Unhappy and full of self-pity though I was, I had now a deep sense of peace. I did not know what was to come, though I knew that there must be strife and difficulty. I thought that the sense of rest might last for a while, but was ready for the inevitable doubts that must come. They never did. They never have.
I had no doubts, but I had many fears. One concerned my marriage. Was it valid? I knew that if my marriage to Edna had been valid, then my marriage to Susan could not be. What would happen? Would I be required to leave my family in order to be received into the Church? I did not know.
I knew that now I must contact the elders of the Reformed Church to tell them what had happened. It was not a thing I wanted to do, for I knew the deep pain it would cause them.
I was resolved not to discuss this on the telephone, and so I made an appointment first to talk to Roel. He was entangled in a case of Reformed Church discipline throughout August, and when we made a date for September, he was ill. I went to Communion in August, and again in October, but this was beginning to weigh on me. I knew that I should not be doing this. I attended Session meetings as a deacon, and knew that I was living a lie, but felt that I must first talk to my elder.
At last, in December, with Communion Sunday approaching, I telephoned Roel again and told him that we must meet. When he asked why, I said that I had decided that I must join the Catholic Church. This time, there was no delay in arranging a meeting.
Johnny had made his own profession of faith in the Reformed Church not long before this time, so that I, Sue, and he were all three asked to come to the meeting. On an evening not long before Christmas the three of us arrived at Mike Flinn’s house. Mike was the pastor of the Reformed Church of Pukekohe. We, with him, his brother Richard, Roel, and two other dear friends of ours, Ross Jackson and Rob Darby, and our families, were the founders of the Reformed Church of Pukekohe. We had all worked toward the goal of establishing that congregation there since 1983, when we Jensens were still in Yap. We had given of our time, substance, prayer, and devotion to its creation and edification for ten years. Now I had to announce my intention to become a Roman Catholic. I felt like Judas.
The meeting was very difficult. I found myself praying the “Hail Mary” in my mind as a kind of background to the whole thing. Michael was distraught and angry. So was Roel. For how long had this been going on? For over a year. Why had no one been told? Roel had been told. He had, he said, never understood that my interest was more than intellectual curiosity, and an oecumenical desire to be able to consider Catholics as true Christians. What were Sue’s and Johnny’s views? They didn’t know, were still thinking and praying about the matter.
Michael asked about various Catholic beliefs, made various statements which, I thought, revealed, behind an extensive external knowledge of Catholicism, a fundamental failure to understand its heart and mind. He sounded to me much as a Muslim might sound who had read many anti-Christian Muslim writers, read a few Christian writers, and read a bit of the New Testament.
Michael asked how all of this had begun. I reminded him of an important series of meetings that he, his brother, and I had had in 1985. A number of issues had been raised then. Some had been settled for me in favour of Catholic practice (such as the essential character of the Lord’s Supper as a centre of each worship service – what I would now call the centrality of the Mass). One matter that was not cleared up was the question of the canon. We believed, we said, in the authority of the Scriptures for all matters of faith and practice. How did we decide which books were and which were not part of the Scripture? I did not know. Now I thought I did. But Michael and his brother Richard had at that time expressed the opinion that the canon must be “pre-supposed.” This is technical language from the great Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til, whose writings were key for us, and meant that one could discuss no topic without starting from the assumption that the (Protestant!) Bible was the Word of God. The questions why the Bible was the Word of God, which writings were included in it, how it was to be applied, could only be answered from the Bible itself and from an unquestioned faith that it was those things. I found this point of view profoundly unsatisfactory. When I raised the issue at our meeting in December, 1994, Michael impatiently brushed it aside.
Michael accused me of unfaithfulness to my vows as a member of the Church and as a deacon and church officer. I said that a fundamental reason why I had to become a Catholic was precisely in order to be faithful to my vows. I had been taught by them that I should “Obey them that have the rule over [me]…” Hebrews 13:17. Who, though, had the rule over me? There seemed only two possibilities. Many would say that it was those who taught the Scriptures in truth. But, then, who were they? This must ultimately lead me back to private interpretation, to deciding on the basis of my own judgement which men had the rule over me. This sort of ‘rule’ sounded very like autonomy to me.
