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How a Human Rights Advocate Became a Catholic

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Zoe Romanowsky - published on 04/07/16

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.

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