Benedict Rogers: in Asia, land of the mission, I became a Catholic
Yangon (AsiaNews) - AsiaNews presents the story of Benedict Rogers, a journalist and human rights activist born in London, team leader for the East Asia team of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), who recently became a Catholic after two years of preparation in the Catechumenate. The ceremony was held in Yangon, Myanmar, presided over by the local archbishop. Msgr. Charles Bo, in fact, played a key role in his decision to convert to Catholicism, matured over time after a long period of study and reflection. The ceremony was attended Catholics, Protestants, ethnic minorities, agnostics, atheists and Buddhists, confirming the strong link established with the people of Burma and the many others active in the nation. And as reflected by his story, the most obvious sign of the grace received was the "smiles" of friends, which prompts him to write "it seemed to me that even God was happily smiling."
Over the years of mission in the various countries of Asia, he has met with prominent personalities of the Catholic view, including Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Religious Minorities in Pakistan, murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in March 2011 for his firm opposition to the notorious blasphemy laws. The decision to convert to also came following meditation and study of various authors, including Von Balthasar, de Lubac and the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI, especially Caritas in Veritate. His story becomes concrete evidence of how a country still missionary territory, may instead become an opportunity to encounter Christ, to proclaim the Gospel, to a rediscover the Catholic faith that Europe and the West seem to have abandoned.
On Palm Sunday, just over ten days after the election of Pope Francis 1, I was received into the Catholic Church in a ceremony at St Mary's Cathedral, Rangoon, Burma, by the Archbishop of Rangoon Charles Bo, with British Parliamentarian Lord Alton as my sponsor. Friends who joined the celebration included Burmese Buddhists, Baptists from the Karen and Chin ethnic group, a couple of Western lapsed Catholics and several foreign friends who are non-religious, secular, agnostic or atheist. On every count this was a unique occasion.
So why did I become a Catholic, and why Rangoon? In 1994, I became a Christian, as a result of a one-week mission on my university campus led by Methodist preacher Donald English. For 19 years, I have worshipped in evangelical, charismatic Anglican churches. But I have always had a deep respect for the Catholic Church, and have been inspired by many Catholics with whom I have worked over the years.
I work for the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which specializes in religious freedom. I have worked on Burma for 15 years, travelling more than 40 times to the country and its borders, to visit dissidents, activists, refugees and internally displaced peoples and to document their stories. I have crossed the borders into the conflict zones many times, and I have been deported from the country twice. I have written three books about Burma, including a biography of the former dictator Than Shwe.
I have also worked on East Timor, Pakistan, China, Indonesia and North Korea, among other places. The suffering of the people and the courage of those who try to change the situation has been a constant source of inspiration. In Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, assassinated two years ago, was a good friend of mine. We travelled together several times, when he was a grassroots activist. We shared my experiences, including missing a bomb by five minutes, and meeting a seven year-old Christian girl who had been raped. Another friend in Pakistan was Shahbaz's mentor, Group Captain (Rtd) Cecil Chaudhry, a leading human rights campaigner. In East Timor, I worked with an amazing nun, Sister Lourdes, and her Secular Institute of Brothers and Sisters in Christ (ISMAIK), as well as with Father Fransisco Maria Fernandes, the first East Timorese to be exiled by Indonesia in 1975. In Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen's boldness impressed me. My friend James Mawdsley, who spent many months in a Burmese jail for pro-democracy protests and is now a seminarian, encouraged me along the way. And Lord Alton's integrity, courage, conviction and conscience inspires me in politics. I have had the privilege of working with Lord Alton for a decade, and travelled with him to Pyongyang in 2011.
Sub-consciously, therefore, I have long been drawn to the Catholic Church. But until two years ago, I had no intention of changing my affiliation. I was content to be an Anglican, benefiting from the best of all worlds - appreciating the good things of the evangelical and charismatic traditions, while respecting Catholicism. All that changed during a series of conversations with Archbishop Bo in Rangoon.
I first met Archbishop Bo five years ago. I was instantly impressed by his understated courage, his quiet determination to take a stand against injustice in Burma, his warmth, generosity of spirit, hospitality, humility and humour. He is not a rabble-rouser, he is not someone who would take to the streets, and he has wisely navigated his way to being a voice of conscience, without getting into trouble with the authorities. Read any of his homilies over the years and the message of justice and freedom is clear, without always being explicit. His combination of boldness and wisdom is impressive.
So two years ago, I asked Archbishop Bo what one would do if one wanted to become a Catholic. At the time it was a question arising more out of curiosity than intention, but his answer marked a turning point for me. He explained very simply and briefly: "If a person finds they can accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, then they are ready to become a Catholic". He added, with no pressure but with extraordinary graciousness: "If you ever find yourself in that position, I would receive you into the Church here in Burma".
That had two effects. First, I thought what a beautiful and symbolic idea, given my years of commitment to Burma. But second, I thought that is not a good enough reason to become a Catholic - just because I like one particular Archbishop and have a commitment to one particular country. And so, I thought, I should investigate and explore Catholicism more proactively, and find out whether it is for me.
Over the past year or so, I have read everything I could get my hands on. I have read many of Pope Benedict XVI's books and all his encyclicals, which I loved. I read several of Scott Hahn's books, which were immensely helpful in explaining some of the teachings of the Church which, as an evangelical Anglican, I had previously not been familiar with. I read George Weigel, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, John Henry Newman and GK Chesterton. I read Malcolm Muggeridge's Conversion and Something Beautiful for God. I read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. I read many of the Church Fathers and great Saints. I studied the life of John Paul II, through Witness to Hope and the documentary Nine Days That Changed the World. All of these books and writings drew me closer and closer to the Church. The tug that I had first felt several years ago grew stronger and stronger. The more I read and talked and prayed and thought, the more I was drawn to the Barque of Peter.
In addition to reading, I had several Catholic friends who helped me, by being willing to listen to my questions and offer some answers. My parish priest prepared me for my reception by meeting with me on a weekly basis for several months. I took part in an Evangelium (RCIA) course.
In January this year, I made a five-day personal Ignatian retreat at Campion Hall, Oxford, led by Fr Nicholas King. During that retreat, God spoke to me in some very beautiful, clear ways which helped to draw everything together and confirmed in my heart and mind that I was ready to take this decision. And so I moved forward on my journey, to a Rite of Election service in Southwark Cathedral, London, where my name was read out along with 450 other catechumens and candidates, at a service led by Archbishop Peter Smith. And then came Palm Sunday.
Like many converts, I have a feeling of coming home. As the cathedral bells rang out across Rangoon on Palm Sunday, I felt an extraordinary joy rising up within me. Here I was, in a country that is not my own but which I have come to love, in a Church which was not my own but is now my spiritual home. I was smiling. My friends were smiling. I had a sense that those who had inspired me along the way and are no longer with us, such as Shahbaz Bhatti and Cecil Chaudhry, were looking down and smiling. I had a sense that God was smiling too.