Understanding Apologetics: How to Defend Your Faith

This is an article that had been on my heart and mind to write for some time since we are often asked if we will offer “apologetic classes” at the parish. It first appeared in the March 5, 2017 edition of Saint Mary Magdalene’s Parish Bulletin, Vidi Dominum (Latin for – “I have seen the Lord.” The words of St. Mary Magdalene to the Apostles [John 20:18]). With permission, I am able to provide this article to you here.

In a world filled with buzzwords, there is one on the lips of many Catholics I run into. That buzzword is apologetics. Recently, a lot of parishioners have been requesting that more apologetics classes be offered here at St. Mary Magdalene. Before I address that, we should first ask whether we really understand what this word means – what apologetics is, and what it isn’t.

What is Apologetics?

The word apologetics comes from the Greek root word, apologia, which means to defend. In Ancient Greece, it was referred to as the formal way one would defend a belief, explanation, or argument for one’s philosophy or religion. Although we might associate this term with the word, apologize, it does mean to say that we are sorry for what we believe, or that we are sorry for offending someone because of our beliefs.

The term apologia cannot only be found in the New Testament (Acts 22:1 and 1 Peter 3:15), but also in other documents in ancient history, such as The Apology of Socrates by the Greek philosopher Plato. In this text, he makes a defense for Socrates when accused of wrongdoing. Furthermore, we also see this word in the Early Church writings of St. Irenaeus (Against the Heresies), St. Justin Martyr (The First Apology), and, most notably, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Clement of Rome, St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and Tertullian, among others. In more modern times, we have G.K. Chesterton, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Frank Sheed, Peter Kreeft, Jimmy Akin, and Arizona’s own, Trent Horn.

Although the aforementioned Early Church Fathers defended their newfound Catholic faith and beliefs to a pagan culture of non-believers, Catholics today are in a similar position. We are constantly being required to explain and defend our Catholic faith to many non-believers, even to those who were raised Catholic but were never truly taught their Catholic faith correctly. Many people have left the Catholic Church as a result of having been poorly catechized. Even I was not catechized correctly as a young child and adolescent. I first had to learn the truth before having the courage to defend it.

Preaching of Saint Peter by Masolino da Panicale (The Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Italy).

For us today, and for our older brothers and sisters in the past, the battle cry of defending our Catholic faith should be centered on St. Peter’s words – “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). In his book, Reasons to Believe – How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith, Scott Hahn says the following in reference to St. Peter’s words:

 “We should…always “be prepared” to explain the reasons why we believe what we believe. That statement assumes our beliefs are defensible on rational grounds, and that we’re willing to spend a lifetime preparing to defend what we profess in the articles of faith…as Christians, we have the sweet obligation of coming to know them and coming to their defense as often as we please. There is no shortage of opportunity of study, contemplation, and evangelization. Wherever we go, we are in God’s presence and in His world. And in most places we go we can take a good book along for stolen moments of study. It’s the work of a lifetime.”

 Always be prepared

So we might be asking ourselves at this point: How can we make sure that we are always prepared?

First, we must be people of prayer. The greatest apologists in the history of the Church were those striving to be saints. Their work as apologists was secondary. The best way to become a saint is to strive for holiness and to converse with God through prayer. A consistent daily and lively prayer life is fundamental for anyone who wants to learn and defend the Catholic faith. A good place to start with prayer is attending Sunday Mass and spending time with Jesus in Adoration. If you can make daily Mass, that will benefit you even more.

Second, we must come to have a good understanding of what the Catholic Church teaches on the fundamental articles of faith. Although the Catholic faith is vast and contains a wealth of knowledge, starting with the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, amplified with strong works of biblical and theological learning is fundamental. You can read and learn on your own, but many people find it overwhelming to pick up the Bible or the Catechism. I have heard it here at the parish many times.

Do We Offer Apologetics Classes?

