A Catholic Convert’s Journey

Msgr. Michael Nazir-Ali reflects on the past year since his reception into the Catholic Church.

Msgr. Michael Nazir-Ali is shown on the day of his ordination to the Catholic priesthood for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham with Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, England, who presided at the ordination.
Msgr. Michael Nazir-Ali is shown on the day of his ordination to the Catholic priesthood for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham with Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, England, who presided at the ordination. (photo: Mazur / cbcew.org.uk)

“The Christian identity of the United Kingdom is vital,” says a former Anglican bishop who today is a Catholic priest.

It is November 2022, and Msgr. Michael Nazir-Ali is sitting in his office in central London speaking to the Register. It’s just over 12 months since the former Anglican bishop made national and international headlines by leaving the Anglican Communion and entering the Catholic Church.

Msgr. Nazir-Ali is now reflecting upon the constitutional situation in the U.K. — something that has been thrown into sharp relief by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who was not only the nation’s reigning monarch but also supreme governor of the Church of England.

This former Anglican bishop was once very much part of the established Church of England. Today, he remains convinced that having an established church is, on the whole, “a good thing”; but he then adds, “But this must be without compromise to the Gospel.”

While an Anglican, he became the bishop of Rochester, an episcopal see that had a famous and holy incumbent, St. John Fisher, who was executed for refusing to accept the divorce of the then monarch, King Henry VIII.

Interestingly, it is to “witness to the Gospel” that Msgr. Nazir-Ali sees no reason why Catholic bishops should not be admitted to the House of Lords. It is a nonelective chamber, so does not contradict canon law, he says. The presence of Catholic bishops in the British Upper Chamber of the British Parliament, in addition to some Catholic laymen and women who are already there, could, argues Msgr. Nazir-Ali, provide a platform for clear Catholic witness on the national issues of the moment — something, he senses, that is much needed in modern Britain.

He points out that there are ministers of other faiths present in Parliament, so why not Catholic bishops, as well? The Anglican bishops, some of whom sit in the House of Lords chamber, he perceives are the peers to whom other peers look to, especially as a starting point for any debate to which ethical or moral matters pertain.

“The bishops may not have had the last word on matters,” he says, “but the peers would want to hear their first words.” This is a reminder, perhaps, he suggests that, as yet, “we don’t live in a secular state but in one that is still constitutionally Christian.” He is adamant that the Christian point of view in the U.K. must remain the “point of departure for any debate on conscientious matters.”

Since becoming Catholic, Msgr. Nazir-Ali has continued his work of advocating for persecuted Christians throughout the world. And he is quick to point out that the majority of those persecuted are not Catholic, especially in countries such as Iran and China. He is president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue (OXTRAD), which he established upon resigning as bishop of Rochester in 2009. OXTRAD’s mission is “to prepare Christians for ministry in situations where the Church is under pressure and in danger of persecution.” The mission statement explains that OXTRAD’s work “arises from the growing challenge of international religious extremism, terrorism and ideological secularism faced today by Christian leaders and the churches they lead.”

Msgr. Nazir-Ali’s reception into the Catholic Church one year ago has, he tells the Register, both “complicated” and “expanded” this work. Some people with whom he worked previously on this worldwide mission have been, he says, unimpressed with his recent move to Rome. The current office of OXTRAD is a relatively new address; Msgr. Nazir-Ali moved there having been asked to leave his former work residence once it became known he was no longer Anglican.

But the fact that he is now part of the largest Christian denomination in the world has also expanded his work in other unexpected ways. For example, in regard to the persecution of the Church, he has had recent and new contact with the Catholic bishops of Vietnam, a country with which he was previously unfamiliar. For all its newfound complications and expansions, Msgr. Nazir-Ali is clear that this work is as important as it is needed today. He recalls that Pope Francis has said the worldwide persecution of Christians has led to a profound ecumenism: “an ecumenism of the blood.”

Recent court cases and legislative moves in the U.K. have had a chilling effect on anyone prepared to voice Christian beliefs in the public square, especially in regard to issues concerning marriage, family and the sanctity of life.

“Persecution begins with exclusion and discrimination,” he explains. “Exclusion from certain professions. And once you can’t enter certain professions, then you are effectively excluded from public life.”

When that exclusion is based upon one’s adherence to Christian beliefs on faith or morals, then Msgr. Nazir-Ali feels that this is the beginning of a “totalitarian” state.

Msgr. Nazir-Ali recognizes a strong temptation for Christians to keep their beliefs private and to refrain from becoming involved in public debates for fear of being castigated for their views and positions. He is adamant, however, that no matter how bad the situation looks, British Christians must not retreat from the public square. He believes such a privatization of one’s faith “would be a mistake.” We “have to continue to make a contribution to the common good,” says Msgr. Nazir-Ali, adding that this always starts at a local level.

Msgr. Nazir-Ali, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1949, comes from a background of both Christian and Muslim traditions; however, he attended Catholic schools. After being ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1976, he became the Anglican bishop of Rochester in 1994.

On Sept. 29, 2021, in London, Nazir-Ali was received into full communion with the Catholic Church by Msgr. Keith Newton, the ordinary for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. The next day, Nazir-Ali was ordained a Catholic priest for the ordinariate. On April 6, Pope Francis named him a monsignor.

Like many other Anglicans who have entered into full communion with Rome, Msgr. Nazir-Ali has found his home in the ordinariate. He views this particular rite of Catholic worship as part of a rich tapestry of many rites within the universal Church. In fact, one of the things that he feels Latin Rite Catholics have to understand is the truly “diverse” nature of rites within the Church. He views the ordinariate as just that, another rite among many within the Catholic Church.

On a personal level, he went from being a bishop in a state religion, the Church of England, to being a simple Catholic priest. Since his conversion, he admits that his former contact with Anglicans throughout that communion has decreased considerably, something by which he does not appear surprised. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is that, during the last year, he has been contacted by people — some previously known to him, others unknown — who have sought him out to help them to discern the same path he has chosen. He calls this “a spontaneous reaching out.” When pressed on a figure for such contacts, he hesitates to give an exact number; but only because there has been — and continues to be — so many.

One year on since his reception into the Church, Msgr. Nazir-Ali continues to work for Christians persecuted openly in far-flung corners of the globe — and in more subtle ways across the United Kingdom.