FAITH AND FREEDOM: Professor Tracey Rowland, originally from Rockhampton, is an academic who will travel to Rome later this month as part of her studies into religious liberty.
FAITH AND FREEDOM: Professor Tracey Rowland, originally from Rockhampton, is an academic who will travel to Rome later this month as part of her studies into religious liberty. Contributed

Rocky theologian to advise Pope Francis on religious freedom

THE MERCY Sister who once threatened to come back and haunt Rockhampton's Tracey Rowland from the grave if she ever abandoned her faith could not have predicted how influential those words would be.

Professor Rowland, a former student of Rockhampton's Range Convent, is now Australia's most successful female theology academic.

Later this month she'll be travelling to Rome as part of her role on Pope Francis's International Theological Commission, where she studies religious freedom and persecution.

The inaugural dean for Melbourne's John Paul II Institute is one of 30 theologians from around the world who are currently on the commission, which looks at a number of contemporary issues.

"I think when people are persecuted it can really strengthen their faith or it can destroy their faith, it has an extreme effect one way or the other," she said of her research.

In Melbourne, where she lives now, she said there were a lot of Iraqi refugees who escaped death threats due to their religious beliefs, and the faith she sees in the children is incredibly strong.

"What we think about the ultimate issues is what defines us as a person," she said.

"I think people do end up being naturally drawn to people who have the same outlook as them.

"When people try to coerce other people into thinking the same way as they do, when it's not just a matter of persuading people through writing books or intellectual life in university, but where we actually have a situation where people are being beheaded because they don't believe in the exact same thinking, that's the problem."

Prof Rowland said she was fortunate in her life to meet "more saintly people than evil people".

However, she said her biggest battle came when she was a doctoral student at Cambridge University, and met an atheist professor who she said was "totally hostile" to religion.

One day he told her that God was just a sociological phenomenon found in the United States and Poland, so she should transfer to a university there.

As she left his office she said a prayer to the now deceased Sister of Mercy who had threatened to haunt her.

A day later he had a massive heart attack that put him in intensive care.

Prof Rowland has since met both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis twice, and travels to Rome twice a year in her role with the commission.

She will leave for Italy again on November 26.



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