Malia Lolesio, parish secretary and youth minister from Emerton, shares how she deepened her Catholic faith even when she was feeling at her lowest.
If you’ve never met Malia Lolesio at a Catholic Youth Parramatta event, or in the parish office at Holy Family, Emerton, where she is the parish secretary, chances are you’ve at least heard her voice during one of the thousands of Masses where she has sung.
The 29-year-old, of Tongan ancestry, is the second-born in the Lolesio family who have used music to serve the Catholic community in Western Sydney for over two decades.
“My dad would say, ‘God blessed us with a gift of music, so we need to use it.’ That’s why you always see us at church playing or singing, and sharing this gift that we’ve received.”
As a natural-born singer, praying through music is easily Malia’s favourite and most comfortable way of expressing her faith. But in December 2017, she stepped out of her comfort zone to bravely share the challenges she has overcome during her faith journey.
In front of thousands of people at the Australian Catholic Youth Festival, Malia opened up about the struggle she has experienced trying to integrate traditional cultural values with modern Australian life.
“For a lot of Pacific Islanders, life is about supporting family and providing the best for them,” Malia explained while on stage. “Sometimes that’s really hard to achieve in a society where we’re often told to think of ourselves. So, it’s about balancing keeping your parents happy and finding what you’re called to be, or where God is calling you to be the best that you can.”
While Malia never planned to share her story to such a large audience, the positive response she received from the Tongan and broader church community has affirmed to her the importance of encouraging other young Catholics to be open about their experience of faith and family life.
When Malia graduated from Loyola College in 2006, she earned a Band 6 in Music, and became the first in her family to attend university. This achievement came with both immense pride and pressure. “I wanted to make my parents proud,” Malia says.
Following her parents’ advice, she kept music as a hobby and enrolled in a bachelor degree in Tourism Management. She began the course with the best intentions, but within a few semesters found her heart wasn’t in it.
“I was in my final semester and I was just in a really dark place. I wasn’t doing well in my studies, and I became embarrassed when people would ask when I was going to finish. I was turning 21 and that’s a big thing in our culture; there’s a big celebration. But [for me], there was just fear, embarrassment, and shame. I took a really dark fall, to the point where I thought it would be better for me to just leave this world because I was just so ashamed,” Malia says.
But, Malia explains, whenever she would consider taking her own life, something would happen to move her attention elsewhere, “Something always stepped in and I never really knew what it was.”
Malia’s cousin invited her to a retreat which sparked her interest in World Youth Day events and parish life. This led her to setting up Holy Family’s first youth choir and events where young people could ask questions about their faith.
“I don’t know what it was but I just kept saying yes to everything. I was just going with the flow,” she says. “I’m grateful because my parents persisted in keeping us involved in our faith and in church activities. So, when uni didn’t work out for me I had something to fall back on, and that was my faith.”
To answer the questions young people were asking at her parish youth events, Malia started doing more research about Catholic practices and teachings. Her parish priest encouraged her to attend the diocesan youth events to learn more, so she found herself at the annual diocesan Palm Sunday Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Parramatta.
“That was my first profound experience of Mass,” Malia explains. “It was the first time I could just sit there and be still and just receive. In my parish, I’m constantly singing, so I’m not always focusing on what’s going on up the front. So, this was the first Mass I’d been to where I just sat there and listen and watched.”
“What I felt was just a great sense of peace. When it came time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Bishop raised the host, I truly believed Christ was present in the Eucharist. It brought me to tears.”
After this experience, Malia took her parish youth group to a diocesan youth retreat, where they reflected on the story of Jesus appearing on the road to Emmaus, from the Gospel of Luke.
“At this retreat, we were asked to think about what’s blocking us from having a deep, personal relationship with Jesus. For me that was pride of having made it to university and all the glory I was receiving for that, but then the shame also, of feeling like I’d failed,” she shares.
“But one of the priests did a reflection on desolation and consolation. I learned you don’t have to be happy all the time to experience God; he is working within you even at your lowest. I recognised in those moments where I was thinking of leaving this world, it was the Spirit that was stepping in and making me think about the consequences. God was opening my eyes to see that he was working in my life, and asking me to the surrender to Him, to be who He wanted me to be.”
When Malia left the retreat, she resolved to deepen her relationship with God and help others do the same. She now does this in her role as parish secretary, and as a volunteer in parish and diocesan youth ministry, but emphasises that she is still searching and discerning where God is calling her to serve.
Currently, her goal is to create opportunities where young Catholics feel safe to ask questions about faith and share their own stories. Malia explains, “Young people, I’ve realised, although they say they don’t like to be vulnerable, they do. It’s like something that they’ve longed for — to find real authentic relationships.”
In this Year of Youth, Malia wants to encourage those already active in church life to invite more young people in their community to do the same, to share common experiences of faith and to learn from and be Christ’s witness to each other.
“There have been so many events I’ve been involved in that have helped me feel the presence of God,” Malia says.
“I won’t say that I’ve got it all together now but these moments are constantly reminding me of God’s love for me. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; this is something that anyone can do and continue. God is always actively present in the church.”
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