‘Thanks be to God I already had the language!’

Fr. William Lee
July 21, 2010
A Newly Ordained Missionary Priest Finds His Way Far from His Childhood Home

I was ordained as a Columban missionary priest on August 2, 2008, at my home parish in Fiji. My first assignment as a missionary priest was to the region of Chile. Being a missionary in a new land and immersed in a new culture means ministering to myself as well as others.

Fr. William Lee and parishioners

Fr. William Lee and parishioners

I work in one of the parishes on the south end of Santiago called San Matias. It is a parish with nine mission units. Each mission unit has its own chapel and serves a segment of the area population since the parish includes 80,000 – 90,000 people.

Upon arrival in Chile for the first time, I realized that everything was totally different. However, I would say to myself that I was feeling what any missionary priest feels as he adjusts to and finds his way around a new place. I would say that I had the advantage of already knowing the language, Spanish, of Chile. When I was a student, I did my pastoral studies in Peru for two years and had learned Spanish during that time. Thanks be to God I already had the language, which allowed me to feel as though I could take part in any group dialogue or conversation. In other words I did not feel isolated.

Before I started work in the parish, I wanted to refresh my language skills, so I took a six week course in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and then returned to Chile. I was back in Chile a week after Easter 2009 when I heard that the Society had assigned me to San Matias in Puente Alto.

Following my assignment to the parish in spring 2009, there were a number of changes in the parish that took place while I was just settling into the area.

Originally, I was supposed to work with Columban Fr. Michael Cody in the parish. Unfortunately, he passed away quite unexpectedly soon after my arrival. The former parish priest, Fr. Michael Hoban, was just leaving the parish because he was taking up the assignment of vicar general in another diocese.

These changes left only me and an associate priest from Ireland who was coming to the end of his three-year commitment working with the Columbans in the parish. These were big changes and interesting challenges in my first days as a newly-ordained Columban priest. How did I deal with the new changes? I took things one at a time, and I listened very well to myself and to other people. In addition, my personal prayer life and reflections helped me. My Columban brothers in Chile were of great assistance to me in sharing their experiences and helping me handle challenging moments in mission.

There were a lot of things going through my mind during those times, and I gained more confidence day by day by building up a vision of what I needed to do and creating a different way of doing things. I kept on learning new things and that is what a missionary’s life is meant to be.

A chapel in San Matias parish

A chapel in San Matias parish

After only five months in my parish, I was approached by the new regional council and asked if I would serve as the administrator of the parish. While I found this both surprising and challenging, I was ready for the new challenge and grateful for the opportunity.

In September 2009, I was named the parish administrator, and in November 2009, I was elected to be a member of the Chilean regional council. I want to thank the Lord that I am still breathing, happy and in good health. The opportunity to serve in these new roles within the Columban Society and the parish is a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit that leads us to new life and to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the gifts and talents that we do not always recognize within ourselves. It’s a time of openness and a broadening of my world view. It changes and challenges my concept of life and the way I see things.

My pastoral work in Chile has sustained me very much in my missionary life. The people I serve in the parish of San Matias are living in one of the poorest areas of Santiago. Social problems are rampant – drugs, prostitution, murder – and very common within the parish. The residents of San Matias grow up poor in a community mired in poverty with little opportunity to see first-hand that better living situations exist. In the beginning when I heard gun shots I said to myself, “this is difficult work in a tough place.”

One morning some people came to the door asking if I could do the wake for a young person who had been shot at his home. God had called me to this place, and I knew that I would visit the family, pray with them and perform the wake.

Through these experiences God worked through me, and I know that there will be more interesting experiences in the future. I always say that life is continuously full of wonderful surprises. And I always say to myself, take things slowly as they come. Finally, I say, gratefully, “I love what God has done in my life.” God knows that I love working with people. I love sharing my experiences, knowledge and life with His people. He knows that I love the life I have found in Him.
This article first appeared in Columban Mission.