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In 1972, I took part in a Christian panel addressing senior students at a government high school in rural Australia. Afterward, a student approached me to discuss our Catholic claims. He was an unbeliever who was also seeking answers from a small Protestant group. I lost out when I explained that the Catholic Church did not teach that he would go to hell if he refused to become a Catholic. His Protestant sect was quite clear that damnation would follow if they were rejected.

During my recent troubles with the law, this ex-student wrote to console me. He also thanked me for having respected his autonomy. I neither reject nor regret the advice I gave him in 1972. But I do regret that I didn’t convey a greater urgency about the importance of his search and decision.

This student was unusual in thinking of becoming a Catholic, as most traffic has been in the ­opposite ­direction. Since the Second Vatican Council, every Western society has seen an exodus of Church members and diminished practice. The ­Catholic communities in Belgium and Holland, for instance, have ­almost disappeared.

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