Apologetics Boot Camp

Ten Things the Military Taught Me about Evangelization

Pete Vere

"Your military training as a reserve officer will also help you in your civilian career," said the commanding officer. As a good leader, he had taken each of us officers-in-training aside to find out how our basic training was going. I—a second lieutenant (pronounced "lef-tenant" in Her Majesty’s Royal Canadian Artillery) being addressed by a lieutenant colonel—simply nodded and said: "Yes, sir."

I had just completed the second week of the Basic Military Qualification (BMQ) course, otherwise known as "boot camp" in the Canadian military. Whether enlisted or commissioned, a full-time soldier or a part-time reservist, every Canadian soldier’s career begins with BMQ: It’s baptism into the Canadian Forces.

It is also overwhelming, so at the time I did not see the connection between boot camp and my day job as a canon lawyer and Catholic apologist. That would change after I finished BMQ and returned to my civilian duties. Today, basic military training is almost second nature when I engage in Catholic apologetics. Civilians, too, can draw on military training principles in defending the faith. With that in mind, here are ten things BMQ taught me about being a foot-soldier of the Church Militant.

1. Wash up early.

Except in cases of emergency, a soldier’s day does not begin until he tidies up. Reveille is followed by teeth-brushing, shaving, and hand- and face-washing. A full shower waits until after physical training (PT). The morning wash is just a quick cleanup before changing into PT gear and forming up for morning exercise.

A clean soldier feels fresh and ready to tackle the challenges of the day. The routine is also good hygiene.

In the same way, as Catholic apologists we should begin our day with a spiritual cleanup: an examination of conscience whereby we examine our previous day’s words and actions in light of Church teaching. Did we remember to pray for those who asked? Did we use harsh words with a family member? In short, did we always reflect Christ in our behavior?

An examination of conscience allows a Catholic apologist to recognize his strengths and weaknesses early in the morning. The apologist can then pray for God’s grace before heading out to be salt and light to the world. Just like a soldier is a soldier any time he wears the uniform and not only in the heat of battle, so too is a Catholic apologist a member of Church militant at all times—not just when debating. An examination of conscience affords good spiritual hygiene.

2. The apologist’s PT means OT and NT.

A soldier never knows when he will be tested on the battlefield, so physical training is an indispensable part of his daily regimen to insure he is in top physical condition at all times. Indeed, a friend of mine spent more than 50 consecutive days shelling the Taliban as part of an artillery platoon. The experience required strength, dexterity, and endurance—all skills developed before going to war through daily PT.

As soldiers for Christ, our PT—or ST, spiritual training—includes the Old Testament and the New Testament. Every Catholic apologist should set aside some time each day to meditate upon the Bible. I am not speaking here of intellectual study—something altogether different—but rather spiritual meditation upon specific texts, as well as praying the prayers found in Holy Scripture.

Meditating upon the Bible strengthens our spiritual stamina by deepening our relationship with Christ. For example, when we meditate upon the Psalms, we pray those prayers that Jesus prayed as a faithful Jew. Likewise, when we pray the Our Father, we pray as Christ taught us to pray in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Meditating upon Holy Scripture conditions us spiritually to think with the mind of Christ. Thus it becomes easier to draw upon our faith and seek God’s comfort during times of stress and great adversity. In short, Bible meditation is our spiritual training as apologists and evangelists.

3. Bible rhymes with rifle.

The rifle is the basic weapon of every soldier. A good soldier knows his rifle inside and out. He knows its strengths, its power, how to wield it. He knows how to strip it, clean it, and reassemble it blindfolded. In short, the rifle becomes an extension of himself. Without it, the soldier is useless in battle.

This is why soldiers spend so much time practicing rifle drill. Good drill saves lives.

Likewise, the Bible is an extension of every good Catholic apologist. Without a solid g.asp of the Bible, the Catholic apologist is seriously hampered when defending the faith. Thus every Catholic apologist should spend time studying the Bible intellectually. The apologist should memorize its passages, learn their meanings and their contexts within the Bible as a whole, and know how to wield its teaching in defense of Catholic teaching. Good Bible study saves souls.

Knowledge of the faith allows us to recall Bible verses more quickly and broadens our capacity to defend the Catholic faith. "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you," Peter exhorts (1 Pet. 3:15). By spending some time each day studying the Bible, the Catholic apologist conditions himself to defend Christ’s teaching at a moment’s notice. Rather than panicking when he comes under fire by non-Catholics, or struggling to present counter-arguments, a Catholic apologist will be well-armed with his knowledge of the Bible to defend Church teaching.

4. Work as a team.

The first thing a new soldier learns during basic training is the value of teamwork. If recruits and officer cadets don’t work together to accomplish a task, then the drill sergeants will pick them off individually. Usually the entire platoon is punished.

Punishing everyone for the failure of one may seem unjust, but it reflects the harsh reality of war. One soldier’s mistake can prove fatal for everyone else. If a soldier falls asleep while on sentry duty, then all of his fellow soldiers could be exposed to an enemy attack. So working as a team is essential to the survival of all.