The reality was, I thought, that these men were telling me to trust their interpretation of the Scriptures rather than my own because they had the rule over me. That ‘rule’ was prior to the Scriptures. It was, in fact, inherited from those who had ordained them. They, in turn, had been ordained by other men. What they were stating was in effect a doctrine of apostolic succession.
But the succession had broken at the Reformation. “Ah, but Luther didn’t leave the Catholic Church, he was excommunicated.” “Well, yes, of course, because he refused to submit to its rule.” Luther had broken three vows: as a Catholic, as a religious, and as a priest. This, too, Michael brushed aside and declined to discuss. I said that I believed that in order to obey my elders I must obey them that had the rule over them. And this must ultimately lead me back through the Catholic Church to St Peter and to Our Lord Himself – and so I must submit myself, to put it into very practical terms, to Dennis Brown, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Auckland.
Michael asked me to write an account of why I believed I must become a Catholic. I said that I would do so, but that it might take a long time as I was still organising my thoughts and was extremely busy, working, as I did and still do, two jobs. I asked him to read one or two books (I had in mind Alan Schreck’s “Catholic and Christian,” for instance). No, he said, he didn’t want to read any books. I think perhaps he was only interested in interacting with me, having already excluded the possibility of the truth of Catholicism.
Michael forbade us to attend Mass, or to proceed towards admission to the Catholic Church. This he said he must do, and I understood this very well and told him that I did. I, on the other hand, could not comply, as he must understand. I, at least, must begin attending Mass in our parish, and seek to be received into the Catholic Church. On the other hand, we would all continue to attend the Reformed Church as well, and officially there was no stricture yet on any of my family except me, since I was the only person who had said he was going to become a Catholic.
It broke my heart the next Sunday when Michael was obliged to announce to the congregation that one of his deacons, a founder of the congregation, had had to be placed under discipline because he wanted to become a Roman Catholic. Michael was near to tears, I and my family were, and not a few in the congregation wept openly.
We had all been to 8 AM Mass that morning, the first Sunday Mass in the parish we had attended (Sue and I had attended two Christmas Eve Vigil Masses and one Easter Vigil, and of course I had been at Mass weekly at the Newman Centre for the whole of 1994). This Sunday Mass had been for me an occasion of the deepest emotion. It was the first – not the last! – occasion when I was stricken with an almost uncontrollable and overwhelming upwelling of joy with tears at the unbelievable, inconceivable, concept that I was now a Catholic. The Church that I had read of in Sigrid Undset, experienced with my Catholic cousins as a child, known through Catholic teachers and priests who had befriended me, the Church of Ambrose and Augustine, of Bernard and Francis and Dominic and Thomas, the Church of Newman and of Mother Teresa was mine. I could not take it in and will never forget that Mass and the many Masses where the Lord has been pleased to let me glimpse the glory of the great Company on earth of pilgrims which He has let me join.
Jesus had given me at that Mass a little gift, a tiny sweetmeat, as it were, to His still-unhappy child somewhat given to self-pity. There was much simply in a human sense that I would miss from the Reformed Church. One was the Dutch people. The Reformed Churches in New Zealand originate from Dutch immigrants, who together form perhaps 10-15 per cent. of New Zealand’s population. In the Reformed Church I suppose 60% of the membership are Dutch or of recent Dutch descent, and an additional 20% Frisian. I had come to love these warm-hearted, hard-headed, religiously serious, practical people. I had taught myself to read their languages and read Dutch novels for pleasure. I would miss the Dutch.
But of course a large portion of the Dutch-speaking world (including Flemish) is Catholic. I had forgotten this, but God had not. As we left the 8AM Mass, to go to the 10:30 Reformed service, a great bear of a man came up to us to greet us as strangers to the congregation. His accents were like a “welcome” from God. It was as though God had said, “You want Dutch? I have Dutch in My Church. I have Dutch and Danish, Dakars and Dahomeys. I have French and Frisian, Filipinos and Faroese. Let every tribe and tongue and nation come and drink of the water of life. Welcome.”
