Personal history: My friendship with a Burmese priest and an unexpected religious journey

Benedict Rogers is an author and the East Asia Team Leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). The following is a condensed excerpt from his new book: From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church (Gracewing Publishing). It has been reprinted with permission.

Many people in different countries influenced me over the years preceding my decision to become Catholic, but it was Burma’s first Cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, who opened the door.

I became involved in the country in 1998, working with refugees on the Myanmar-Thailand border through Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). In 2007, CSW published a new report that I wrote, called Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restrictions, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma. A few months after the report was published, a Karen nun who lives in Britain called and said that the Archbishop of Rangoon was in London and he wished to meet me.

What struck me most immediately about Archbishop Bo – who was appointed Cardinal in February of 2015 – was his quiet, confident courage, combined with wisdom and grace. He told me that when my report was published, the authorities came to him and told him that the Catholic Bishops Conference in Burma had to issue a statement. The government presented him with the text. He responded that he would make a statement, but that he would draft it.

The statement that was released was striking in its brilliance. It contained three simple clauses. First, that as Christians, the Church follows the teachings of Jesus Christ. Second, whenever they have problems, they discuss them with the government. And third, the Catholic Church in Burma has no formal relationship with CSW. Who could possibly argue with such a statement? All three points are factual, all three points are good and all three points pose no threat or criticism to the government, but equally do not compromise on truth or undermine our advocacy.

In advocacy, accuracy and doing no harm are two of the most important principles, so I asked Cardinal Bo two vital questions. First, was my report accurate, and second, had it caused the Church more problems?

He told me my report was completely accurate, and that while in the short-term it might cause some small difficulties, the Church could handle them, and it was important for the world to know the truth. That was the beginning of our friendship. We met several times on my subsequent visits to Rangoon. And then one evening in March 2011, we had a conversation over dinner that changed my life.

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Something in my spirit stirred that night. I asked if I could attend Sunday Mass. His response was remarkable. He said of course, told me the times, and asked me which Mass I would come to. I suggested the 5pm Mass, at St Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Rangoon. He told me he would be celebrating Mass in another parish in the morning, and would not be celebrating at the Cathedral – but that if I was attending the 5pm, he would come too.

As we continued with dinner and conversation, a deeper, inner voice – not identifiable, not even clear, but audible – was prompting me. After dinner, as we had another drink, I simply asked him a question: more perhaps out of curiosity, at that stage, than intention. “If someone who is already a Christian wishes to become a Catholic, what would they need to do?” Bo replied with beautiful simplicity: “When a person can accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, he or she is ready to become a Catholic.”

But then he said something I most definitely had not anticipated, and it opened the doors to an incredible adventure. “If you ever find yourself in that position, I would receive you into the Church in Burma.”

St. Mary’s Cathedral during the author’s later Baptism in 2013. Photo: Jeanne Hallacy

His words had two effects. First, I thought what a simply beautiful idea, given my long association with and love for Burma: it would be so symbolic. But second, it isn’t by itself a good enough reason to become a Catholic – just because I like one particular Archbishop and am committed to a country and its peoples’ struggle, that isn’t enough. Therefore, I thought, if I want to take this invitation at all seriously, I need to investigate and explore this.

That Sunday, I came for the 5pm Mass. I sat about halfway up the aisle. I looked at the front. I assumed that, as Archbishop, he would be seated up at the front beside the altar even if he was not the celebrant. But he was not there and so, I thought, he had after all done the sensible thing and decided to have an evening off.

It was only when I started to walk down the aisle of the Cathedral at the end of Mass that I saw him. There he was, a few rows behind where I had been sitting, dressed in a simple white cassock, amongst the congregation. The Archbishop among the crowd, the Shepherd with his flock. Our eyes met, and he gave me a beaming smile. “Wait for me outside,” he said.

I did as instructed, and he came out a few minutes later, embracing the faithful who approached him. “Have you had a tour of the Cathedral?” he asked, as he hugged me. I don’t know if anyone from the government had been following me, but if there had been, they would have seen him greet me – yet he showed no fear whatsoever.

“Let me show you around,” he said.

