‘The day I felt as if God was smiling down on me’
Original article took from The Catholic Herald.
On Palm Sunday, just 11 days after the election of Pope Francis, and in the Year of Faith, I was baptised, confirmed and received into the Church in St Mary’s Cathedral, Rangoon, Burma, by Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of Rangoon. Lord Alton of Liverpool was my sponsor.
I was surrounded by a wonderful gathering of friends. They included Burmese Buddhists (at least one of whom was a former political prisoner), a Muslim, two Baptists from the Karen and Chin ethnic people, two western lapsed Catholics and several foreign agnostics or atheists. They entered into the celebration with a generosity of spirit that was heart-warming. As the waters of baptism poured over my head, the cathedral bells rang out thunderously, with a beautiful message of peace and hope. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of joy and, like many converts, a feeling of homecoming.
Why was I received into the Church in Burma? My conscious journey towards Rome began with a conversation with Archbishop Bo one evening about two years ago. I had been deeply impressed by his remarkable courage, which he combines with wisdom, humour and grace in a humble and understated way. He is not a rabble rouser, he hasn’t taken to the streets, but he has always spoken out against injustice, weaving clear messages about justice and freedom into his homilies. He balances his outspokenness with wisdom, navigating a course that has kept him out of trouble with the regime without giving in to the fear the regime creates.
At the time, it was risky for people to meet me in Burma. I had written a biography of the then dictator, Than Shwe, and had been an activist for human rights in Burma for more than a decade. I had written many human rights reports and newspaper articles, and given media interviews criticising the regime. I had accused the then junta of crimes against humanity, particularly against Burma’s ethnic minorities. One Protestant leader had declined to meet me, understandably afraid. Another told me when we did meet that I was “very dangerous”, although he said it approvingly, with a smile. “This regime is like a psychiatric patient, needing electric shock treatment. You give them electric shocks. Keep doing it,” he had said.
Archbishop Bo, on the other hand, was calmly relaxed about meeting me, invited me to dinner, and showed me around the cathedral. He seemed unafraid to be seen with me. Every time I travelled to Rangoon, he was keen to see me. His calm, quiet fearlessness prompted me to ask at one point in our conversation what a person would need to do if they wanted to become a Catholic. His reply was beautifully simple: “If a person finds they can accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, they are ready to become a Catholic.” Then he gently added: “If you ever find yourself in that position, I would receive you into the Church in Burma.”
That invitation had two effects. The first was that I thought: what a beautiful idea, and so symbolic, given my own years of commitment to Burma. But my second thought was that this was not, by itself, a good enough reason to become a Catholic. Joining the Church simply because I liked one particular archbishop and was committed to one particular country and its struggle for freedom didn’t seem theologically sound enough reasons. And so began my active journey, because I resolved that if I was to take his invitation seriously, I should investigate and explore and see where the journey led.
Over the next two years, and most intensely in the last year, I read everything I could get my hands on. Scott Hahn’s work was a key influence. So too were many of Benedict XVI’s books and encyclicals. I read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Malcolm Muggeridge’s books made a profound impact. I enjoyed G K Chesterton, Thomas Merton, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, John Henry Newman, Jean-Pierre de Caussade and George Weigel. Some of the writings of the Church Fathers stirred me. In addition to reading, I had several Catholic friends who walked with me along the journey, patiently answering questions and sharing experiences. I joined an RCIA course at my parish church, St Joseph’s, New Malden, and had regular one-to-one discussions with parish priest, Fr Peter Edwards, who helped to guide me.
In January, I made a five-day Ignatian retreat at Campion Hall, Oxford, guided by Fr Nicholas King. By this point I had already reached a decision to accept Archbishop Bo’s invitation, but it was during this retreat that I felt a complete peace about it. I had a profound spiritual experience. Indeed, it was more than just a spiritual “experience”; I can say that God spoke to me. Not with thunderbolts, but with plenty of small shooting stars. That is for another day, but it was instrumental in anchoring my decision.
I referred earlier to my “conscious journey” towards the Catholic Church. But I believe I have been moving in this direction for longer than the past two years. I became a Christian at university in 1994. I came to faith in Jesus Christ as a result of a week-long mission on campus led by the Methodist preacher Donald English. The mission, called “Making Sense”, was ecumenical, involving the Anglican and Catholic chaplaincies and the Christian Union, and it involved what I would call head and heart. Each lunchtime English engaged in debates with academics from different disciplines, on “Making Sense of Christianity and Science”, “Christianity and History” and “Christianity and Politics”. Each evening, there would be a more evangelistic event, with music, drama and testimonies, at which English would preach. At the end of the week, and following many conversations, I prayed the prayer of commitment and became a Christian.
