By Priscilla Wong
Campus Minister Emeritus, University of Notre Dame
Another new Lunar New Year is here! It’s the most important celebration for the Chinese because it embodies many of the Chinese traditions and culture of which I cherish dearly. It nudges me to look back at my past, not just the past year, to see how my life’s journey has taken me. It is my annual spiritual exercise in reconnecting with people who with their own pilgrims’ hearts have lifted me and given me renewed fervor for life. They are like my lifeline of hope, finding joy and looking forward to each new chapter of the unfolding of God’s love.
I am holding my first grandchild, a four-week old baby girl. I am re-living my first pilgrimage of the eight days to World Youth Day in July 2016 with 24 students from the University of Notre Dame and 18 from the University of Portland. I am remembering the first time I heard the line, “Come, follow me! I will make you fishers of men!”, which was boldly proclaimed by my fifth grade teacher in Hong Kong. Except that for a long time I thought she said, “Fishes of men!” Well, Jesus had caught us!
“Come, follow me!” – an invitation to a journey solidly grounded in trust and confidence. It is a discovery trip. It is also a relationship that one does not mind getting caught in! It is an invitation for us to reach out and live with zeal the simple and most liberating message: to love others as we love ourselves and to love God above all.
If anyone had said, “Priscilla, go on World Youth Day and you will be a happier grandma,” I would not know what to think of such a comment. But the two experiences are incredibly real, and they echo each other in awakening the awareness that we are all called by God, set by Christ’s example, to live a bigger and more dynamically loving way of life.
When I was asked to help accompany the WYD group, I was well aware that it would be my first organized pilgrimage. Well, I wondered how the students would react to me, an older person of Chinese descent most of them did not know! Then I also knew that I, too, had something to offer. The decision was made simple with my eyes on the prize (the Chinese characters for pilgrimage – facing and going towards the Holy). I needed not be fearful but to trust, attend to and cherish everyone and everything that would be coming along, and give up setting specific expectations of others, the way we have become so accustomed to do. I just had to be my authentic self. Keep my eyes on the prize.
Early morning hours before the Closing Mass of World Youth Day 2016.
The rest is history. The students live the message that Pope Francis so beautifully put – that the youth are not being prepared to be leaders of the future. They are leading now. Witnessing how they took care of each other and reached beyond nationality and ethnic lines to welcome strangers; listening to their heart-felt reflections and casual conversations; enjoying their company during the daily pilgrimage activities and quite simply, living out so naturally their individually unique Christian identity before, during, and after the pilgrimage. Yes, they affirm that the spirit of fishers of men is ever-so present in our midst. Their journey is now part of my journey. Their pilgrimage is my pilgrimage.
Friends told me that the moment I first lay eyes on my granddaughter my life would be completely changed. Yes, it has. And I am thankful that I had the privilege to journey with the 40+ young people. They show me the spirit of a pilgrim is a gift in each of us, real and continuing to unfold with each passing day. Rediscovering and sharing our pilgrim’s spirit is the only Way to live! Yes, I am a happy and better grandma because I keep my eyes on the prize.
Priscilla Wong is the former Associate Director of Campus Ministry at the University of Notre Dame, where she worked for over thirty years. Now she’s a full-time grandma and, clearly, loving every second of it.