There’s nothing quite like on-the-ground experience for young missionaries in training, and the SVD Overseas Training Program aims to provide exactly that.
The Overseas Training Program (OTP) started in the AUS Province and is now seen an important part of SVD formation around the world.
“It came out of a need, at the time, for young confreres who had finished their academic requirements but still had some time left before taking final vows,” says Provincial, Fr Henry Adler SVD.
“It was seen as beneficial for them to experience mission and then come back and take final vows.
“Eventually it was picked up by other provinces and now it is a requirement across the world in the SVD and also the Holy Spirit Sisters.
“The OTP enhances formation because it gives younger confreres an experience they can bring back to their studies. Then, they make a decision, out of experience, before they make the big life decision that is final vows.”
OTP Director for the AUS Province, Fr Boni Buahendri SVD says there are currently three students in temporary vows undertaking their two-year OTP in Australia.
Maciej Zielinski from Poland spent time in Melbourne before being assigned to Central Australia, where he has served the communities in both Alice Springs and Santa Teresa.
Shouzheng (Peter) Wang from China and Luis Robles from Ecuador have recently arrived in Australia and are completing a six month English language course at Deakin University before undertaking their pastoral placements.
“We believe that learning English is a really crucial part of the OTP experience,” says Fr Boni. “Learning the language is the key for them to then start learning about Australian culture and the way of life here.”
Fr Boni says the OTP experience helps the young missionaries to really experience multicultural living, which is such an integral aspect of SVD life.
“For a start, living in the Divine Word Missionary community here is an experience of multicultural living in itself, because we come from all over the world,” he says.
“But also, the pastoral experience they gain through the OTP opens them up to all the diversity of multicultural living in Australia.
“Spending time in Central Australia also introduces them to the Aboriginal people and immerses them in indigenous culture.
“The OTP experience is not always easy for them. There are lots of challenges along the way, but it has a really positive impact as well.”
Fr Boni says the OTP is beneficial to both the students and the SVD as a whole.
“In the SVD, we are international communities – the world is our parish – so we need to form missionaries who can work in that situation,” he says.
“So it’s really important that they learn about cross-cultural issues because that means that when they take their final vows they can go to whatever mission they are assigned to much more easily and be more effective when they get there, because they’ve already had that exposure.”
The OTP students bring much richness to the AUS Province, says Fr Boni.
“The great gift of these young missionaries who come to Australia for the OTP is that they bring with them a positive attitude and an openness to learn and they share that openness and enthusiasm with the confreres here, which brings fresh energy and vitality. They are a gift to us, for sure.”
Maciej says he believes he is “the luckiest person on this planet” to have been given the opportunity of doing his OTP in the AUS Province, even though life in Central Australia is a far cry from his home in Poland.
“This experience has changed me a lot,” he says.
“Working with Aboriginal people has been such an honour, because it wasn’t only pastoral work, it was constant learning and absorbing their beautiful culture.
“During this time, I have become more mature and aware of who I really am. I changed my point of view on many things and my hierarchy of values.”
Maciej says his favourite ministry in Central Australia has been the OLSH Soup Van, an outreach run by the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish in Alice Springs, where volunteers cook soup and provide bread and share it with hungry people in Alice.
“I like to watch the smile on their faces, to have a little chat with them, sometimes about God, sometimes about footy, and spend time with them.”
Maciej says he has had challenging times, but believes these have helped him to grow.
“In my opinion the OTP is a very valuable program. You can learn much more than you think, but you have to be open,” he says.
“I think our mission life is a big adventure with God. If sometimes, we have some bad days, that means a lesson is coming. I have had a lot of lessons here which have made me better.”
PHOTOS: OTP student Maciej Zielinski is pictured engaging in his pastoral work in the SVD's Central Australian ministries.