St. Peter said that we should always be ready 'to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence' (1 Peter 3:15). It's important to know what the church teaches and why, so that we can explain it in class, in debates, and defend the Church’s position, even to our friends.
But is there ever a time when it's not a good idea to start launching into a defense of the faith?
I can think of two situations: when it's more important to listen to the other person than it is to prove we're right, and when the other person won't listen no matter what. To show you what I mean, here's a pair of stories from when I was in college.
When we need to listen
It was Spring Break and I was cold. That's what happens when you decide to spend the week in Montana on the Catholic Campus Ministry mission trip instead of going to Florida. I was rooming with a girl I didn't know really well. She didn't normally come to our meetings, but it was nice that she had decided to spend the week volunteering with us at the Native American reservation.
We were sitting in our room one night, me cross-legged on my bed, and she putting away some clothes when we got to talking about church. She told me she went to a Baptist church.
'That's good,' I said.
'But I used to be Catholic,' she added.
I sat up straighter. Everything I'd ever read about apologetics and answering peoples' complaints about the Church started running through my mind at full speed. I was like a lion ready to pounce on any reason she said, convince her she was wrong and corral her back to the Church.
But I didn't. Before the mission trip I had been on a retreat and we had learned that in order to really listen to people we need to empty ourselves like Jesus on the cross, to let go of our own ideas so we can pay attention to the other person. So I kept my mouth shut.
'I used to go church,' she continued, 'But it was like everybody was just going through the motions. No one was really involved. At my new church everybody is really excited to be there and praise Jesus.'
But just because the people aren't involved doesn't mean the Church's teachings aren't true! That doesn't mean you stop going; it's still Jesus! I shouted in my head. There was another voice though, that told me not to speak even if what I was thinking was true. If I did, she might believe that I didn't care about her feelings and what she thought.
'I can understand that,' I replied, 'I mean, if the people aren't acting like Church is important or meaningful, then it must be hard for you to feel like it is.'
'Exactly!' she shouted. 'That's exactly it!'
She had felt like I actually heard her and we had a deep moment of understanding between us, something that was more than two almost-strangers talking. Unfortunately, I never saw her after the mission trip, but I think that if we did talk she would have been more open to hearing what I had to say, after knowing she had been heard herself.
When the other person won't listen
It was a day in late August, and I was standing in front of the Catholic Ministry table at the college activity fair, hoping some freshman would come over and ask where the Church was. I was surprised when one of my coworkers from the summer walked over to me. We had never really spoken at all; what did he want to talk about now?
'So,' he began, 'are you going to help me find Jesus?'
What on earth did that mean? Was he being serious or just messing around? How was I supposed to answer?
I shrugged. 'If you want,' I said, a lot more nonchalantly than I felt. He sort of nodded and an awkward silence fell between us. I still didn't know why he had come over here at all.
'Those guys over there,' he said, gesturing to a group of young men about 10 feet from us, 'I think they're pretty hot, don't you?'
Then I understood. He was trying to pick a fight because he was gay and I was Catholic. I guess he had been expecting me to try to strap him in some sort of brainwashing machine the second I got a chance and convert him. So what could I do? Ignore him? Tell him to buzz off? Start crying because I hate this kind of confrontation?
The Holy Spirit must have been watching closely, because I realized I knew one of the guys he had pointed to, and I had an idea. 'I think they're on the rugby team,' I replied, 'so they probably work out a lot.'
He just nodded, then finally walked away and I breathed a sigh of relief. It wouldn't have mattered if I could speak with the tongues of angels (1 Corinthians 13:3); it was obvious that he wouldn't have listened to anything I said. I was just happy I'd managed to answer him without giving him any more reason to dislike Catholicism.
So when you go out into the world to defend the faith remember to recognize that it may not be the moment to do so, that you may need to simply listen, or not engage someone who isn't open-minded. Listen to the Holy Spirit, who helps us with the gifts of wisdom, understanding and guidance (CCC 1831).