For 19 years, I worshipped in Anglican churches. I was guided by the Anglican chaplain at my college, who is now the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth. I owe much to the Church of England, and particularly to its evangelical and charismatic wings. Yet over the years, I grew in respect and appreciation for the Catholic Church. Unlike some Protestants, I was never anti-Catholic. From the very beginning of my Christian journey, I have had an ecumenical outlook. Slowly and perhaps unconsciously, however, I was gravitating towards Catholicism. I was hungry for more liturgy, majesty, mystery and reverence.
To a very large extent I was influenced by Catholics with whom I have had the privilege of working. Soon after I became a Christian, I got involved in the work of a human rights organisation called Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). For several years I worked in East Timor, where I spent a lot of time alongside a remarkable nun, Sister Lourdes, and her Secular Institute of Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Her courage, faith and love are inspiring. She is the Mother Teresa of East Timor and was a profound influence on me.
So too was Fr Francisco Maria Fernandes, the first East Timorese to be expelled from the country when Indonesia invaded in 1975. He had lived in exile for 24 years and I got to know him in Macau. I stood beside him at East Timor’s independence ceremony in 2002. At midnight, as the national anthem was sung for the first time, the flag was raised and the world’s newest nation was born, I asked him if he ever believed he would live to see this day. He smiled and nodded.
“Yes, I did,” he said. “Throughout our struggle, people all around the world asked me: ‘Why do you carry on? You are fighting a losing battle. The world will never help you. Indonesia will never set you free. Why don’t you just give up?’ But we had one thing those people did not know about. We trusted God.”
Then, as the fireworks exploded in the night sky, he added: “This was a victory of faith.”
I had the privilege of working very closely with Shahbaz Bhatti, a devout Catholic who went on to become Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and was assassinated two years ago. At the time I worked with him, Shahbaz was a grassroots human rights activist and CSW’s principal partner in Pakistan. I travelled with him, and we shared significant experiences. He took me to meet a seven-year-old girl who had been raped by a Muslim man simply because she was a Christian. On one occasion together, we missed a bomb in Islamabad by just five minutes.
Shahbaz’s mentor and our other key partner in Pakistan, former ace fighter pilot Cecil Chaudhry, was another Catholic role model. Cecil died of cancer a year ago, but he was a man of incredible courage, integrity and wisdom. A highly decorated national war hero, he was denied promotion in the Pakistan air force by the then dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq because he was a Christian. In response, he resigned from the air force and became one of the most prominent campaigners for human rights, particularly religious freedom, in Pakistan.
Others have inspired me deeply as well, including people such as Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, whom I have had the privilege of meeting a few times.
My friend James Mawdsley, who was jailed in Burma for pro-democracy protests, gave me a Catechism. Lord Alton, with whom I have had the privilege of working closely for a decade, inspired me through his conviction, conscience and integrity in politics. I travelled with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox to North Korea in 2010, and it was in our hotel room in Pyongyang that we watched the documentary Nine Days that Changed the World, about John Paul II’s return to Poland after becoming pope. Of course, that story was another influence on my spiritual journey.
The most beautiful point about my story is that I have come to the Catholic Church with joy and by choice. I have not left the Church of England out of anger over the issues which are challenging it today. The tug towards Catholicism was a pull factor, rather than a push factor out of Anglicanism. Up until two years ago, I was happy where I was and had no intention of changing. But I could see the beauty and truth, the passion for justice and peace, the majesty, mystery and reverence, the apostolic tradition, and I wanted to be part of it.
I hesitate to use the word “conversion” because I see it more as a continuation of the Christian journey I had already begun almost two decades ago. That journey has taken me to many parts of the world and now taken me into a new and deeper chapter of my spiritual life. I don’t discard all that has gone before, but instead am grateful for what my spiritual journey so far has given me. I left my former communion with an enthusiastic and loving blessing from my pastor. I have received nothing but encouragement from my Christian friends from all traditions, and I embrace the Church with excitement at what lies ahead.
As I was received on Palm Sunday, I was smiling. I sensed that Shahbaz Bhatti, Cecil Chaudhry, Fr Fernandes and other Catholics who have influenced me and are no longer with us were smiling. And I had a feeling God was smiling too.