I began BMQ with excellent study habits. Graduate studies had taught me how to memorize large amounts of information within a short period of time. In contrast, my clumsiness at drill was the catalyst for many a sergeant’s tirade. (Twice, I managed to fall out of step while acting as course marker—that is, the student who sets the marching pace.) Other recruits found marching easy but felt overwhelmed by all the new information thrown at them. We all passed BMQ because we worked as a team. We shared each other’s strengths and covered each other’s weaknesses.

Catholic apologetics—like soldiering—is a team activity. This lesson was made clear to me several years ago, when I was part of a circle of undergraduates who adhered to a schismatic sect, all of us troubled by our broken communion with Rome. Several objections to the Second Vatican Council kept us from returning to full communion with the Holy Father. These objections touched upon many subjects: biblical studies, systematic theology, moral theology, liturgy, Church history, philosophy, and canon law.

Most members of our circle were captivated by one or two of these areas. However, none of us was expert in these subjects and none of us had time to study all seven. By working as a team, we were able to study the Council documents and overcome our hesitations to embrace Vatican II. For example, I was naturally inclined toward canon law, so I tackled the canonical objections and shared my findings with the rest of our circle—most of whom found canon law intimidating.

Other members of the group likewise stepped up to fill in any gaps.

Would we have made it back to the Church had we not worked as a team, sharing our individual strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses? Only God knows. However, it was in working as a team that God guided us back into the Church.

As Jesus states in the Gospels: "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7). Likewise, Christ also warns: "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand" (Matt. 12:25). Both of these passages point to the necessity of cooperating with other Catholics when defending Church teaching.

5. Know when to walk away.

Fire discipline is knowing when, where, and how to fire one’s weapon and it is essential to every soldier’s training. A soldier who fails to observe fire discipline is a threat both to himself and to others around him. He may accidentally shoot his own soldiers, or he may waste all his ammunition, making him an easy target for the enemy.

Catholic apologetics is no different. A Catholic should know when a given situation calls for evangelization as opposed to strict apologetics. Not every question from non-Catholics is a challenge to the faith. For instance, there is a difference between a Protestant who accuses Catholics of idolatry for venerating the Blessed Mother and one who asks about the scriptural basis for Marian devotion. Fire discipline helps the apologist recognize which individual is open to truth and target his answers accordingly.

6. Show respect.

People are much more open to listening when they know you respect them as human beings. I learned this lesson while taking a course with a devout Muslim. He appeared a little uncomfortable around me at first, which I sensed was partly because of my Catholic faith. Although he was a model soldier, 9/11 had left him sensitive to how others viewed Muslims in the military.

Our relationship changed one day when we spotted some restroom graffiti calling for the eradication of all Muslims. I immediately voiced my disapproval. I then expressed Church teaching concerning the respect due every human individual and offered to report it to the restaurant manager. "This is a military town, and it might create ill-will between the restaurant and the Canadian Forces," my classmate said. "But I really appreciate your understanding."

The incident sparked a religious conversation, and over the rest of the course he would often approach me with questions about Catholic teaching. Respecting his dignity as a human being created new opportunities to share the faith. In the same way, a good apologist knows that respecting his audience paves the way for genuinely fruitful dialogue.

7. Lead by example and be a good follower.

Leading by example is one of the first principles an officer cadet learns during basic training. Never ask your soldiers to do what you yourself will not do. And show enthusiasm when approaching a task, no matter how difficult or tedious. Leading by example goes hand-in-hand with another important leadership principle: A good leader is a good follower. A soldier is more confident when he knows his leader is willing to follow orders. Similarly, a leader is more trustworthy when his soldiers know he asks only of them what he himself does.

For example, one evening a senior officer charged me with leading a half-dozen privates on a PT march. The weather was cold and rainy, mosquitoes were buzzing about, and much of the march was uphill. Needless to say, I overheard a few grumbles from the soldiers. Rather than join in their complaints, I described some of the adverse conditions the senior officer had experienced in combat. "What’s an evening stroll with a little rain to cool you off compared to months in the desert under strict water rations?" I told them. My trust in my superior allowed me to command the trust of the soldiers I was leading.

At the halfway point, I lay down and challenged my soldiers to do sit-ups. I went first as the officer. Rather than complain, my soldiers—half my age—felt compelled to surpass my initial count without my saying anything. Laughter and camaraderie ensued from what began as a dreary proposition.

As Catholics, we must set a good example as followers of Christ. Our most powerful advertisement for the faith is how we live our lives. The saints are the Church’s greatest apologists and evangelists precisely because they followed our Lord in living their lives according to his gospel. This in turn inspired others to follow them.

I once met a convert who had spent hours debating Catholics over the Real Presence. None of the arguments had any effect on him until he met a woman who had become a daily communicant in response to various papal exhortations.

"She didn’t just say the Eucharist was Jesus," the man told me. "She acted like the Eucharist was Jesus. From getting up early each morning for Mass to genuflecting and making the sign of the cross in front of the tabernacle, her actions showed me that Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist was real."

