Students in the apologetics class at St. Dominic High School get to take turns sitting in the “hot seat,” but they don’t seem to mind at all. After all, it’s a way for them to hone their skills when talking about their Catholic faith in the public square.
That “hot seat” — a black stool with hand-painted flames on the legs, made by several art students — has given students an outlet to safely talk about topics that Catholics often find themselves defending — anything from Scripture interpretations to why only men serve the priesthood, the Church’s relationship with the Blessed Mother and the clergy sexual abuse scandal. The elective course for juniors and seniors has been around for several years at the co-ed archdiocesan high school in O’Fallon.
Theology teacher Denise Bossert said she sees the class as a way to hit those topics that might not be addressed in other core theology courses. With an ever-increasing number of young people who are leaving the faith, the apologetics class may end up being a student’s “last stop” in addressing tough topics related to the Church, she said, and aids in helping students to make the faith their own.
“I want them to be confident in sharing the faith,” Bossert said, “and when they hit something they don’t know, to be comfortable enough to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but I know where I can find it.’”
Bossert discusses with students reasons why people reject the Church’s teachings. Arguments include disagreeing with the moral teachings of the Church (“That’s possibly the biggest reason for leaving,” she said.), boredom, a rejection of the complementarity of faith and science, and disagreeing with the Church’s doctrine.
“If they fully understood that the Eucharist is Jesus, who would walk away from that?” she said. “I don’t think those who are walking away for doctrinal reasons really understand them. This is an important point for you, because if you don’t understand something, it’s your chance to go deeper in your faith and find out why the Church teaches what she teaches.”
It’s knowledge they’ll carry with them beyond the classroom. A recent graduate, Kateri Koch, who is in New York studying to be a designer, has been using the lessons she’s learned from apologetics. “She told me she uses apologetics every day in New York as part of what she does,” Bossert said.
Junior Mary Ellen Raymo, who took the class last semester, said it’s definitely improved how she interacts with others when talking about the Church and its teachings. Raymo came back for a visit with second-semester students, where she took a turn sitting in the in the hot seat and confidently fielded questions from the class. She also took her turn peppering other students in the hot seat with her own practice questions.
“A lot of people I know struggle with the teachings on marriage and homosexuality, and this has given me a greater insight on how to better communicate with them and get the truth of the Church across without coming across as ‘homophobic,’” she said.
Nick Bone, a 2019 St. Dominic graduate, also stopped by the class during a visit on his college winter break. He jumped right into the hot seat, where a student asked him this question: “Why is cohabitation before marriage a sin?”
“I would say it’s putting yourself in the near occasion of sin,” responded Bone, who is studying at Benedictine College to become a theology teacher. “That leads us away from God. For a man and woman to live together before marriage, you’re putting yourself into a situation where sin (sexual intercourse before marriage) is a lot more likely to happen.”
Bossert interjected, telling the group that there’s an increased rate of infidelity as well as divorce among couples who live together before marriage. “You’re setting yourself up for some serious issues,” she told them.
The students lead the conversation, but Bossert admitted it’s hard to stay quiet at times, because the debates can become quite engaging. There are occasions when she will jump in and provide additional context to the discussion when needed, or to correct a student on Church teaching, for example.
Senior Hanna Vanourney said the class has been a great help to her in her role as a peer minister at school.”I’m a faith leader in this school, and I still don’t know all this stuff,” she said. “Getting into a debate with someone is kind of scary, especially when they’re attacking you on things you personally believe. But it’s been so cool to see how people come out of this class changed.”