When someone mentions the word apologist, the image that comes to mind probably is of someone (almost always a male) speaking at a parish seminar, autographing books at a large conference, or answering questions on the radio.
You likely don’t imagine yourself doing any of these things. You may cringe at the thought of having to speak in public. You may enjoy attending conferences but would pale if asked to be a presenter. You may get the heebie jeebies just thinking of how your tongue would get tangled if you were placed behind a radio microphone.
No matter. You don’t have to do any of those public things to be an effective apologist. All you really need—this is an indispensable prerequisite—is a desire to share your Faith and clear up misconceptions about it. To do that you first have to know your Faith. After all, you can’t share what you don’t know, no matter what the field of endeavor. It takes years of intensive study to become a competent and useful physician or engineer or mathematician. It’s far easier to get up to speed with apologetics. You don’t need a degree in theology. You don’t need training as a public speaker, experience as a radio personality, or much skill as a writer. You do need to do some homework though.
The homework isn’t onerous, and it can be compartmentalized as finely as you wish. Is your interest narrow—say, historical matters brought up by non-Catholics (Inquisition, “bad popes,” and the always fascinating St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre)? Fine. Limit yourself to what intrigues you and deal only with those matters. Over time you can add other tricks to your bag.
To get up to speed, read
To get up to speed, you have to read, and you need to read the right books, those that deal directly with questions and charges brought up by non-Catholics with respect to your topics. If all you want to be able to do is to answer Evangelical friends’ questions about purgatory, you can work up a good case for the Catholic position in an evening—again, if you read the right books. (One example: Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, available from Catholic Answers).
If you want to become widely competent, you’ll need to read more widely. One hour a night for six months will get you far. With that much reading—again, of the right books—you will be able to answer three-quarters of all the questions you’re likely to get.
No matter how intensively you study, at some point you’ll be faced with a question you can’t answer. What then? The most important rule is: don’t try to fake it! Admit you don’t know the answer, but don’t let it go at that. Tell your questioner that you’ll look up the answer and will get back to him. Nothing will impress him more than your going out of your way for him—or your admitting that you don’t know everything.
Mission to missionaries
Let’s consider a situation you undoubtedly already have faced: missionaries at the door.
When they knock, don’t pretend you aren’t home. Invite them in, sit them down, and tell them about the Catholic faith. If it’s a warm day, offer them something cool to drink. “Would you like some ice water? Perhaps some lemonade?” (If you want to annoy them, say, “How about a beer?”) Take their literature and promise to read it, but only if they take yours and make the same promise in return. Make sure you invite the missionaries back for another visit. (This is your chance to evangelize the evangelists.)
The missionaries have intruded on your leisure, so you’re under no obligation to let yourself be guided by the nose. Take charge of the conversation. You can prepare for these encounters by doing your homework on one or two key points.
If the missionaries are Fundamentalists, be ready to ask them to prove their doctrine sola scriptura (the “Bible alone” theory) from the Bible—which nowhere mentions it. If they are Mormons, learn what they mean by “God the Father” (an “exalted man” who lives on a planet near an uncharted star named Kolob) and show, from the Bible, how such a being can’t be divine, since he isn’t omnipotent or omniscient.
If the missionaries are Jehovah’s Witnesses, be prepared to talk about the identity of the 144,000 they say will go to heaven. The Witnesses say these people will be members of their own church, but you should be able to show that the Book of Revelation says they will be celibate Jewish males.
Those are examples of topics you can bring up. To handle them deftly requires homework, but not much. Remember, the missionaries won’t expect you to know anything, so you’ll catch them off guard. The most important point is to control the discussion. It’s not rude to do this, since they’re coming to your home. They may bring up one point, but just butt in and say, “What I really want to discuss is . . .”—and then discuss it.
Spreading the Faith
Is apologetics worthwhile or worthless? I can speak only from my own experience. I’ve seen families come back together as members return to the Church. I’ve seen years of Catholic/Protestant animosity fade away as confusions have been eliminated. I’ve seen authentic ecumenical progress as people who used to not speak to one another now see how much they believe in common. And I’ve read thousands of letters from everyday Catholics who have tried apologetics on their own and who have discovered these things too.
Apologetics is not the core of the Catholic faith, but it has a necessary part in spreading it. It is one of the tools we need if we’re to follow the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, which commands us to bring all people into captivity to the Truth, which is Jesus Christ.