He gave me a tour of the beautiful Cathedral, and then asked me if I’d come back to his residence for a drink. We continued our conversation about faith, and I embarked on a journey of discovery.

The making of a priest

Charles Maung Bo was born in Monhla village, near Shwebo in Sagaing Division, just beyond Mandalay, in 1948 to a deeply Catholic family with ten children. Monhla was one of nine settlements the Portuguese established precisely four hundred years ago, and it was a mixed Catholic and Buddhist village. His ancestors were among Burma’s first Catholics, converted by the Portuguese. Shwebo was the birthplace of U Aung Zeya, a Burmese king who united Burma in the eighteenth century.

Bo’s upbringing was, he recalls, “a Catholic environment.”

“There were no problems of materialism and secularism,” he told me. “It was so calm and there was a religious atmosphere. The whole village was very religious, with special love and respect for what was sacred and holy. There was a God-minded orientation.”

His father was a farmer, who died when Bo was just two. Five of his siblings also died while very young. “But my childhood memories are photographic,” he claims. “I can still see the scene of my father’s funeral. My mother was a tailor with a remarkable character, well-known in the village for her meekness. She never quarrelled with neighbours.”

He first felt called to the priesthood through his mother’s inspiration.

“She inspired me every night, when she told stories of saints and priests before going to bed. Another person who inspired me to the priesthood was my parish priest, Don Luwi. He loved my father and mother, and he loved me too. He taught me catechism when I was between five and seven years old. I wanted to be like him.”

At the age of eight, he was taken in by a Salesian-run boarding house in Mandalay. “We were a poor family, and my parish priest had a special sympathy for the family.” With the Salesians, Bo became inspired by their style and life and the example of Don Bosco, which he describes as “active, caring and out for the young and poor.” That lifestyle, he says, “influenced my bearing.” His faith was also inspired by other teachers and priests. “I wanted to be a missionary and a parish priest like them.”

Bo is unusual in the Christian population in Burma, in that he is from the majority Bamar or Burman population. The Burmans are predominantly Buddhist, and there is a sense of religious nationalism that for many concludes that to be Burman is to be Buddhist. In contrast, most Christians come from the other ethnic groups, particularly the Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni.

So he is a minority in every sense – a minority Burman among the Christian population dominated by other ethnic groups, and a minority Christian among his own Burman race. But throughout his life, from his schooling at the Lafon School to his time as a priest and then Bishop in Lashio, Pathein and other ethnic areas, he has displayed a deep connection with the ethnic nationalities. At the Lafon School, he recalls, the boys came from a variety of different ethnic groups. “I did not feel different from them.”

Bo was born in the very year that Burma became independent, and was 14 years old when General Ne Win seized power in a coup d’etat in 1962. For his entire adult life and his life as a priest, he has lived under military-dominated dictatorship.

“Soon after the coup I saw a photo of Ne Win in a newspaper. I didn’t know anything about him, but some of the boys I was with were praising him because he began to repair the roads,” he recalls. “But when he started nationalising the shops and banks, and arresting military officials and business people, and then especially when he nationalised the Church mission schools, a real aversion, even hatred, and fear grew in me towards him. Worse was when he expelled all the missionaries who had arrived after the Second World War. One man destroyed the nation with an iron first. A great nation became the poorest in the world. How could one man destroy a nation, one maniac do such harm?” Ne Win, he added, is “on the same level as Hitler and Pol Pot.”

In 1976 Charles Bo was ordained a Salesian priest and until his appointment as Archbishop of Rangoon in 2003, he spent most of his years as a priest in the ethnic areas, which gave him a direct knowledge of the consequences of ethnic conflict.

As parish priest in Loihkam, near Lashio, an area which was a base for the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), he won the people’s hearts by learning the local language, Maru, a Kachin dialect. “Most of the five years I spent in Loihkam I was living among the KIA. Once or twice a year, the Burma Army soldiers would come, and there would be shooting. Politically I could do little as an individual, but I was able to negotiate with both the KIA and the Burma Army to persuade them not to engage in shooting and confrontation, but to try to avoid each other,” he recalls. “To be the parish priest in Loihkam with all the insurgent groups – the KIA, Wa, Kukant, Shan, Palaung, Loimaw and Communists – wasn’t so comfortable. But we went from day to day and adjusted to the situation from moment to moment.”

