An Interview with Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas | March 31, 2005
Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas is a noted scholar, author, and apologist. He has written and edited many books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible, Understanding the Sacraments, The Catholic Encyclopedia (available on CD-ROM), and many others. He is the founder of the Priestly Society of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, the Newman House Press, and The Catholic Response. IgnatiusInsight.com recently spoke with Father Stravinskas about his work, The Catholic Response, and apologetics in general.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Many readers are familiar your name and work, but for those who aren't, will you tell them a bit about yourself, your education, and your path to the priesthood?
Reverend Peter Stravinskas: I am the only child of parents who did not practice the Faith yet insisted on sending their son to a Catholic school, which resulted in my receiving the gift of faith and my vocation from the Sisters and, even more remarkably, re-evangelizing my parents. My parents were always most supportive of my priestly vocation, which hit me on the very first day of kindergarten; they always believed that the most important thing they had done in life was to give their only son to the priesthood.
My entire education from kindergarten through doctoral studies was conducted in the bosom of the Church, reflective of the various moments of life in the Church. Thus, my grammar schooling was rock-solid; the secular elements of my secondary education [1964-1968] were superb, while the theological aspects mirrored the beginnings of confusion in the Church-at-large. I entered the seminary at Seton Hall University right out of high school, in fact, three weeks after Humanae Vitae. The priestly formation for my first three years [my undergraduate studies] was rather good, while the three years of theology were marked by nothing short of lunacy. I suppose the great miracle is that any of us stayed the course, given the upheaval.
At any rate, going on twenty-eight years in the priesthood, I feel compelled to say that I have no regrets about my vocational decision and, yes, in spite of all the problems, I would do it all over again.
IgnatiusInsight.com: When did you first become interested in apologetics? What sort of work have you done in apologetics?
Rev. Stravinskas: My father was a tremendous apologist. Although only possessing a high school diploma, he attended formal theology classes at St. Peters College in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was also an avid reader of thinkers like Newman, Chesterton and Belloc. Whenever a door-to-door preacher arrived at our house, my father would invite him in, listen to his spiel, and then work a deal: "Ill read your material this week if youll read mine. This time next week, lets get together and discuss what weve read." If the individual returned, my father would work with him for a few weeks and then introduce him to one of our parish priests.
We also had a phenomenal parish library which was open every weeknight and manned by the priest on duty that day (we had seven full-time priests, who were extraordinary men, by the way). The priests were there to answer any questions on the Faith and to direct people to authors and works that would enable them to learn how to feed themselves, theologically and spiritually.
Apologetics, then, was really a part of the air I breathed as a youngster. With the craziness we were fed in the seminary, it also became necessary to seek out sources for sound doctrine on our own to counteract the heterodoxy being served up to us. In fact, not a few of us seminarians found ourselves using apologetics against our seminary professors to defend the Catholic Faith!
I never did anything formal with apologetics, however, until the 1980's, when I served as the public relations officer for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. At that time, Jimmy Swaggart was holding forth quite forcefully in various media. When he penned his (in)famous "Letter to My Catholic Friends," Father Virgil Blum (the Leagues founder) suggested that I produce a rebuttal, which I did in collaboration with a young assistant of mine, William Sweeney (who had just graduated from LeMoyne College in Syracuse). The series ran in Our Sunday Visitor for sixteen weeks. It was so popular that it became a book, The Catholic Response.
That became the launching pad, and the rest is history.
IgnatiusInsight.com: When and why did you decide to create and publish The Catholic Response?
Rev. Stravinskas: There is a long pre-history to our current periodical, The Catholic Response. Around 1985, Bob Lockwood, the then-publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, was intrigued by my suggestion that a new springtime could be in the offing for the Church, comparable, I said, to the Oxford Movement. What, he asked, made the Oxford Movement take off and fly? Their tracts, I replied. I went on to say that if we wished to achieve similar results today, we needed a print vehicle to accomplish the task. In March of 1987, The Catholic Answer was born and for seventeen years, I served as its editor.