In a recent Flocknote survey that I sent out, I received numerous requests to offer “apologetics classes.” Although I understand what people are asking, the simple response to the question above is, “We already do!” Through the Porta Fidei Adult Faith Formation Program, we have already provided Bible studies such as Genesis to Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew, Book of Revelation; the Catholicism Series, sessions on the Mass and the Eucharist, Consecration to Jesus through Mary, Prayer, and many others.

Third, we must realize what apologetics is and isn’t. Apologetics is simply, as I stated above, the ability to defend one’s faith, but more than that, apologetics should remove false notions of Catholicism. We should be able to explain to people, through reason, what Catholicism is, and what it is not. Many people have been given a false perception of the Church through no fault of their own.

Apologetics seeks to bring people to Jesus Christ through conversion. It is not about bringing someone to Christ by force. Apologetics is not about winning or trying to recruit people to the faith. People must be open to hearing the truth of Jesus Christ and His Catholic Church in order for conversion to take place, and the Holy Spirit will take care of that.

Lastly, Apologetics is not just answering questions or giving quick answers to questions asked by our friends and coworkers. Many people I encounter just want some rote answer to a question (although memorization does have its place too). However, that often does nothing but give a cold response when so much more could be achieved. Our sessions will help you understand Catholicism as a whole, not just give you answers to questions your neighbor might ask you.

Giving a quick answer is not what St. Peter meant in his letter. St. Peter, along with Jesus, wants us to be well-trained Christians with minds and hearts formed in love, humility, and generosity. Scott Hahn says in the aforementioned book,

“We’re not looking for the quick comeback…we’re looking for answers that will satisfy – first ourselves and then others. Apologetics is a theological art that must rest on a firm foundation of theological science. If our defense does not flow from deep preparation, deep Christian formation, it will be unconvincing at best, but merely offensive at worst.”  

Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens by Raphael, 1515.

 To defend our faith is about engaging the culture in which we live, actually that’s the mission of the Catholic Church – to engage the culture, to be counter-cultural, and to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Each person we encounter in our daily lives is different. We must learn to develop relationships with each of them. One of the best sort of apologetic “arguments” is giving your personal testimony to those who question our beliefs. Cardinal Avery Dulles once said,

“The apologetics of personal testimony is particularly suited to the genius of Catholicism. In the act of the Catholic faith, reliance on testimony goes out indivisibly to Christ and to the Church through which he continues his mission in the world. Such testimony invites us not only to individual conversion but to communion with the whole body of believers.”

 Suggestions for Further Reading

Below are five books that I suggest for further reading. It’s my hope that if you have not attended one of our Porta Fidei Adult Faith Formation sessions in the past, that you will seek out what we will offer in the months and years ahead, in order that you will have the proper formation, and as St. Peter states, “Always be prepared to make a defense.”

  1. Reasons to Believe – How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith, Scott Hahn.
  2. Theology for Beginners and Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed.
  3. Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating
  4. The Fundamentals of the Faith, Peter Kreeft
  5. Handbooks of Christian Apologetics, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Jr.

Sources:

“”Be A Catholic Apologist – Without Apology”. Ignatius Insight, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

Hahn, Scott. Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith. New York: Doubleday, 2007. Print.

“Starting Out as an Apologist.” Catholic Answers, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

5 Books Every Catholic Student in College Needs on Their Bookshelf

As students enter their freshman year or return to their respective universities, I think there are 5 books that every Catholic student in college needs on their bookshelf. You might be asking yourself, are there really only 5 books, Tom? With all the great books in the world, you’re only picking five of them? For this post, let’s say that these are the first five books a Catholic student in college should own.

These books can help a student when they face persecution from non-Catholics on what Catholics believe. As I told my high school students at Savio two years ago, once you make the Sign of the Cross in the university dining hall or food court, someone is going to ask you – why did you do that and what does it mean? Trust me, this will happen before you know it!

