"From Burma to Rome" — Benedict Rogers tells his story through the lives of those who've inspired him
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Benedict Rogers remembers lying in bed listening to sporadic gunfire in the city of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, a war-torn Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. The city was bombed out, and the hotel he was staying in was more or less a shell. A University of London student at the time, it was his first trip to a war zone.
The experience led Rogers to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights and religious freedom organization, where he is now the East Asia team leader, specializing in Burma, Indonesia and North Korea, and overseeing work on China, Vietnam and Laos. (He has also worked on East Timor, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the past.)
While at university Rogers, now 41, also became a Christian. That decision would eventually find him — more than two decades later — standing in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Rangoon, Burma, on a hot and humid Palm Sunday evening in 2013, being baptized, confirmed, and received into the Catholic Church.
Rogers, who grew up in England and is currently based in London, has put his inspiring journey to paper in a new book called From Burma to Rome: A Journey Into the Catholic Church. He spoke to Zoe Romanowsky about his work as a human rights activist and what led him to write about his story of faith.
Burma plays a big part in your story, so first let me ask you: Is there a reason you call it “Burma” rather than “Myanmar?”
Yes, Burma’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her National League for Democracy, as well as many of the country’s ethnic nationalities, asked us to continue to use Burma because they argued that the regime, which changed the country’s name to Myanmar, was illegitimate, had no mandate to do so and was doing it to deflect attention from the appalling human rights situation. Now Burma has a democratically elected government led by the National League for Democracy, which has just taken office, so we will see what their position is regarding the country’s name now that they are in government.
You’ve worked in religious freedom and human rights issues for 22 years now. How did you get into this field?
Since I was very young I’ve had a deep interest in the wider world, international issues and humanitarian causes. But when I became a Christian at university in 1994, this interest took on a whole new dimension. I heard an amazing speaker, Baroness Caroline Cox (who is CSW’s patron), speak in my university chapel about religious freedom, and I had an overwhelming sense of God saying to me, “Don’t just sit there and listen; do something.” It was like being poked in the ribs with a sharp instrument. I had to respond.
That night I had a whole range of ideas for how to raise awareness on campus, so I wrote a letter to Baroness Cox, and she invited me to tea in the House of Lords to talk further, and that’s how it all began.
Were you raised in a particular faith? How would you describe your relationship with God prior to your interest in becoming Catholic?
I was not raised in a particular faith — my parents are wonderful people with very good values, but they are not practicing Christians or churchgoers. But I became a Christian at university and for 19 years I worshipped in what I would describe broadly as evangelical, sometimes charismatic Anglican churches. I had a deeply personal faith so I don’t see my becoming a Catholic as a “conversion,” but rather as an exciting new chapter in a journey of faith, which began in 1994.
When did the idea of becoming Catholic enter your mind for the first time?
Essentially, it was through a conversation in 2011 with my friend Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Burma’s first ever cardinal and archbishop of Rangoon. I was deeply inspired by his courage and humility, and one evening I asked him, “If someone who is already a Christian wanted to become specifically a Catholic, what would they need to do?”
I asked the question more out of curiosity — I didn’t intend to become a Catholic — and I expected his answer to contain a long procedure, but instead his answer was beautifully simple yet deeply profound: “When a person can accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, they are ready to become a Catholic,” he said. Then he added something I didn’t expect: “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 wonderful invitation, so symbolic given my long association with Burma. But I also thought: that’s not a good enough reason to become a Catholic — just because I like one particular archbishop and am committed to his country. I thought, if I want to give his invitation the respect and consideration it deserves — even if I end up not actually becoming a Catholic — I need to explore this more thoroughly.
So for two years I went on a journey of exploration, reading as widely as possible, talking to Catholic friends, asking lots of difficult questions, meeting regularly with my parish priest, going to Mass, attending an RCIA course known as “Evangelium” and praying. I read the entire Catechism from start to finish, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI, some of Pope St John Paul II’s and other previous popes, some of Pope Benedict XVI’s books, and the works of multiple other authors ranging from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Henri de Lubac, from Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day to George Weigel, Malcolm Muggeridge and Scott Hahn.
Cardinal Bo received you into the Church in Burma, and I was amazed to read about the people who came to support you that day — Buddhist activists, Muslims, Baptists from different Burmese ethnic groups, non-practicing Catholics, agnostic and non-religious friends from around the world. How did this diverse group react to your decision to enter the Church, and how has it been since?
