By 1992 the Internet was beginning to be of importance to the School of Commerce of the University of Auckland. As Computer System Administrator for the School, I began to play with the Internet, find out what sorts of use we might make of it, investigate its potentialities. In process I discovered usenet, that service that involved newsgroups: Internet-wide bulletin boards. In newsgroups persons with common interests share information, sending ‘postings’ to the group and reading the responses of others in the group. A long series of postings by various people on a particular topic is called a ‘thread.’ I participated in newsgroups connected with my work. I also discovered newsgroups that existed for the purpose of discussing Christian topics.
In one of these newsgroups, a discussion – nearly a ‘flamefest’ (a discussion in which good manners have rather been laid aside) – was taking place concerning the doctrines of Catholicism. Rather silly things were being said on the anti-Catholic side, things which even I, ignorant as I was, knew were wrong, or exaggerations. I became involved and said that I was Reformed. Someone mentioned something about a “Reformed minister” who had become a Catholic. This was electrifying to me. I felt I had to know something about this. Who was this? The name “Scott Hahn” was mentioned. It meant nothing to me. Had he written any books? No, but he had made some tapes. Couldn’t afford them, but books that might be in the library I would like to read.
One kind person offered to lend me his tapes of this “Reformed minister turned Catholic” if I would return them. I said “thanks” and he posted his tapes. Still, I am a book man, and asked more about books. “Well,” someone said, “there’s always Newman’s Apologia. Have you read that?”
No, I hadn’t, but that, I knew, would be in the library. And reading Newman was respectable. He was part of Victorian England. I was a bit nervous about reading a Catholic author, but I had always intended to read something of Newman’s, after Schaeffer’s comments about him. I went to the library and took out the Apologia. In looking at the long introduction I realised that the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was an organic part of Newman’s own conversion, so I took it out, as well.
We always embellish the memories of past events with festoons of those glories which we now know to have been their consequences. Nevertheless, I know that when I finished reading the Apologia I was shaken – at least, I knew that things might never be the same for me. I knew that, whatever Schaeffer’s intention, my understanding of Newman’s conversion had been completely wrong. Newman had become a Catholic for the only possible reason: because he believed that he could not be saved otherwise. His conversion required nearly seven years.
Reading Newman was a turning point. A whole new world was visible to me. I knew for the first time, from traces of argument within the book, that the Catholic faith might be simply true, that the Catholic Church might be simply of God. I knew that, if it were so, I had no choice. I would have to convert. What it might cost me I did not know. I would at least be obliged to appear as a traitor before my Reformed pastor, elders, and friends. I might lose my wife and children. I felt I might lose my mind.
Nonetheless, there was now no option but to search out the truth, which, indeed, I feared I might never know. I read the Essay with its terrifying hammering epilogue: “Time is short, eternity is long.”
I listened to Scott Hahn’s tapes and heard his joy and his wife’s. If the Catholic faith were what they said – well, I cannot adequately express my feelings. I thought my heart would break out of my body for longing.
But if it were not – I was terrified that by my very seeking I had mortally offended God and that He would now hide the truth from me, as Our Lord said was done to those Pharisees who sought knowledge in self-righteousness. Oh, wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this maelstrom of thoughts?
I had listened to Scott’s tapes, and read Newman’s books, in secret. The tapes I had heard on earphones in my garage, quickly shutting off the tape and switching to the radio if I thought that anyone, particularly my wife, were approaching. I was as secretive as though I were reading pornography.
On the 22nd of September, 1993, my 51st birthday, I emailed one of the participants in one of these Christian newsgroups, a man named Mark Shea, who I thought was a Catholic. I told him, as I had told Candace nearly 24 years before, that I needed to hear more of this.