Newly ordained PNG Deacon Christian Sieland recalls unique vocation story
“There was such a big desire in me, almost like a fire burning inside me; I could not ignore it any longer.”
My father left his home country Germany to work as a lay missionary in Papua New Guinea in 1958. He was 25. For many years he worked closely with the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) in Madang, Bogia, Bundi and finally in Denglagu, Simbu province at the foot of Mt. Wilhelm. Eventually he stayed on in Denglagu where he met my mother, a local from Denglagu. She used to be a domestic girl with the Sisters of St. Therese. Soon they became friends, married, and settled near Keglsugl, at the foot of Mt. Wilhelm. They were blessed with seven children, and adopted another one. I am the third born in the family. I do not know how my parents have succeeded in bringing up such a big family. When I was still small, I never really understood the hardships my parents had to go through to raise us. Once our father told us that we always had to live from the hand to the mouth. “Give us this day our daily bread…”. This phrase of the “Our Father” has always been an essential part of our family life, but it is only now that I have come to understand it.
Many things have influenced me in vocation since my early years of childhood. The first thing is the gift of faith, which I have received from my parents. Ever since I can remember, the Catholic faith has always been the source and the force of our family’s life. This faith was kept alive in two ways: 1) Going to Mass on Sundays as a family. 2) Our daily prayers: before going to school, prayer before meals, and praying the rosary together in the evening. Every evening we used to sit around the dining table to pray the rosary, often joined by friends and relatives. The youngest ones among us normally felt asleep already after the first or second decade of the rosary. However, that would not stop the rest from praying. What impresses me most today when I look back on those times is the fact that my father never gave up on praying, even when he had already spend 8 – 10 hours in his carpentry workshop. He always would find his time to pray with the family and later on by himself. Without too much pressure or force my parents have succeeded in implanting in each one of us the Christian faith and for this I am, and will ever be grateful to them.
The second element that probably has played an important role in my vocation is the close relationship we used to have with missionaries. The first parish priest that I can remember as a child is the now retired Bishop of Kundiawa Diocese Henk Te Maarssen, SVD. As a child, I liked it very much to draw pictures and somehow I ‘specialized’ in drawing holy pictures. Some of those pictures I would give as a present to priests who came to our house for a visit. At other times, we used to ‘play the Mass’ by cutting boiled potatoes into round pieces. One of us would then play the priest; the other ones would line up to receive ‘holy communion’. Yet despite a religious upbringing, during my early childhood, even if I always have had a great respect and admiration for the missionaries, I never had any intention at all in becoming a priest.
Then, in 1990, my family left Papua New Guinea for Germany. I was able to receive my first Holy Communion together with my younger sister before leaving for Germany. One of the presents I received was the ‘Buk bilong ol Santu’ (Book of Saints). It soon became one of my favorite books. Some saints whose story I always liked to read were St. Imelda, St. Martin De Porres, St. Maria Goretti and St. Maximillian Kolbe.
For the next 9 ½ years Germany was our home. We settled in a small town called Gladbeck in North West Germany. Learning and catching up on German was not a big problem for us, since we were still small kids and also had a German father at home. Only a year after our arrival in Germany I received the sacrament of confirmation along with one of my elder brothers. In the same year, I followed my elder brothers footsteps and became a ministrant in our new parish. Soon there were five from our family serving as ministrants in the parish, adding some… color to the parish. After three years of primary schooling in Papua New Guinea, I was thrown right into the German High school system. I attended grades 5-13, finishing my secondary education in 1999. The move from Papua New Guinea to Germany did not affect our belief much. Of course, in Germany, people live in a secularized society, where the Church and the faith of the people was and is still being challenged in many ways, but somehow we managed to maintain the rhythm of faith life which we already lived in Papua New Guinea.
At that point of my life I still did not feel any sign of vocation. My dream now was to become an artist. I was very much interested in the areas of cartoons, animation and graphic-design. I enjoyed being a ministrant but I do not think that my experience as a ministrant has influenced me in any way to be where I am now. It was rather the life and belief within the family, which has laid the foundation for a future vocation.
Volunteer to Papua New Guinea
The next important step in my life was made in 1999. Straight after my graduation from High school, I was called up by the German Army to do military service for a period of one year. At that time, it was compulsory for every male German citizen above the age of 18 either to do military service or to do some type of social or charitable service instead. Though I passed the medical check for the military service, deep within my heart, I knew that I was not made for military service. At that point, God’s providence helped out.
While my family was at a family gathering organized by the SVD, we met an ex-PNG missionary who informed us about a volunteer project, which involved young people going abroad for a while to make some missionary experience. Here I saw for me the opportunity to do something more useful and meaningful than running around with a gun in my hands. Another big motivation was the possibility for me to return to PNG to carry out such a service. Eventually my two elder brothers and I ended up doing this type of voluntary service in PNG. Then in 1999, my parents decided to go back to PNG. For my mother it has never been easy adapting to the German way of life and even for my father it was hard to find his place in the modern German society after more than 30 years in PNG. Except for one sister, who stayed back to complete her studies, the whole family went back to PNG. For me and another brother our return back to our motherland was at the same time the start of our ‘mission’. The eldest brother was already providing his service at Mingende station as assisting station manager. My second brother was destined to work at Don Bosco Technical School in Barawagi, Simbu, since he was a learned carpenter. For me it was a bit harder to find a proper place to work as a mission volunteer, because I just completed high school and had no experience at all in any field of work. After I while I was asked to help at the Liturgical and Catechetical Institute (LCI) bookshop in Goroka.