In the fall of 2003, Greg Erlandson, the current publisher of OSV, informed me that they were planning changes in their periodicals; one of the changes was that I would no longer be the editor of The Catholic Answer, with my tenure ending with the March/April 2004 issue. Many people encouraged me to strike out on my own and by July of that year, we had the first issue of the new magazine, The Catholic Response. The name, coincidentally, is what I wanted the original magazine to be called since I saw it as continuing the mission of the book of the same name.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the format and focus of The Catholic Response? What is unique about The Catholic Response compared to other Catholic apologetics magazines?
Rev. Stravinskas: The Catholic Response is published by the Priestly Society of John Henry Cardinal Newman, which I founded some years ago. The managing editor is Father Nicholas Gregoris, a member of our Society.
The format is much like my earlier endeavor. About a third of each issue is dedicated to responding to the questions of our readers, covering the full gamut of theology: Scripture, liturgy, morality, Church history, doctrine, pastoral problems, Catholic practices. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of inquiries deal with the Sacred Liturgy since it is such a "hot-button" item in the contemporary Church. We try to cover the same fields in our articles each time around. For this first year, Father Gregoris has been offering a series on the Faith of the Early Church who the Fathers of the Church were, what they taught, and what their relevance is today. That series would actually be quite worthwhile for use in a Catholic high school religion class or to provide some substance in an RCIA program.
The approach of TCR is somewhat different from other apologetics magazines currently on the market, in that the material is presented in a more catechetical manner, rather than in an explicitly apologetical fashion. In other words, in many ways we are providing the ground-floor data, which would equip a potential apologist with the basics; he can then take that information and mold it according to his needs.
We have also tried to incorporate at least one article by a bishop in each issue; the premier issue actually featured three! My reasoning is that the primary responsibility of a bishop is to teach; many of them are seeking to do so, but they need a forum, beyond their own diocesan papers. I am happy to provide one possible forum for them.
Speaking of our authors, we have assembled a rather interesting stable of contributors: lay men and women; Sisters; priests; a permanent deacon; a Protestant minister; a rabbi. What is so enjoyable about this gathering of minds is how people with such varied backgrounds and vocations come to the same conclusions. Naturally, that is precisely the way it should be since all truth is one. In other words, any honest seeker of the truth, although coming at the goal from a unique perspective, will arrive at the same spot.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some of the topics that The Catholic Response has recently addressed?
Rev. Stravinskas: Weve covered myriad topics: a Catholic take on fashion; religion and politics; Marian doctrine and devotion; the priesthood; the relationship between faith and culture; liturgical development. In upcoming issues, we have pieces ready on: biblical interpretation; virtue; prayer; church etiquette; Jewish-Catholic relations; ecumenism.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the current state of apologetics in the United States, especially compared to 30 or 40 years ago? What are some of the most pressing challenges faced by Catholic apologists today?
Rev. Stravinskas: Apologetics has undergone a sea-change in my own lifetime, starting with just who the apologists are today. This only hit me rather recently as I was being introduced at a conference; the host observed that I was one of only a handful of priests currently identified with the apostolate of apologetics. Forty years ago, aside from Frank Sheed, one would be hard-pressed to bring forth any apologists but priests. Im not sure if thats either good or bad, but it is surely a sociological fact of life. I must say that I find seminarians and young priests much more interested in apologetics than most of my generation were/are.
The key players in the field over the past decade have done a splendid job of entering the lists, doing so with intelligence, conviction and charity. I am thinking of people like Karl Keating, Rosalind Moss, Steve Ray, Marcus Grodi. Serious efforts in apologetics have been greatly assisted by the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Prior to its appearance, it was much easier to dismiss certain teachings as hold-overs from a by-gone era. From the Catechism, we not only know what is taught by the Church but we also gain some idea of angles to use to present the various doctrines. Another major asset without which I wonder how effective our outreach would be is the very existence of EWTN, as well as the emergence of other Catholic media outlets.
