters are worthy of attention at present—Cardinal Sarah’s latest treatment of the Church’s liturgy, for example, or Martin Mosebach’s searching critique of the modern liturgy recently renewed; Dubiagate; the infamous demotion of the papal nuncio to Ireland.

But when one is in a strop (probably only Poms and Aussies will get the meaning of that word in this context) it is best to leave weighty matters aside lest one’s true feelings be too forcefully expressed.

So instead, let me recommend a book. It is not in print but easily obtainable at a reasonable price secondhand. I have not yet finished it but already I think it one of the best biographies I have read.

The author Wilfrid Sheed (1930–2011) had authors as his parents: Frank Sheed (1897–1981) and Maisie Ward (1889–1975), founders of the now-defunct Catholic publishing house Sheed & Ward. Both his parents were active and long-time members of the Catholic Evidence Guild, and faithful to the soapbox on Hyde Park Corner explaining the Faith and converting hecklers. She was of good English recusant stock; he was of humbler Australian stock who precociously converted to Catholicism as a youth to the horror of his family, save for his Catholic mother of course. Maisie was no mean writer herself, but Frank wrote what might be the premier classics of Catholic catechesis and apologetics, bringing a rational defence and exposition of Catholic teaching to the masses. The antipodean seeds planted by the English Benedictines Ullathorne, Polding and Vaughan bore late-blooming fruit, but rich fruit for all that, and a fruit the English (and later the Americans) were privileged to be nourished by.

Frank and Maisie on their wedding day
Frank Sheed has been a quiet, un-sated interest of mine for some time and I am moving towards action for satiety. One of these tentative steps has been procuring Frank & Maisie: A Memoir with Parents (signed by the author indeed!), written by their son Wilfrid. I am barely an eighth of the way through the book and it is clearly utterly delightful. Without dewy-eyed sentimentality or searingly-brutal confession Wilfrid paints a picture of Frank especially that in including the odd wart nevertheless reveals a wonderful person. His sober filial piety and apt turn of phrase make for a compelling portrait, and this even before Frank has become a personage of note. As much as it make me love the parents, it makes me love the son perhaps even more.

A couple of purely random quotations:

In the same Federation Act [1900, which constituted Australia as a nation] glow, Frank and his Irish mother became the most unlikely pair of monarchists you have ever seen.They agreed, as one must, that the English ruling class was unspeakable. But the monarchy was something else. For one thing, the royal family, like the pope, can be anybody or nobody; the scepter [sic] is sturdier than the holder thereof, and can survive any amount of stupidity and depravity. In an international arrangement this is good to know.

Well, quite! And this Australian, who carved such a distinct and worthy niche in the fecund pastures of twentieth-century English Catholicism, yet ended his days a resident of New Jersey. After his first trip to England he returned to Sydney via the States:

On the way home he breezed through the United States on a lecture tour—anyone could give a lecture tour in the US back then. You had only to ask. Henceforth, his life would somewhat resemble a pool hustler’s, as he paid his way from coast to coast playing the speaking game, but there was always something 1920s about his view of America: a very lawless country, an alcoholic country, he would say. Also poorly educated, unmodulated voices. Beautiful young people but no real faces among the middle aged. Fat. For a future apostle to this country, Frank took his sweet time about liking it, and even longer about respecting it. But then, as he might say, who knows what Saint Patrick really thought of the Irish? And there was something else. I occasionally sensed a certain colonial envy as he ticked off America’s defects against an invisible list of dinkum [ie, Australian] perfections. If only the War of Independence had gone the other way—why American might have been just like Australia. Being abroad always makes him twice as Australian anyway.

Well, quite! Even before we get to his Catholic labours we see, through his son’s eyes, a most engaging figure. His death, in 1981, was on 20 November, the feast day of my monastery’s patron, St Edmund, King & Martyr. Rather an omen for me.

If you have never read any of Frank Sheed’s works, you should. In them the faith comes alive, objections are faced honestly and overcome, and his prose is accessible rather than technical. Still in print are his classics—A Map of Life, Theology and Sanity, Theology for Beginners, To Know Christ Jesus, What Difference Does Jesus Make? If you feel minded to buy one, use this link to Amazon and support a small monastery (not mine) which gets a tiny cut of the purchase price. From the second book listed is this timeless truth:

Sanity, remember, does not mean living in the same world as everyone else; it means living in the real world. But some of the most important elements in the real world can be known only by the revelation of God, which it is theology’s business to study. Lacking this knowledge, the mind must live a half-blind life, trying to cope with a reality most of which it does not know is there. This is a wretched state for an immortal spirit, and pretty certain to lead to disaster. There is a good deal of disaster around at this moment.


6 thoughts on “Filial piety

  1. His books are great and Theology and Sanity is as fresh as ever. You do not mention , which I think was has last book, “Christ In Eclipse”. This is magnificent and most relevant to the Church in the West today. Take BCEW as an example, we here from them about the environment, migrants and the Social teaching of the church. When did they mention Christ last? This book provides the answer.


    1. You are right, I did not mention Christ in Eclipse, nor several other of his books. My aim was to name the most important of his catechetical and apologetical books. Christ in Eclipse goes a step beyond, and deals critically with questions about living an authentic Christian life—immensely valuable but not what I was focussing on. One should also read Sheed’s autobiography, The Church and I, which is an interesting read in the context of the immediately-post-Vatican II Church. Society and Sanity is also another worthy addition, but like the others they constitute, as it were, the Sheed 201 course, whereas the ones I listed were Sheed 101. All are worthy of reading. Things might have been a little different, and better, if people like Sheed had been listened to more carefully.



  2. “Theology and Sanity” was one of the books which I read on my way into the Catholic Church (30 years ago last Sunday). Its lessons are even more relevant now than they were back then with the war on reality infesting the highest reaches of the Church as well as the world.

    It would be fascinating to hear Frank Sheed take apart gender ideology or Amoris laetitia. The presentaion of marriage as an ideal rather than a reality, “penned” by the Pope himself, would surely have attracted his ascerbic attention.


    1. Happy anniversary! In a way Sheed has already contributed to the AL debate. He wrote a small book called Nullity of Marriage. It was written before the new Code of Canon Law (1983) but its principles should remain sound. I have not yet read it, though we do have it here. It has been re-issued by Aeterna Press, as of 2015, and is available on the US Amazon, but listed as unavailable on the UK version. Thankfully EWTN have the full text, albeit not in a very user-friendly format, on their website. Not having read it I shall keep silence other than to say that I suspect you are right about Sheed’s likely response if he were here now, and this little book may well give the reasons why.


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