When an archbishop, a member of the House of Lords, your parish priest and two friends whom you respect greatly all tell you, independently of each other, that you should write a book, you tend to feel an obligation at least to consider it. That was what happened to me, in the days and weeks after I was received into the Catholic Church in St Mary’s Cathedral, Rangoon, by the Archbishop of Rangoon, now Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, with Lord Alton of Liverpool as my sponsor.
And yet I was reluctant. I did not want to write my story, with too much emphasis on myself, and so I took some months to think and pray about whether to do it, and how. My book, From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church, is what emerged. The approach I took was to write a book with the emphasis not on my story, but on God and the people He used to inspire me along the way. The first two chapters and the final chapter and epilogue are the most personal parts of the book, but my hope is that even there the focus is more on God and how He guided me through two Ignatian retreats and the Catechism. But the real heart of the book is the three chapters in the middle.
There were three groups of people who inspired me, captured my imagination and led me to investigate and then accept the Catholic faith.
First, people in places of conflict and persecution, with whom I have had the privilege of working closely in the course of my work with the human rights charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide. They include Catholics in East Timor, Hong Kong, Pakistan and Burma.
Secondly, people in politics and public life, who live out their Catholic faith with such generosity, devotion, humility and courage – people such as Lord Alton and Ann Widdecombe in this country, Congressman Chris Smith in the US, Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and Colonel Chris Keeble, who commanded the Parachute Regiment in the Battle of Goose Green during the Falklands War, and had a spiritual experience in the heat of battle.
Thirdly, people whom I did not know in person, but came to know through their writings – the theologians, intellectuals and priests who provided the spiritual and intellectual resources to equip me on my journey. They range from Scott Hahn, whose own journey from Evangelicalism to Catholicism was one to which I could relate, to George Weigel; from Benedict XVI’s books and encyclicals to Malcolm Muggeridge; from GK Chesterton to Thomas Merton and Hans Urs von Balthasar and beyond.
My book tells the story, among others, of the remarkable Sister Lourdes in East Timor, who frequently put her life on the line to help the displaced and injured during that tiny half-island’s struggle for freedom. Her friend, American doctor Daniel Murphy, told me that when she approached militia roadblocks she would be met by angry thugs pointing their guns at her, but “within minutes, she would have them laughing with her, then crying with her, and then on their knees praying with her”.
Or Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, described by Pope Francis as “the one who fights with a sling”; a man who, despite being in his eighties, was at the forefront of Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement” last year. “It’s high time we really showed that we want to be free and not to be slaves,” he said.
Or my friend Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan, with whom I had the privilege of working and travelling over the course of five years. On one occasion we missed a bomb in Islamabad by five minutes; on another, he took me to meet a seven-year-old Christian girl who had been raped. When a Christian community was threatened with attack in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province, Shahbaz went to be with them. I phoned him one night, and he told me that the community had been praying. They felt alone and forgotten.
“The fact that you have telephoned means I can tell them that someone does know, does care, is praying for them and is speaking for them,” he said.
Shahbaz was assassinated in broad daylight on March 2, 2011. Not long before his murder, he said these words: “I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the cross and I am following the cross. I am ready to die for a cause. I am living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.” Those words encapsulate his essence, and should stand as his epitaph.
The most significant influence on me, however, was Burma’s first cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, who invited me into the Church. His courage, boldness, humour, hospitality and faith were what attracted me to explore the Catholic faith. “It is hard to know Cardinal Bo and not love him,” I explain in the book, “and indeed hard to love Cardinal Bo and not be attracted to the Church he serves.”
I have sought, in my book, to capture the reasons that led me to become a Catholic, through the stories of the people who guided me on the path. Many are modern-day saints, and in at least one case a martyr, whom I have the privilege of calling my friends.
A hymn sung at the Rite of Election service at Southwark Cathedral just a month before my reception into the Church in Rangoon explains why I wrote the book: “You are called to tell the story, passing words of life along, then to blend your voice with others, as you sing the sacred song. Christ be known in all our singing, filling all with songs of love.”
As the waters of baptism were poured over me by Cardinal Bo in the steamy tropical heat in Rangoon, the words of Muggeridge summed up my sentiments: “A sense of homecoming, of picking up the threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that had long been ringing, of taking a place at a table that had long been vacant.” From Burma to Rome is the story of a journey home.
From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church is published by Gracewing
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