Classical apologetics, at least from an American point of view, consisted in responding to attacks on Catholic teaching by anti-Catholic Protestants. While that source has not dried up, it is by no means as threatening as it was. The new conversation is significantly more challenging because it involves an audience we have not been used to engaging atheists and secularists. Now, there is some precedent for this kind of work; St. Thomas Aquinas was pretty good at it, but it is, relatively speaking, terra incognita. In fact, in the seventies, Pope Paul VI asked the Jesuits to pick up this responsibility; I dont think much of a response has been forthcoming from that source.
Another novel aspect of apologetics today is that all too often effort must be directed toward those who are actually baptized Catholics, due to the poor quality of catechetics over a forty-year period. In other words, not infrequently we find even "practicing Catholics" who havent a clue about the basics of the Catholic Faith. This is a very hard nut to crack because so many of such folks think that they know and are thus less than apt students. Usually, they have been fed a diet of pap or "Catholicism Lite" and have mistaken that for the full-course meal. Some are genuinely dissatisfied with the poor substitute, while a majority of them (in my experience) are quite content and dont want to be upset with the full story.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What qualities must a good apologist possess? Who are some apologists from the past that deserve to be studied and read more? Why?
Rev. Stravinskas: A good apologist must be a model disciple. One cannot be a teacher without first having been a student. Such a person should be absolutely convinced of the truth claims of the New Testament and the Catholic Church, for being convincing requires being convinced. Knowledge is essential. It is sometimes forgotten that the act of faith is, primarily, an act of the intellect. It is not an accident that St. Paul encourages his readers to "put on the mind of Christ." Also necessary is the capacity to "sentire cum Ecclesia" (to think/feel with the Church). Personal agendas get in the way. While the energy and enthusiasm of converts/reverts can be captivating, humility is also needed. Cardinal Newman was fond of saying that he had entered the Church not to teach but to learn. It can be somewhat off-putting to be lectured by neophytes, especially when they may not yet have lined up all their own ducks properly.
An apologist should have a thorough grasp of the Catholic Faith. At times, I am distressed to hear would-be apologists expound on various aspects of Catholic doctrine and getting it wrong. This is a tremendous disservice and the stakes are high: Wrong information on the Faith has eternal consequences. Once again, humility comes into play; theres nothing wrong with saying, "I dont have the answer at my fingertips but will get back to you as soon as possible." An apologist must also be able to offer the testimony of his own life. In Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI noted that contemporary man is not too easily swayed by teachers and if he is at all, it is only because these teachers are also witnesses. One virtue that should be apparent throughout is that of joy. If we are to be evangelists, that means we are sharing "good news." Glum faces, sarcastic barbs and a "gotcha" attitude dont communicate Christian joy.
The first apologists who ought to be studied are the Fathers of the Church; these were masters of theological insight and presentation at one and the same time. They were and still are such effective communicators of Catholic truth that they have been responsible for bringing thousands upon thousands of people into the Catholic Church. Cardinal Newman referred to them as "the ladder" by which he made his move into Catholic communion. Of course, one ignores Newman himself only at great personal loss. I would obviously recommend the other apologists to whom I have alluded in the course of this interview as well.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is your response to those Catholics who criticize apologetics and say it is either divisive or is a "pre-Vatican II" practice?
Rev. Stravinskas: First of all, apologetics properly practiced is not a divisive activity; in fact, it is a unitive one, for it puts people into touch with truth, the Truth, Who is Jesus Christ. That said, there is a divisive element in the following of Jesus, and He did not shy away from saying that He came to bring division. Why? Because not everyone can accept the truth and such a one can even begin to feel threatened by it. So, at a rather fundamental level, the science of apologetics is no more and no less divisive than Christianity itself.
Secondly, how could explaining and defending the Catholic Faith be labeled "pre-conciliar"? One can make the very opposite case since Blessed John XXIII declared that his primary purpose in convoking the Second Vatican Council would be to present the ancient truths of the Catholic religion in a contemporary key. And isnt that the very heart of apologetics? Taking Catholic truth and making it comprehensible and palatable to ones contemporaries.
Thirdly, on numerous occasions Pope John Paul II has called for a revival of apologetics, most notably in his blueprint for evangelization found in Tertio Millennio Adveniente and Novo Millennio Ineunte.
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