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A Catholic Apologist Confesses All

Well, not “all,” but something, since Lent begins today and confession is good for the soul.

Like Tim Staples, I love my job. It is a privilege to be trusted with the responsibility to find information for Catholics and non-Catholics on the Catholic Faith. Whenever I learn that I in some way helped someone to better understand what Catholics believe and why, I am grateful once again to be working as an apologist for Catholic Answers.

But there is a downside. When a caller leaves a message on my voice mail that begins, “It’s such an honor to leave a message in your voice mail,” I flinch. When I am introduced to someone I’ve never met with the words, “This is Michelle Arnold; she knows everything about the Catholic Faith,” I cringe. When I was part of a group being presented to a priest and he turned straight to me, saying, “I know you; I read your writing in This Rock when I was in seminary,” I flushed, mortified.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate praise for the work I’ve done. These are all well-meaning people who want to share their gratitude for work I’ve done that has been useful to them in their faith lives. There’s nothing that can warm the soul of an apologist more than that. What bothers me is the focus on, well, me.

A Catholic apologist is someone who explains and offers a defense for the Catholic Faith. If we liken the Church to a wedding feast (cf. Rev. 19:7), then apologists bus the tables. We clear away the mess so that the guests can sit down and enjoy themselves. Philosopher Peter Kreeft, who has written many fine apologetics books, once compared apologists to street sweepers. They clear away obstacles in the road. Now, busboys and street sweepers need and appreciate praise for a job well done as much as the next person, but they aren’t the ones responsible for providing the meal or orchestrating the parade.

There’s also the problem of “celebrity.” In a celebrity culture, anyone who has been published, heard on radio, or seen on television runs the risk of being recognized. It’s a risk, because the temptation that fits hand-in-glove with recognition is adulation. Adulation runs a spectrum of intensity and is not always deeply felt by the admirer, who may only feel a mild jolt of pleasure at meeting a person whose work he has followed. The greater danger is for the one who is on the receiving end. For the recipient, any adulation at all can go to his head.

So how does the apologist recognize when the praise of an admirer needs to be put into perspective? I think it is precisely when the focus is on the self. The caller who is thrilled to talk to you (as distinguished from being pleased to speak to any apologist), the well-meaning friend who thinks you know “everything,” the prestigious person who singles you out of a crowd of people to whom he is being introduced. That’s when the apologist must take a deep breath, send up a prayer to the Holy Spirit, and offer tactful demurrals.

Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), in his autobiography Treasure in Clay, wrote that he was once asked by Pope Pius XII, “How many converts have you made in your life?” Bishop Sheen responded: “Your Holiness, I have never counted them. I am always afraid if I did count them, I might think I made them, instead of the Lord.”


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