A Backstage Look Back at the Catholic Answers Conference

For the first time, I got to attend the Catholic Answers National Conference. The theme of this year’s conference was: the reunion of all Christiansco, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

I’ve had a relationship with Catholic Answers over the past six years, but this was the first time I had ever met any of them in person! They invited me to give one of the main talks and also do various events.

Here’s an insider look at what I experienced.

Surprised by the H.M.S. Surprise

My editor Todd Aglialoro and I, in our long correspondence while editing The Protestant’s Dilemma and then Navigating the Tiber, came to realize we both loved the Aubrey/Maturin book series, written by English author Patrick O’Brian, and know most in the U.S. for the Russell Crowe movie Master & Commander.

Navigating the Tiber employs a nautical theme throughout with its analogy of helping your Protestant friends cross the Tiber river, and readers of the Aubrey/Maturin series will recognize several phrases from the series, including “run like smoke and oakum”.

Well, Todd had a surprise for me: the ship used in the filming of the movie, a replica of the H.M.S. Rose, is permanently docked in San Diego, where the conference was held! We got several pictures with it, a real treat.

Rubbing Elbows

The first evening of the conference they held a little meet and greet for the major donors of Catholic Answers with the speakers and staff.

I got to see Jimmy Akin and many other esteemed apologists, as well as have the honor of meeting an Arkansas man who told me that he was also one of the Proven Catholic apologists in my course. We spoke about his father, who is a Protestant pastor, and his own experiences growing up in the South in a small town where the Protestant and Catholic churches got along well together.

I also got to meet the president of Catholic Answers, Christopher Check. The neat thing is, I am friends with his brother here in Austin, and have also met their other brother, Fr. Paul Check who was the head of the Courage ministry for a long time. Quite a family!

Talks and CA Radio Live

The talks started on Thursday evening with Mark Brumley of Ignatius Press and also Karlo Broussard. Then the next day I went to one by Jimmy Akin. My buddy and fellow convert Doug Beaumont drove down from northern California and we spent the whole weekend together at the conference, a real treat.

Doug and I corresponded for years while he was a Protestant. We met in person only once at Waco for a Baylor-related event with mutual friends, and at that time he was still Protestant. Several years ago he became Catholic, wrote a conversion story book called Evangelical Exodus that chronicled the conversions of a dozen of so Protestant seminarians and graduates of a particular Protestant seminary, and so this was the first time he and I got to hang out together in person since those events.

I was slated to be on the stage with Mark Brumley for the first hour of Catholic Answers Live radio, so we did that and had lots of good questions from the audience.

Donors Dinner

That evening they had a special big donors dinner, and we got an inside update on how much Catholic Answers has grown in the past year in terms of reach, conversions, and output.

I got to sit at a table with several luminaries but also donors from Illinois who were great people. It was encouraging to see good things happening from the generosity of these donors.

How to Help Your Friends Across the Tiber

My talk was the following morning. As you may know, the driving factor that led to my conversion from atheism was a severe social anxiety disorder and while I’ve largely conquered it, I am still prone to anxieties that are beyond the norm.

So, for example, giving a talk in front of 700 people is something that raised all the anxiety flags in me. I had thought a lot about my talk, what I should include, how I should prepare, and come up with a 45 minute talk that focused on several conversions that I have been honored to witness in my own life and relationships.

I went to Confession and Mass before my talk, prayed the Rosary, and did my meditation. I was afraid I would get quite nervous just before going up on stage: heart pounding uncontrollably, voice quavering, etc.

Instead, by God’s grace, just before going up on stage while being introduced by Cy Kellett, I had no anxieties. Just calmness, and a desire to share these stories with my brothers and sisters in the Faith so that they could be encouraged and use the lessons in their own relationships.

One way to avoid anxiety before a public talk that I have learned is to practice my talk for weeks ahead of time. I did this, until I knew the talk by heart. Every time I practiced of course it would be a bit different, as I was not reading it from a script but just remembering the main points and then embellishing and elaborating as it comes to my mind. So for the talk itself I needed no notes or script and was able to just share the stories from my heart and practice.

Amazingly, I got great feedback from the talk, for which I was profoundly grateful to our Lord. One of the best ones was an attendee who came up to me at my book signing table after the talk, and he said, “You know, I didn’t expect much from you and your talk at all, but it was one of the best ones.” I’ll take that as a compliment!

After the talk, I signed books for people and got to meet so many readers. I had a minute or so with each person or couple and it was wonderful to hear their stories and friendships. One man told me that he gave my book to his Protestant friend and three days later his friend told him that he was converting to Catholicism!

Sitting beside me helping me with the book signing process was none other than Phil Lenahan, the Catholic equivalent to Dave Ramsey. I told Phil I had been reading his articles on prudent finance and budgeting since back in the print edition of the National Catholic Register 15 years ago.

