John Martignoni has a lot to talk about.

A husband and father of four, he is at the forefront of the apologetics movement.

Martignoni’s apostolate, the Bible Christian Society, was the result of popular demand, after he insisted that a Protestant radio station give him air time to refute its anti-Catholic programming.

Martignoni hosts a regular radio show on EWTN’s radio network, and last year he gave away more than 50,000 apologetics CDs and tapes. Martignoni’s return to the faith, however, came after a young adult life of hedonism that he’d like others to avoid. He spoke with Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen.

Tell me about your life growing up.

I was born and raised Catholic, but I never really learned my faith as a child. I was confirmed at age 10, in 1968, and religious education at the time was starting to reflect all the stuff that happened after Vatican II. After fourth grade, I really don’t remember anyone trying to teach me the Ten Commandments, the sacraments or any of the stuff that’s normal fare today for a Catholic apologist to delve into. So I grew up knowing little about the faith, and I didn’t care about it. But my father always said, “If you’re going to live in this house, you’re going to attend Mass on Sunday.” So I did what a lot of kids did. I just went along and waded through it.

So what happened when you left home?

I went off to college, to the University of Alabama, in 1976. I stepped right onto campus and right out of the Church. It was very typical of what happens to young adults when they go off to college. I was basically out of the Church for the next 13 years.

And you say this is typical?

I’ve heard that story over and over again. Catholics who leave home knowing little about their faith — not knowing why we do what we do — tend to fall away from the faith the moment someone isn’t ordering them to Mass.

Why is that?

It’s just a problem of catechesis. If you don’t know what the faith is, what the Eucharist is and what the other sacraments are, and why they’re important, than there’s nothing to keep you there.

If you were going to church just because mom and dad said to, then the moment you’re out from under their roof, it’s the first thing you’re going to abandon. You know that Catholicism involves going to Mass and praying the Rosary, but you don’t know why.

The last 40 to 50 years have seen Catholic education — in Catholic schools and in CCD — drop the ball. Baptist kids in kindergarten and first grade are singing little songs that teach the books of the Bible. Catholics don’t do that, even in good Catholic schools. That wasn’t supposed to be the effect of Vatican II.

And that’s what you and other lay apologists are doing, correct?

Absolutely. I came back into the faith after going to graduate school to work on a Ph.D. in finance at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In that year, I ended up reading a lot of books on the faith, and with the knowledge I gained from books I came back into the faith in 1989 because I understood, for the first time, the “whys” of Catholicism.

Before that you had kind of a hedonistic, rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, as I understand.

Yes. When I graduated from the University of Alabama, I went to work for a defense contractor. I was a cost analyst for missile systems, including the Stinger and the Patriot missiles. I was single and making great money. I bought a Corvette and owned my own home. My weekends started on Wednesday night and went through Saturday night. I was dating women and partying constantly. I was a first-class heathen.

Do you ever miss the money, the wealth, the parties?

No, I don’t. Someone said to me once, “John, you’re lucky because you got to sow your wild oats.” I said, “You don’t know how lucky you are that you didn’t.” I have this constant struggle with memories form the past. All the things I did come back and try to tempt me. Those memories of impure actions are impure thoughts and I have to constantly keep my guard up to keep these thoughts and feelings and emotions from flooding my mind.

So you’re very lucky if you’ve never done these things. I was sinning like crazy, and it has consequences in my life today. You don’t want to “sow your wild oats” and you want to keep your children from doing so.

What brought you back into the Church?

While living this hedonistic lifestyle, I got a letter in the mail. It was a fund-raising letter from Covenant House. It told the stories of needy kids getting help through Covenant House. I had a lot of money, so I started sending money. And I started getting other fund-raising letters from other organizations dealing with the poor. So I started sending money to them. It was changing my outlook on material wealth.

Meanwhile, I’m driving this Corvette, getting 12 miles to the gallon and I’m always taking it in to have it tweaked for higher performance. It struck me: I don’t need this car when other people don’t have cars, housing, food and medical care. So I went and traded my Corvette for a Chevy Sprint, which was basically a lawnmower on four wheels. The lady doing paperwork said, “You’re trading a Corvette for a Sprint? We’ve never seen anyone do that before.” I didn’t realize this was a God thing yet.

On the surface, I had the ultimate American life, but on the inside was this deep, dark, empty place — a void inside of me. I would pray many nights during this time that God would take me as I slept. I didn’t want to wake up in the morning. I would say, “God, take my life.” Well, he did take my life. He took the life I was living, but he kept me breathing and walking on planet earth.

So when did you realize this all had something to do with God?

All of this led me to decide on a career change, and I wanted to teach college. So I went to the University of North Carolina as a teaching graduate student. They put me and some other graduate assistants in this huge dark room with desks and bookshelves. I picked out a desk that was backed up against a shelf with all these books.

I started going through the books. The desk blocked the bottom two shelves. I pushed the desk aside one day, and the shelves were just covered in dust as if they hadn’t been touched in years.

There was only one book along with the dust and it was The Normal Christian Life by a Chinese Methodist preacher named Watchman Nee. The whole book was 120 pages about the Letter of Paul to the Romans. I didn’t know books like that existed. That night, I went to the campus bookstore and wanted to know if there was anything else like it.

I went to the Christian section and found Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. I read it and was hooked. I got all of his books, and then started getting other apologetics books, such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas ó Kempis. That’s what led me back to the Church. I went to confession for the first time in some 15 years and poured out my heart and soul and 15 years of sins.

And where did your life go from there?

I started attending daily Mass. But I was still this kind of cafeteria Catholic. I saw no problem with contraception, for example, because I didn’t know why it didn’t fit with our faith. I didn’t know why women couldn’t be priests.

I was on fire, but I still didn’t know my faith very well. Still, I was reading all of this stuff, and everywhere I went, people would ask me questions about the Catholic faith and I would go find some book that would give me the answer. Finally, I went to a Catholic bookstore in Birmingham and asked if they had anything written that said why Catholics believe what they believe. I wanted something that answered every question.

The woman looked around a bit and then handed me a cassette tape. It was Scott Hahn’s conversion story. That was like throwing gasoline on smoldering embers.

Many non-Catholic Christians don’t believe the Catholic Church is necessary. They say all we need is a Bible and an acceptance of Jesus as lord and personal savior. What do you say to them?

One of three things must be true: Either Jesus founded more than one church, Jesus founded an invisible and abstract church in which everyone who accepts Jesus belongs to this church, or He founded one Church, which is 2,000 years old, which is visible, holds that doctrine matters, and has the direct authority of Jesus Christ himself.

I go through the Bible and Option 1 doesn’t fit, and the invisible church doesn’t make sense because it forces us to be comfortable with conflicting doctrines under one roof. That leaves us with the third option: Jesus founded one Church in which doctrine matters because truth matters.

Simply accepting Jesus into your heart and going here or there on Sunday doesn’t get you to the truth, because all of these other churches believe different things. God doesn’t tell us that we’re each infallible interpreters of his word. He tells us that the Church is the pillar and bulwark of truth.

Wayne Laugesen is based in

Boulder, Colorado.

Information

To obtain free tapes and CDs of Martignoni’s apologetics talks, visit http://www.BibleChristianSociety.com