“It troubles me that members of the Church cannot defend the faith without referring me to a priest,” wrote Cordi. “I love Catholicism,” she said in a comment on my last article, “and I wish I could convert, but there are some real hurdles to the doctrine that I can’t overcome.” She wasn’t happy with Catholics who couldn’t answer her questions and palmed her off on a priest.
Protestant and Catholic apologists jump on stories like this, for different reasons. They make the supposedly ignorant Catholic who says “Ask a priest” the villain. He’s not. He may be the hero.
Playing their part
Imagine you’re helping a friend move and he hands you the last thing he has from his beloved grandmother, something she loved that he remembers from his childhood visits to her home. It’s an extremely delicate vase, the kind of thing you can break by setting it down too hard, or by holding a handle without supporting the bottom. Your first and very sound instinct would be to hand it right back to him and tell that he needs to take care of it.
That’s the way many Catholics feel when a friend asks hard questions about the faith. They care about him and want him to enter the Church. They know, perhaps from experience, how fragile such souls are, how frightened they may be, how quick to find excuses to run back to safety. They know their friend may feel a fear or repulsion almost as strong as the attraction he feels.
These Catholics know they’re not naturally gifted at argument. They know they won’t remember the answers all the way through what could be an extended conversation. Perhaps they could have studied more, but even if they did, they’d still do it badly.
Their friend can run in one direction or the other, depending partly on what answers he gets. The Church scares him, and becoming a Catholic will mean a painful break with his past. Home is always safer. If he moves back home, he may never come close to the Church again.
These Catholics say “Ask a priest” the way you would say to your friend, “You better take the vase.” In this, they do what they ought to do.
The Church is a body. Some are brains, some hands, some hearts or lungs, some eyes or ears. No one expects the hand to see or the ear to grasp. These Catholics know themselves to be, say, a hand, and maybe an excellent hand, but not a brain. They wisely say to the brain, “Over to you.”
These supposedly ignorant Catholics do their job, and part of that job is knowing their limits. They help their friend by finding a good priest he can talk to.
A Catholic witness
One more thing should be said in their favor. There was usually something in these people that led their friends to ask them about the Church. Their friends saw in them a Catholicism they liked.
St. Peter says, “Give a reason for the hope that is in you.” The apologist assumes the Apostle means an argument. The reason can be an argument, but it can also be a story from their lives.
The reason for the hope that is in them might be their encounter with Our Lord in the Mass, or in adoration, or their experience of being cleansed of their sins in the confessional. It might be lighting a candle and saying at a prayer at a shrine on a weekday afternoon, or sitting quietly before the Sacrament, or the rosary, or their holy cards, or their Miraculous Medal. It could be almost anything.
What is more compelling: an argument for the authority of Tradition or papal infallibility, or whatever is the issue of the moment, or the testimony of someone who meets Jesus, and His Mother, and the saints? People who see a reality they like will wait for the explanations.
These Catholics don’t answer the questions their friend is asking. The priest can do that. But they may well be answering the real, the deeper, questions he’s asking. Does anything really matter? Where can God be found? Who can help me with my sins? Their stories may do more to bring that friend into Christ’s Church than any amount of apologetic expertise.