Sue’s own crossing came very soon thereafter, and I did not know it until it was done. One warm summer evening a week or two after New Year’s 1995 I suggested that we go to Saturday evening vigil Mass at St Andrew’s church in Tuakau, that we had once visited during the day. She seemed somewhat distressed but I (insensitive male) ignored her and so we went. It was only a few days later that she told me that that evening she had decided to become a Catholic. The Sunday mornings we had gone to Mass had been somehow part of our Sunday morning routine, and so she had not, perhaps, thought so much about the significance of what we were doing. That Saturday evening she had recalled Michael’s injunction not to participate in Catholic worship. She had known then that she was deliberately deciding to disobey him in going to Mass with me. The question was, in what did obeying Jesus inhere? Was it in obeying Michael? Or was it in attending Mass. She decided for the latter.
The next eleven-plus months were a time of many changes. In February Susan’s family paid for her to travel to Seattle to visit her father, who was ill with cancer. Whilst there she spent quite a lot of time with Mark Shea and other Internet Catholics who had helped me to become a Catholic. She returned glowing with her joy in being a Catholic.
On Good Friday, 1995 we received a letter from the Reformed Church which said that if we did not respond to that letter, on Easter Sunday they would be obliged to announce to the Reformed Church that we had removed ourselves from membership. Technically this was not excommunication, since we were not attempting to remain members. In reality, of course, excommunication is what it was. The significance of the dates was not as strong for the Reformed, for whom the idea of a Church calendar has no importance, and Easter itself is like any other Sunday, though Resurrection sermons are common. For us it had already come to mean that we were being offered the opportunity of sharing in Our Lord’s Passion. We attended the Reformed Church that Sunday and there were many more tears. I myself was and am filled with a great love for those people who nurtured us in the faith, taught us the Scriptures, and loved us – and love us still. I pray for them daily that they may come to know the fullness of the Body of Christ. We continued to attend morning services for a few months, but our attendance became sporadic and has finally ceased almost altogether, though we occasionally drop in to an evening service.
St Patrick’s in Pukekohe began its RCIA classes at that time, unconventionally, in June, for reception at Advent. Johnny moved to Seattle where he lived for the next two and a half years, still undecided about the Catholic Church. His indecision did not long remain, and he was received into the Church at Easter Vigil, 1996. Our family attended RCIA classes during 1995. The process of dealing with my former marriage brought us some anxiety. I no longer had a current address for Edna, and as it turned out the Tribunal in San Francisco (where we had been married) were unable to contact her. Nevertheless, Advent began and no papers had arrived. Christmas Eve in 1995 happened to be a Sunday, and we were scheduled to be received at the Sunday morning Mass that day. On the Monday preceding the annulment papers were FAXed to us. As I had not been a baptised Christian when married, and had indeed had no conception of what Christian marriage meant, and as it was uncontested, I suppose the nullity of our marriage was obvious. The timing of the paperwork was somewhat unnerving.
I was deeply moved by our reception. We were confirmed, and finally received Our Lord in the Eucharist. I was satisfied at last. That Mass is not the one I best associate with finally entering the Church. It was Christmas Vigil that night, which was the first Mass I attended at which I was a Catholic at the beginning of the Mass.
Sue and I sang in the choir that night, and Adele and Helen played their trumpet and flute, respectively. Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is always wonderful, of course. I shall never forget this one. Christmas Eve is only a day or two past Midsummer’s Day in New Zealand, and the pale summer midnight sky speaks of Christmas morning Mass to me. We arrived at the Church all flustered and running around arranging things. One of the hymns we sang in Dutch and one in Maori and none very well. I was at home with the Family of God for the first time in my very sinful life. I could scarcely take it in.
As the consecration took place, as the Holy Thing was offered up to Heaven on my behalf, and the invisible fire came down to engulf It, I found myself filled with a kind of horror and revulsion: that this appalling condescension should lie at the heart of the world, on account of my sin, this seemed for a moment an intolerable obscenity. Yet something more unthinkable yet was that I should be too proud to receive Him, to come in humility and worship at the throne of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. As I shuffled forward to commune with Divinity, I knew that I also was privileged to be offered on that altar. At last.