GROWING up in Fiji, Willie Lee admired the Irish Columban missionaries who travelled across the world to serve the people of his island home.
His great-great-grandfather had accepted the first Catholic priests to his remote rural province of Vanua Levu or “Big Land”.
Little did young Willie know that one day he would become a Columban missionary.
“I saw that the Columban missionaries were people oriented,” he said.
“They were always there with the ‘grassroots people’, crossing boundaries and cultures, and learning another language.
“The local people were very happy to see a foreigner speaking their own language.
“It gave them a feeling of belonging. And that’s what caught my attention.”
Willie was the fourth child among six boys and three girls.
His father expected that he would one day take over the family’s kava-growing business.
He studied farming.
However, all the while, there was “a yearning within”.
“It was very difficult for my father. He was looking forward to me taking over,” Fr Lee said.
“But it didn’t happen the way he wanted. It was to be the way God wanted.
“I started communicating with the Columbans, reading their Far East magazine and listening to their past stories, and seeing what they were doing with the Fijian people.
“The sacrifices they made in their calling, in their missionary life, that amazed me a lot.
“If these people can leave their family, come this far, eat the food we eat and drink kava and being happy on their mission – why can’t I do this?
“That’s what I was thinking about looking at the Church, God and this missionary life.”
At 23, Willie Lee started nine years of formation as a Columban missionary – three years seminary training in Fiji, a spiritual year in the Philippines, pastoral work in Peru (where he learnt to speak Spanish), and theological studies at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union.
Finally he was ordained on August 2, 2008, and almost immediately he was assigned to be the parish priest in San Matias, a sprawling parish of 90,000 people on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile.
Fr Lee entered the tough world of the barrio (slums), amongst the city’s poorest.
“There’s drugs, there’s prostitution, there’s murder, gangsters and shootings, suicide, young pregnancies – all those social challenges are there,” he said.
Fr Lee said the people of the barrio welcomed him.
As a missionary, his challenge, he said, was to “come down to the grassroots”, to listen and understand their daily lives.
“I leave my country, I go with my suitcase and I fill my suitcase with my own culture, food and other things,” he said.
“When I went over there I learnt how to go with an empty suitcase. I needed to feel and learn things new from the people there.
“I started filling my suitcase through listening.”
There were times when Fr Lee feared for his life.
Once he was conducting a wake for a drug dealer, in an apartment, protected outside by gun-wielding gangsters.
There were fears that a rival drug gang might launch an attack.
“Suddenly I heard shooting outside. They were only firing their weapons in the air, but it was frightening,” Fr Lee said.
“One thing that struck me is that in the barrio there is a lot of respect for the priest.
“And when they can see us (priests) attending to the people they protect us a lot.”
Fr Lee said he learnt a lot about being a priest and holding onto faith, during six years in the parish of San Matias.
“It is a challenge for us (priests), and what Pope Francis is asking the Church to do is to go to the peripheries,” he said.
“In the barrio, that is where I saw the periphery because I lived there.
“I can be preaching about love and reconciliation from the pulpit every Sunday, but if I am not practising it then I feel myself that it’s nothing.”
In 2016, Fr Lee was assigned back to Fiji as the vocation director to promote vocations throughout the Pacific islands.
“Vocations in Fiji come from Kiribati, Tonga and the Solomon Islands,” he said.
“I promote vocations in schools and parishes and I enjoy this role immensely.”
Fr Lee accompanies novices for the first few years of their training, before they attend the Columban seminary in Manila.
He said his own formation for missionary life was a great experience, and one he could pass on to others.
“(It was a) great experience in such a way that crossing boundaries and learning another culture was always the main charism of the Columbans in preaching the Good News in different languages,” he said.
“We reach out to those people in need within society, especially the marginalised.”
Fr Lee recently attended the Ignite Conference 2017 in Brisbane, sharing his experiences with visitors to the vocations and ministries exhibition foyer.