In 1990, he became Bishop of Lashio, and in the same year he founded a new religious order, the Congregation of St Paul’s Brothers and Sisters. After six years in Lashio, Bishop Bo as he was then known was translated to Pathein. There he encountered the Karen people and their sentiment after decades of war.

“When I arrived in Pathein, and even before that, I was hearing of the real hatred that Karens felt for the Burmans. This was very evident,” he notes. “The Karens could not forget and forgive the Burmans. The decades of war and massacres and oppression meant, sadly, that the Karens would foster hatred against the Burmans. For the seven years I spent in Pathein, I was insistent in preaching homilies on reconciliation, forgiveness and unity among the different ethnic groups. Jubilee, I said, means to forgive one’s enemy.”

Taking a stand

Central to Bo’s leadership of the Rangoon Archdiocese has been his personal commitment to social justice. “Our vision and mission,” he says, ‘is to reach out to the poor: the lost, the last and the least. ‘Go to the sheep and return with the smell of the sheep,’ says Pope Francis.”

In the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, Bo was Bishop of Lashio in northern Shan State. “My stance was clear. I guided the people to choose freedom, rights and justice, without myself going onto the streets,” he explains. “So again in 2007 during the Saffron Revolution, I followed the same principle.”

Cardinal Bo describes the referendum on the 2008 Constitution, and the elections in 2010, as “a sham.”

Speaking before the 2015 elections, he called for genuine change. “The time has come for all the old generals to get off the scene. No more U Thein Sein, no more Thura Shwe Mann. Let us give the chance to Aung San Suu Kyi and others.” He draws a parallel with the Israelites in the Old Testament. “We have had military regimes for [over fifty] years. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for only forty years. We are going beyond that.”

The author holds a candle during his 2013 Baptism at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Jeanna Hallacy

Cardinal Bo is a close friend of Aung San Suu Kyi, and has made no secret of his respect for her. When he visited the United Kingdom for the first time in October 1993, as Bishop of Lashio, he met Aung San Suu Kyi’s late British husband, Michael Aris.

Two sisters from the Congregation of St Paul’s Brothers and Sisters were living in a religious house in Oxford, to study English. “Michael found out that they had some difficulties to continue staying there in that community, and he asked me whether I could allow them to stay at his house, take care of the house, and at the same time look after his son Kim. He would take care of all their expenses and arrange for their studies,” recalls Cardinal Bo. “It was a big risk, I knew, to stay in the family home of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet despite knowing the risks, I gave Michael Aris the green light. I just wanted to assist those in need.”

Ever since 1988, Cardinal Bo has been one of the few Christian leaders in Burma to speak out courageously about human rights and democracy. Until Burma began to open up in 2011, his messages were subtle, careful but nevertheless still surprisingly bold. But since 2011, he has become even more outspoken.

“As Jesus said, ‘The truth will set you free.’ In order to enjoy full freedom there must be truth in everything. No lies, no cheating, no bullying, no discrimination. One needs to speak out for the truth,” Bo said. “There must be truth in our love and truth in our service. It is urgent that we see truth in those who rule the nation, truth in the Non-Governmental Organisations, and truth in the churches. Then we could be authentically free as God’s sons and daughters. All these past years the nation was under a big lie.”

His personal motto as a priest and later as a Bishop is “Omnia Possum in Eo” – “I can do all things in Him,” from Philippians. “At least one can serve as a thin voice in the wilderness,” he adds. “And often this thin voice is taken up by the international community and it can become a stronger voice.”

Turning up the volume

That “thin” voice of Cardinal Bo’s has become stronger and stronger in recent years, and particularly on the theme of inter-religious harmony, religious intolerance and religious freedom. In 2012, horrific violence against the Muslim Rohingya people erupted in Rakhine State, and wider anti-Muslim violence occurred in 2013 and 2014 across the country, in places such as Meikhtila, Lashio and Oakkan.

