We were living in Astoria, Oregon, at the time. Dad was stationed out there at the Coast Guard Air Station, and my sister and I were in the local public schools.
Now, Oregon is a funny place. People there tend to be absolutely liberal or absolutely conservative. It felt as though there really was no moderate middle, only the indifferent. The perfect illustration of this came in the run up to the Iraq war, when protesters took to the streets of Astoria every Friday at 5 p.m. Outside the courthouse, there were the people on the left, protesting against going to war, standing there with their flags and their tie dye and their signs that read "Honk if you support us."
Not four blocks away, on a concrete Island in the middle of the highway, there stood the pro-war protesters, in their plaid, with their flags and their signs that said, "Honk if you support us."
So every Friday at 5, downtown Astoria became bedlam, because everybody was honking and everybody was protesting and nobody was sure who was honking for what side.
This sort of polarization extended to religion, as well. You didn't really have mainline Christians. Everybody was either non-denominational evangelical, or Mormon, or Catholic, or secular liberal, or agnostic, or atheist, or indifferent, or Wiccan, or whatever else was starkly defined in floodlights with vivid colors.
Outstanding among the religious students was one in particular named Art.
He was Protestant, and proud of it; I think he carried his Bible everywhere, and was willing to pull it out at the drop of a hat. I think it was obvious to everyone that Art was going to become a minister someday. He was serious about his religion and serious about his evangelization. He started Bible studies and prayer groups, sang Christian songs at school assemblies with his sister and brought Jason Evert and his then-girlfriend Crystalina (now his wife) to speak at the school on chastity, abstinence, and the importance of waiting till marriage. (It wasn't till years later that I discovered that the Everts were Catholic, graduates from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and great proponents of St. John Paul II's theology of the body.)
Art may well have attracted some amount of ridicule for his witness--it's almost unavoidable these days--but he had one great defense against it all: He really did practice what he preached. I remember him being held in a fairly high regard by the school at large, simply because he was reliably kind, good-natured, hard working, and, while a passionate preacher, was also good to people.
Art played trombone in pep band; I played trumpet. I don't remember how the conversation started one morning in the bandroom before school, but Art and I got to talking about religion. He knew I was Catholic somehow--it was a small town, and people tended to know each other's business, but he may also have simply asked me. I don't remember. He started saying something about how unbiblical Catholic teaching and practices were; I retorted that they were plenty biblical, and that certainly there was Scripture to back them up.
He said, "Oh, really? Show me! Where's Confession in the Bible?"
Now, I had no idea at the time. I'd read children's Bibles growing up, and spent some time trying to plow straight through a King James Version given me by someone on my dad's side of the family for First Communion or something like that, but I'd never really gone in depth into the New Testament. I didn't know what I was talking about ... except that I knew that the Church had a greater legacy of saints and scholarship than most people knew, and I knew that if some of the common Protestant challenges were really as devastating as most Protestants seemed to think, there wouldn't be a Catholic Church left at all, anymore. Further, the Catholic Church I'd grown up in didn't match most people's mutterings and fears.
So I said, "I know it's in there! I don't know where, but let me look it up at home tonight and I'll show you tomorrow!"
Art agreed. So that night, I pulled out the teen study Bible that I'd been given at some point and started flipping around, hoping for something to make this easy, so that I would be right. Thankfully, they had an index. Thankfully, it made it easy.
The next day, I went to talk to Art at band. He saw me coming, pulled out his Bible, and looked at me expectantly. I paused. I'd forgotten quite which way around the citation was.
The first set of numbers led nowhere, some totally irrelevant Scripture. I said, "Try them the other way around!" And we found it:
[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23)
Art knelt staring at his Bible for a moment. A mutual friend who'd been standing by started saying, "Well, that doesn't prove anything! That doesn't demonstrate any support for Confession!" And Art looked up and said a little sharply, "No, it does. He's right--it's there." And then he looked at me and said, "You're the first Catholic I've met who's ever bothered to defend their faith to me."
And I was left reeling.
"Bothered"? I was the first Catholic who'd ever "bothered" to defend their faith to him?
I was proud, of course, but also a little stunned. Art had been out to make a convert out of me, and I was sure he'd set out to save many Catholic souls from the clutches of Rome before. And I was the first one to ever defend the faith to him? Ever?
That stuck with me. That led me to begin to read, to seek out answers to the questions that the culture and other Christians had for us. Art introduced me to C.S. Lewis' nonfiction writings, thus putting me even further into his debt. I discovered internet apologetics a little bit later and decided to put the faith to the test. What were the best objections people had, and what were the answers?
All of this has culminated, in a certain sense, with my first book, How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question, to be released by Marian Press on July 21, 2017. In a certain sense, I owe it all to Art. He set me on the path to find answers, and also inadvertently helped me discover that there are answers available to be found. The Catholic Church has immense resources of scholarship and sanctity, of historical truth and fantastic works of fiction, all in the service of Christ, all in some way inspired by the Spirit of Jesus. And much of what I've learned, I've aimed to share in this book.
So there it is: my origin story as a Catholic apologist. Time will tell if I'm any good at it. Heaven knows the faith is better than I am!