I’ve been privileged to work with a wide range of people from different Christian traditions, different religions, and people of no religion, and some of them have become my friends. At the centre of the Catholic faith, as I see it, is a profound respect for human dignity, and if we take that seriously, then we respect freedom of conscience and can celebrate together. My friends in Burma who came to the Cathedral for the occasion were hugely supportive, very generous and I think perhaps curious and inspired.
When I think of how Blessed John Henry Newman lost almost all his friends when he became a Catholic, and even his own sister didn’t speak to him again until he was on his death bed, I feel very fortunate — all of my friends have been hugely encouraging and generous.
What has been the most challenging part of being Catholic so far?
Three practices or beliefs: the rosary, confession and the separation from my Christian friends from other traditions when it comes to the Eucharist.
The rosary is new for me, and while I deeply respect the beauty of this form of prayer, I struggle a bit with the mechanics of coordinating the meditation on the Gospel passages, the prayers and my fingers on the beads. I should persist because I’d like to be able to pray the rosary without worrying about coordinating heart, spirit, mind, mouth, and fingers — but it’s a challenge.
Regarding confession, I deeply appreciate this sacrament, and love the fact that it’s also known as the sacrament of reconciliation. I recognize how essential it is and I don’t have any difficulty at all knowing that I need to confess my sins. The difficulty comes with the slightly awkward, embarrassing experience of sitting in front of a priest and telling him the shameful things one has thought, said or done. But as one priest told me, it’s a bit like going to the dentist — no one looks forward to it, but once we’ve done it we feel so much better, and we know that even if it’s painful it is absolutely necessary. Initially, my first few experiences of confession were more awkward because it was new to me, but now I really value it deeply.
Third, is the separation when it comes to the Eucharist. I’ve had Christian friends of other traditions come to Mass with me and I’ve had the painful responsibility to remind them in advance that they are welcome to come but cannot receive Holy Communion. Similarly, in my work I speak a lot in Anglican and other Protestant churches, or I visit other churches with friends, and I always feel sad that I’m unable to receive Holy Communion alongside them. I understand why, but I hope and pray that Christians from different traditions will one day be reunited in the one true Church.
You never planned to write a book about becoming Catholic, so how did it happen?
The evening I was received into the Church in Burma, Cardinal Bo said to me over dinner afterward that he thought I should write a book about it. Then, independently, Lord David Alton, my sponsor, said the same. Initially, I was resistant to the idea — I didn’t want to write about myself — but back in Britain I met with my parish priest and told him about the suggestion, and to my surprise he said he had the same idea. Then two other Catholic friends also said the same. So I thought okay, I have an archbishop (he wasn’t yet Cardinal at the time), a member of the House of Lords, my parish priest, and two other friends whose judgment I respect; I should at least think and pray about this seriously. George Weigel encouraged me too and suggested the title.
I spent a few months praying about it and preparing a concept note, and then I was introduced to my publishers, Gracewing, and they accepted the idea and gave me a contract to do it.
Your book is unusual in that you tell your story through the stories of the people who influenced your decision to become Catholic. Why was this important to you?
Once I was persuaded to write it, I felt the best way to do it would be to tell the stories of the people I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with in places of conflict or persecution, people in politics and public life whom I’ve known, and writers, thinkers and theologians whom I might not know personally but whose writings have inspired me. I wanted to introduce these amazing people to a wider audience.
How has becoming a Catholic affected your work as a human rights advocate in changing any volatile parts of the world?
It has given me a much deeper theological and spiritual underpinnings for my advocacy. I’ve also come to really love the universality of the Church, the fact that wherever I am in the world — and I travel a lot — whenever I go to Mass I can follow it, even in another language, and I know that we’re praying the same liturgy and reading the same passages of Holy Scripture.
I also love the fact that it is universality and not uniformity, that there is space for cultural diversity. I’ve been to Mass in different parts of England, Burma, Indonesia, South Korea, Florida, California, Washington DC, Paris, Rome, Assisi, Venice, Positano, Stockholm, Geneva, Brussels, Dubrovnik and beyond, and it’s wonderful to see both the universality and the diversity.
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor for Aleteia.