Cardinal Bo issued several personal statements, and he and I co-authored two articles, on the English language Burma-focused news website Mizzima and in the weekly newspaper The Myanmar Times. We emphasised that “no society can be truly democratic, free and peaceful if it does not respect political, racial and religious diversity.”

In June 2014, Cardinal Bo wrote a powerful article in The Washington Post. He welcomed the political reforms that have occurred, but highlighted the plight of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as other injustices, and appealed to people of all faiths and ethnicities to work for “unity in diversity.”

“Concern fills our hearts as we see darkness compete with hope. We pray this is not a false dawn,” he wrote. “For five decades Burma endured crucifixion on a cross of injustice bearing five nails: dictatorship, war, displacement, poverty and oppression. Today, a new crucifixion threatens the country, with five new nails: landgrabbing, corruption, economic injustice, ethnic conflict and displacement and religious hatred and violence … Burma’s future hangs in the balance.”

In almost every homily, Cardinal Bo finds a way to engage with the social and political challenges the country faces.

“This nation was buried in the tomb of oppression and exploitation for six decades,” he said in his Easter message in 2015. “We call for a new resurrection in peace and prosperity for all people …. Christians are the Easter people. We refuse to submit ourselves to the power of darkness …. Our task is unfinished. This is a wounded nation, a bleeding nation. We need to work proactively for peace. ‘Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,’ said Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Our conflicts are rooted in injustice … Stand for the truth … We fear no one. We love all. So we will continue to work for peace and justice in this land, bringing mercy and promoting reconciliation.”

In 1511, the first traders arrived in Burma, together with Portuguese Catholic missionaries, although as early as 1287 evidence of the presence of Christianity was found in Bagan in the form of frescos containing crosses and Latin and Greek words. The great Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier had written to his Jesuits in Europe suggesting Pegu, alongside the Moluccas, China or Japan, as a destination to consider.

The main message of Cardinal Bo’s Jubilee Celebration in 2014, held to mark the arrival of Catholicism in Burma, was, he explains, to “tell the nation that Catholicism did not just arrive recently. It has permeated this nation, and we are part of the nation.”

Over the course of five hundred years, the Church has contributed to education, health and nation-building. In his Jubilee sermon on November 22 that year, Bo said the church is the one institution in the country that can “boast of membership from every known ethnic tribe and language group.”  It is, he concluded, “a truly colourful rainbow church.”

Like so many of his sermons, this one was a cry for justice. “Our clarion call is to total freedom as St Paul tells the Galatians – ‘For you were all called to freedom – love one another’. A freedom from hatred, a freedom from want, a freedom from all kinds of oppression,” he declared.

The still small voice

I became a Catholic in Burma in 2013, two years before Bo’s appointment of Burma’s first-ever Cardinal. It is hard to know Cardinal Bo and not love him; and indeed hard to love Cardinal Bo and not be attracted to the Church he serves. At least that is my experience. According to him, I am the only foreigner to have been received into the Church in Burma during his time as a bishop.

Then Archbishop Charles Maung Bo (R) and Benedict Rogers at the author’s Baptism ceremony in Rangoon in 2013. Photo: Jeanne Hallacy

When I asked him, several years later, why he first invited me to be the first to receive this honour, he said simply: “I made the proposal to receive you in St Mary’s Cathedral, Rangoon, simply because you love Burma and you have sacrificed so much for the truth, especially for Christians and other minorities.”

The baptism was on Palm Sunday in St Mary’s Cathedral in Rangoon, Burma. Joining the occasion were a wonderful assortment of friends from varied backgrounds: Burmese Buddhist dissidents and activists, Baptists from the Karen and Chin ethnic backgrounds, Muslims, and some international friends, of whom some were lapsed Catholics who had not been to Mass for decades, and some were agnostic, secular, non-religious. It was beautiful that such an occasion united people of different beliefs in an atmosphere of celebration.

As the future Cardinal poured water gently over my head, the bells of the Cathedral rang out thunderously, chiming a message of peace and hope. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of joy, a transcendent sense of calm, and a feeling of homecoming. In the steamy tropical heat, and despite sweat rolling down my cheeks, all I could feel at that moment was the balm that comes from the still small voice of God.

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