God used this woman’s example where mere words had failed. And she led this man to the Eucharist as a good follower of her superior, the pope. Leading by example—that is, by being a good follower of Jesus Christ—creates opportunities for apologetics and evangelization when mere words fail.

8. Trust your sergeants and senior officers.

Junior officers enjoy rank because of their commission and academic credentials. What they lack, however, is practical military experience. Therefore, junior officers are responsible to senior officers who possess both rank and experience.

Sergeants, on the other hand, are non-commissioned soldiers who gain rank through experience; they need not possess academic credentials. Since senior officers cannot always accompany junior officers as the latter carry out orders, junior officers are often matched with sergeants, an arrangement that allows the junior officer to draw upon the sergeant’s experience.

As Catholic apologists and evangelists we must trust our clergy and our experts. Deacons, priests, and bishops form the officer corps of the Church Militant. Through their ordination, Christ commissions the clergy to oversee the care of souls. They receive special graces to lead us in the work of apologetics and evangelization. Therefore we do well to turn to them for leadership.

Similarly, God provides us with experts in the faith upon whose experience we can draw when promoting the Catholic faith. For example, former Assemblies of God youth minister Tim Staples is an excellent Bible apologist; his knowledge of canon law, however, is that of an interested layman. As a former Marine, Tim is very familiar with the principle of trusting one’s sergeants, and he has carried this principle into the realm of Catholic apologetics. He often solicits my expertise when his apologetics work touches upon canon law, and I have similarly tapped his biblical expertise when responding to evangelical Protestants. Trusting each other’s expertise has strengthened our presentation of the Catholic faith.

9. Make lists.

Few militaries could function without lists and basic training is full of them. Some lists detail the equipment a soldier will need when going out into the field overnight. Others serve as study aids, reducing large quantities of information into manageable sizes that can be memorized quickly. Making lists enables soldiers to carry out their day-to-day duties with greater ease.

Apologetics and evangelization are no different. Lists provide an important tool for learning and carrying out one’s apostolate. For example, make a list of those people God placed in your path. Every Catholic apologist and evangelist should have a list of potential converts or lapsed Catholics for whom he prays daily.

Lists are similarly useful for studying and memorizing Holy Scripture. For example, many modern theologians attempt to reduce the Mass to a mere meal. So I keep a list of five Bible passages that demonstrate the supernatural reality of the Mass (Luke 22:19, 24:35; John 6:35, 6:48; 1 Cor. 11:28-29).

Making lists allows us to obtain, use, and share information more easily.

10. Know the situation and prioritize.

Because there is always more work than time to accomplish everything, the military teaches new soldiers two skill-sets to cope with the workload. The first is situational awareness; the second is prioritization of tasks.

During the officer component of basic training, our section had just begun to study for the next morning’s exam on military leadership principles when the sergeant entered the barracks. He announced that before the exam, he would inspect our living quarters. We did not have enough time to bring our barracks up to a perfect standard and study. Situational awareness and prioritization kicked in.

The situation was this: We were in this course to learn military leadership skills. The course entailed passing a written exam on the knowledge we acquired. Fail the exam and we fail the course. We were also expected to keep our quarters to a perfect standard, but provided the barracks were generally neat and tidy, a less-than-perfect inspection would not affect the course outcome. By making ourselves aware of the situation, we concluded that study was the clear priority. None of us scored perfect on the room inspection the following morning, but we all passed the exam.

Situational awareness and prioritization are just as important in apologetics and evangelization. One of the first lessons a Catholic learns is that the Church’s opponents can raise objections faster than Catholics can answer them. For example, I recall debating one street preacher who in his opening five-minute address raised objections to the papacy, three Marian dogmas, the communion of saints, the Real Presence, veneration of the Blessed Mother, the seven sacraments, abstinence on Fridays, celibate clergy, the Spanish Inquisition, the sexual abuse crisis, the Deuterocanonical books—as well as several other issues. (See, it’s not just soldiers and Catholics who find lists handy for easy reference!)

I simply could not reply to all his objections in the time allotted to me. And even if I could, he would likely have raised more objections. So I took a moment to say a quick prayer and make myself aware of the situation. My challenger was attacking the authority of the Catholic Church based upon his misinterpretation of the Bible. This awareness of the situation revealed the priority for addressing it. My primary duty was to defend the Church’s authority to interpret the Bible correctly. Once this was established, all the Protestant preacher’s other objections would fall. By making himself aware of the situation and prioritizing his response, a Catholic apologist and evangelist avoids being drawn into side-debates that go nowhere. The Catholic may then concentrate his efforts in those areas that will have the greatest effect in converting souls.

So, as you can see, my commanding officer’s comment to his trainees was right: Much to my surprise, the lessons I learned in basic training helped me become a better Catholic apologist. But you don’t have to be a soldier to use these principles in promoting and defending the Catholic faith.


Pete Vere is a husband, father, canon lawyer and Catholic journalist. He and his wife Sonya live in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada with their three young children. He obtained his licentiate in canon law from Saint Paul University, a pontifical university in Ottawa, Canada. He is...

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 10.