Defending the Catholic faith is called Apologetics. It’s not about apologizing for being Catholic, although some may want that from you. The word apologetics comes from the Greek term, apologia, which means to defend. Mary, a former student of mine from the Savio Class of 2012 and now in her second year of college explains what she encountered during her first year of university life,

“It was usually always to other Christians, not atheists or people of other religions. I was in a Christian sorority and the non-denominational, Baptist, or Protestant girls just couldn’t wrap their minds around the Catholic faith and my beliefs…The Christians girls I knew so desperately wanted me to be “saved” and asked me if I would ever be baptized if I felt that was what God was calling me to do. I had to explain I had already been baptized and “saved”… One belief the girls never understood was my devotion to Mary. They kept on saying, “Jesus is enough, we don’t need Mary…those were the most frustrating conversations, when I had to tell people over and over again.”

5 Books Every Catholic Student Needs

With that being said, let’s now turn to the 5 books every Catholic student in college should have on their bookshelf  –

1. The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. Most non-Catholics believe that Catholics don’t read the Holy Bible. It is a terrible assumption and one that needs to be corrected immediately. The Catholic Church compiled the books of the Bible in the 4th century. It’s because of the Church that we have the Canon. As Catholics, we have 73 books in the Bible. We did not add books to the Bible; the Protestant Reformers subtracted them. The Sacred Scriptures (along with Sacred Tradition) are held in high-esteem for Catholics. Throughout Holy Mass/Divine Liturgy, there are hundreds of Scripture passages. Read the Bible, know the Bible, and live the Bible…always through the eyes of the Catholic Church.

2. The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is one of the greatest works of Catholic theology in recent memory. It is divided into four parts: The Profession of Faith, The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, Life in Christ, and Christian Prayer. The CCC is the tool for the New Evangelization! Developed by Blessed John Paul II and a Commission of Cardinals and Bishops in 1986, it was promulgated on October 11, 1992. The CCC is the menu guide to the Catholic faith. Every Catholic should own a copy and read it!

3. Butler’s Lives of the Saints/Introduction to Mary. Although these are essentially two books, I am counting them as one at this time since Mary and the Saints are so closely united. First, during their own life times, the Saints read the Lives of the Saints for the same reason we need to read them. They found their lives to be important as well as examples of how to live a holy life while on this earth. The Saints are our brothers and sisters in Christ who are now in the presence of God eternally.

Second, the book, Introduction to Mary, is a fantastic read. One of the major arguments that most non-Catholics can’t understand is the Catholic Church’s love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Chapter 10 will help you immensely! As you read from Mary’s testimony above, she encountered this argument the most out of everything. It was written to be a high school textbook, so it’s relatively easy to comprehend.

4. Praying in the Presence of Our Lord. Most of the books I have presented so far will provide valuable information, however this book, written by one of today’s living saints, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., will give you words and encouragement to make the time to attend Eucharistic Adoration at your local Newman Center/Catholic Center. It’s small enough to fit into your back pocket or a small purse. Fr. Groeschel gives you great prayers for Eucharistic Adoration as well as some writings from the saints on the Holy Eucharist. Prayer is our conversation with God – you must talk to him everyday!

5. Man’s Search For Meaning. The only book in the list that is not specifically Catholic. Written by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning is a life-changing book. It will help you grow as a human being and to always remember there is hope even in the most desperate of situations. You can’t read this book soon enough! Reading this during the your college years will assist as you leave college and enter the working world.

As college students, I would encourage you to get involved in the Newman Center/Catholic Center at your university. It will help you to grow in your faith.  It should also provide the avenue to establish good, healthy, and holy friendships for your college years. See the website, the Newman Connection for a list of centers at universities in the country.

Please feel free to suggest other books as well in the ComBox.

This blog post is dedicated to the St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School Classes of 2012, 2013, and 2014. I always enjoyed teaching “y’all.” Your faith life and understanding of Church teaching always gave me great hope.