Guest Columnists

In Life and Faith, We Journey Together

by Carolyn Y. Woo

This year marks a big “birthday” for me and a group of classmates. Over the years, we have been having class reunions across the globe, wherever we are scattered. Many of us went to school together from first to 12th grade at the Maryknoll Sisters School in Hong Kong.

No matter how old we get, we still are known as “Maryknoll girls,” and the pride from our student days there has morphed into lasting affection for one another. It is part of our identity and an abiding sense of gratitude for our teachers, particularly the Maryknoll Sisters.

In our most recent reunion along the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the “girls” designed and ordered mugs for the group with the loving sentiment “Sisters Forever.”

Clearly, our friendships, fueled by an almost daily exchange of emails, deepened because of the Internet. But the seeds that led to this bond were sown a long time ago.

What is puzzling to me is that we grew up in an extremely competitive academic system. In Hong Kong, public examinations, after sixth and 11th grade, eliminated most students (75 percent and 90 percent, respectively) from advancing to the next levels in top schools such as Maryknoll.

Empathy Not Emnity

Thanks to the Maryknoll Sisters, instead of turning our energies against one another, we looked out for one another, tutored one another and cheered on others. The Hong Kong school system was so intense, its evaluation so demanding, that we developed empathy for one another.

By our midteens, having spent countless hours together at school each day, we were no longer competitors but cherished friends. We had different gifts, struggles and dreams. Our competition was not with one another but against unrelenting pressures.

The Sisters moderated what could have been a one-dimensional obsession with academics. They provided fun activities and encouraged different gifts to be recognized, appreciated and nurtured.

In the mid-1990s, when there was a special anniversary of the Maryknoll Sisters School, nominations were sought for distinguished alumnae. Most entries featured women with soaring careers and top job titles. The Sisters recognized that while the education they provided led to impressive achievements, the primary objective was different.

They simply wanted us to know our worth, imagine our choices, use our voices, develop skills to pursue our dreams, know God and serve others. It was important to recognize the stay-at-home mom, the community volunteer, the piano teacher, the daughter who took care of her elderly parents and so forth.

They changed the format of the program from distinguished alumnae awards to honoring the different ways by which “Maryknoll girls” found meaning and purpose.

My Maryknoll experience is a prism by which each of the many beams of reflected light can be a story. Each reflection casts attention on the possibility of grace, even in a hypercompetitive culture. It is a reminder of the transcendence of friendship and a caution not to sacrifice it for material glitter, human vanity and petty hurts.

My friends have affirmed, laughed, encouraged and carried one another in ways that give a glimpse of what is in store for us when Christ calls us “friend.” It is a manifestation of His promise that we do not make our journeys on our own.[hr] Carolyn Y. Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.