At the table, I met another Proven Catholic apologist, a young lady getting her master’s degree from the Augustine Institute, and also a man who told me he’s been praying novenas with the Pray Catholic Novena app…how cool!

Surfing USA

I’ve dreamed of going surfing since I was a kid. Well, on Sunday I got to realize that dream. I set up a private lesson for my friend Doug and myself, and we went out to the beach, got some instruction, then went out into the waves.

First time I tried to catch a wave, I was able to stand up on the board and surf. Exhilarating! I got up about five times total before running out of gas. Turns out surfing is tiring.

My buddy Doug also got up and surfed several times, so it was a wonderful experience.

For lunch on one of the days, we also had an impromptu apologists’ get together, and I had the special privilege of being at the table with Matt Nelson of Reasonable Catholic, Trent Horn, Karlo Broussard, David Bates the Restless Pilgrim, and my buddy Doug.

We talked about lots of apologetics things but also gave wise advice to David Bates on various topics, heard about walking the Camino from him, learned about Canadian manners from Matt Nelson, and more.

I was on the elevator going up to my room in the hotel on one of the days, and a kindly lady said “you’ve lost weight!” I was a bit surprised at the greeting, but told her that yes I’d lost a few pounds, and she introduced herself and her friend, both attending the conference and growing in their faith. I got to talk with her a few times during the conference and she was a hoot!

I also got to meet the Salstroms for the first time, friends of mine over the years whose daughter and son I had become friends with at my parish long ago. They also just published a book on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The Navigating Course

On the following Monday after the conference, I recorded a day’s worth of videos for a new course on Navigating the Tiber. The course recording had several challenges due to unforeseen circumstances, but I was most impressed with how the Catholic Answers crew handled the difficult situation.

John Vercillo, the Video Director at Catholic Answers, my editor Todd, and two stalwart audio/video colleagues made it all work and helped me through when I thought I was going to keel over.

I’ll be giving more info on the course as it gets closer to completion.

Final Thoughts

What a great conference! I was encouraged by the people attending: each wanting to grow in their faith, to lead others into the Church, to spread the Gospel. By the end of the conference I could recognize most of the people and knew names for probably fifty of them.

As an introvert, it was fairly tiring for me, but I took some breaks up in my room when I needed to decompress. As you may know, my full-time job is as as software developer, so I don’t get to go to these kinds of conferences very often. I was honored that Catholic Answers brought me out and put their trust in me to give a talk.

Coming home, I am motivated on several projects to help people in their Catholic faith. Be looking out for news on those in the coming months.

Thank you also for your support! I always enjoy hearing from my readers so remember you can subscribe to my email list and get a free book written by Doug and I, get discounts to become a Proven Catholic apologist, get inside stories on how to dialogue with non-Catholic friends, and more.

The Crusades Controversy: Puting Old Myths to Rest

Feeling Cornered

Has anybody ever asked you about the Crusades and what you thought of them? Chances are, somebody has. I myself was confronted with this question some years ago and to be honest, I froze. I felt embarrassed since I had no idea what to say in response.

Certainly the topic of the Crusades is not something most ordinary people have  devoted much thought and study to. It’s not one of those events in history that lots of people are losing sleep over. And yet, some of us wish we’d been better equipped to answer questions about it!

30 Minutes Is All You Need

Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. He has written several scholarly works on the history of the Crusades and the impact they’ve had in our modern world.

Thomas Madden
Thomas Madden

His most recent work on the topic is a very short and accessible 50 page booklet called The Crusades Controversy.

In six short, but by no means simplistic, chapters, Madden has managed to provide us with enough information to clear away the most common misconceptions and distortions many people still hold about the Crusades.

Two portions of the booklet deserve lengthy quotations.

“the Crusades….were a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslim armies had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point Christianity as a faith and a culture either defended itself or was subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.”

“The eighteenth century saw the rise of the Enlightenment with its strict emphasis on rational thought, religious tolerance, and anticlericalism. In an intellectual atmosphere like that the medieval Crusades did not fare well…the Crusades were described as a bizarre manifestation of medieval barbarism in which thousands of the deceived and the foolish marched through rivers of blood in a pitiful attempt to save their souls. In his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), Edward Gibbon insisted that nothing good at all came out of the Crusades, except perhaps Europe’s exposure to more sophisticated Eastern cultures.”

These two quotes are among the many excellent take-away points of the booklet.

Now you can answer the questions!

I highly recommend Madden’s little booklet The Crusades Controversy. It’s a superb and easy to digest introduction to a topic around which there is much misinformation and even disinformation!.

At 50 pages, you can read it easily in one sitting. I can’t think of a better way to give yourself a sound basic knowledge on this intriguing topic. Enjoy your reading and help set the record straight!