“There are reasons why we act in certain ways, but reasons are not the same as excuses.”
These words, heard in school, came back to Chris Lee when he was hospitalised after a vicious attack by a stranger on a Kings Cross street one early Easter morning.
That was in 2012, a seemingly disastrous year for the Sydney Catholic Youth director (the new youth office which will be launched on November 8). It began with the death of his father from cancer in January.
“My father was a very hard worker and family man born in one of the poorest parts of Suva, Fiji’s capital,” says Chris.
“He had his leg amputated in an accident as a teenager. He was a man who feared God and sacrificed for his family.”
Chris was 18 and on the cusp of realising his dream of joining the Australian Army, but decided to defer his entry.
“My sister was still in primary school and I didn’t want to leave my family hanging after the loss of dad.
“I thought it was best to stay at home and provide support for the family.”
Such actions reveal an already budding responsibility which would later mark his ministries with youth. But Chris admits that he still had many personal issues in life he needed to sort out.
During a night out at King’s Cross with mates, at the height of the “king-hit” violence which lead to the current Sydney lockout laws, Chris became involved in a violent brawl on the street.
His alcohol-fuelled assailant produced a knife and stabbed him in the eye before kerb-stomping his head on the pavement.
Chris was permanently blinded in one eye and underwent facial reconstruction, as well as a lengthy stay at hospital. He has never found out the identity of his attacker.
“Being in hospital gave me time to reflect upon my choices and how I needed to change,” he says.
“I was angry at what happened. I wanted to get angry at him, to get angry at God, but I asked God for guidance.”
“I realised that wisdom isn’t getting the right answers – it is asking the right questions. I don’t know who attacked me but I had to forgive him. I had to look at my own life and question how I was living. Did I want to keep going down the track I was on, or did I want to choose another way?
“There were good reasons why I might get into fights, why I might get into drinking, but they were not excuses for doing so.”
Now aged 24, the director of Sydney Catholic Youth credits the traumatic event as the usher of a grace-filled moment in his life.
Through his sister he made friends with the Young Men of God movement who invited him to a Lectio Divina group. He’d never been to a men’s group or prayer group before then.
“That first night I went, the scripture we reflected on was St Paul on weakness, on how God’s power is made perfect in his weakness.
“I can see in my own life that my shortcomings and failings have carved out where God wants me to work.
“I’ve also learnt that if you want to be the man God wants you to be, you need to learn how to love silence.
“If that night in Kings Cross didn’t happen the way that it did, I might not be sitting here today.”
That year Chris was also invited as a guest on SBS’ Insight program about alcohol-fuelled violence and things “took off from there”.
In 2014, he co-founded Conviction Group, a successful young men’s mental health group aimed at reaching out to young men with good masculine role models.
He is the 2017 Hills Shire Citizen of the Year and former Credo Youth Ministry leader at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta.
He has a special affinity with St Ignatius of Loyola and his spiritual journey and is passionate about providing good spiritual role models for young Catholics and good male role models for young men.
Fatherhood, in particular, is not well represented today, he says.
“Masculinity is always attacked and there is no middle ground: you are either Superman or a slob.
“Conviction aimed to show young men that they can be heroes in the small things in life by just being good fathers, brothers, husbands, and boyfriends.”
Chris is preparing for the launch of the revamped Catholic Youth Service with events at Ryde, Gladesville and Liverpool parishes on November 7, 8, and 9.
December will see 19,000 young people descending upon Sydney Olympic Stadium for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF).
“We must always be ready to show compassion [for young people] but you don’t need to compromise convictions to show compassion,” he says.