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An Interview with Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas | March 31, 2005
Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas is a noted scholar, author, and apologist.
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
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
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
Rev. Stravinskas: There is a long pre-history to our current periodical,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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