But I couldn’t stay longer than two months at LCI because that type of work was not what I was expecting. Office work was not something for me. I had to be outside with the people. The only positive thing that I was able to take along from my two months in Goroka is something that I would describe as the “first knock of God” at the door of my heart. For the first time in my life, I was separated from my family. With 19 years, I had to go my own way in life now. But that was not a big problem for me. I really enjoyed it being responsible for myself, living and cooking for myself. I also had to learn how to use the small amount of pocket money that I received because as a volunteer I was not entitled to any type of payment. For me this time of self-dependency helped me to come closer to God. The seed of faith implanted in me by my parents bore its first fruit at LCI. I began to pray and I enjoyed praying all alone. When we were still in Germany each one of us received a small prayer booklet from our father with different devotional prayers such as novenas, litanies, devotion to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and devotion to the cross. As time passed by, I came to love a particular prayer dedicated to the suffering and cross of Christ. So I began saying that prayer every evening. In addition, since I was not happy with my work I prayed more intensively for a new place to work. I wrote a letter to Archbishop Michael Meier of Mt. Hagen, asking him about possibilities to work as a volunteer for about a year in his diocese. After exactly eight days, I received a positive response from Archbishop Meier who invited me to stay at Rebiamul and to assist a local religious brother in a drug rehabilitation program, which he had initiated some 2-3 years ago. For me that was God’s answer to my prayers. Before my arrival, the drug rehabilitation program seemed to have been a successful project, but now only some few young men came regularly for meetings, courses, sports or community work. We organized sports at the local Youth Center hall for young people but it was never to become a successful program similar to former times.
Symptoms of Vocation
Yet it was during my service in Mt. Hagen, that I now really felt some desire in me to become a priest. I would never have imagined that during this time in Mt. Hagen God would knock stronger and stronger on the door of my heart. The regular contact and friendship with expatriate missionaries as well as local priests was a very important element, which made me more open and ready to perceive God’s call. It was there in Mt. Hagen that I witnessed my first ever deacon, priesthood and Episcopal ordination. During the almost 12 months, that I spend in Mt. Hagen I came to meet missionaries from all over the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Out of those many, there is a handful of old missionaries who have had a great influence in my vocation life. They probably are not even aware of this fact, but their example of simple and dedicated missionary life has left such a deep impression and impact in me that at a certain stage I really felt a deep yearning and desire in me to follow their footsteps. But at that time I did not have enough courage to admit such a feeling to myself and especially to my parents or even a priest. At the same time, my dream of one day becoming an artist was still very strong, so after a while I began to ignore those signals of vocation. I was happy with what I was doing. Since there was not much work at the Youth Center I began to repair old and broken statues and do paintings for several small churches in the diocese, thanks to the kind help of a good missionary friend. I enjoyed that work so much that in the end I was sure that I had to study arts and perfect my artistic talent.
Back to Germany
After my term as a volunteer I went back home to Denglagu, not knowing what direction to take for the future. At that stage a good friend of mine, offered me a ticket to go back to Germany to pursue my studies in arts. I readily accepted that offer. So I packed my few belongings and went all by myself back to Germany in August 2001. At that time it was too late to get a place at the Art Academies which I had applied to, so in order to bridge the time until the next semester I started to work. For about three months, I did some practical work in two different printing companies. Then I was able to find work at a nearby hospital, thanks to the help of my new parish priest. The work in the hospital was challenging. I had no previous experience of working in hospitals or with sick people so it was all learning by doing. It all started with sweeping the floors, then making beds, then feeding the sick and finally assisting the nurses on duty. Altogether, I worked for about nine months in that hospital. One of my tasks was also to go around and ask the sick people whether they wanted to receive Holy Communion or not. I worked in the internal ward, where most of the patients were cancer patients. Some would come only to receive chemo treatment and go back home while for others there was no possibility to go back home. Never in my life have I been so close to see and experience people struggling with death. My time at the hospital has been one of my most precious experiences I have ever made. It helped me to think and reflect on the meaning of life and our relationship to God in times of distress, sickness, pain and especially at the moment of our death. I have seen people who did not want to hear anything about faith or God, even in the face of death, while faced their destiny strengthened by their faith in God. I am sure that my hospital experience has influenced me greatly in finally making a decision pro priesthood.
A priest for Papua New Guinea
The 1 ½ years which I have spend in Germany alone have been one of the most important phases of my life, because it was during this time that I finally decided to enter the seminary. It was a time, when my difficult situation (loneliness, work, hoping to get one of the few places for Arts study) forced me to find a certain type of refuge in prayer. The town where I now lived in had an old Franciscan monastery in the middle of the city. Most of the time it was locked, but fortunately they had a small side chapel for perpetual adoration that was open the whole day. This small chapel became my oasis for more than a year, my place of silence, of prayer and discernment. It was here that finally I said “yes” to God. I could no longer refuse the signs. There was such a big desire in me, almost like a fire burning inside me; I could not ignore it any longer. Therefore, one day, before telling the family with whom I was living with about my decision, I went to Austria to visit my good friend who had bought me the ticket to go to Germany. For the first time I entrusted my feelings to a priest and we talked on for about two hours about my vocation, whether it was something serious or not. Afterwards I knew that there was no point of return for me now. I wanted to become a priest. When I was back in Germany, I went straight to my parish priest. With his help, I entered the diocesan seminary of Münster in September 2002. But somehow, I felt that something was missing. I was not happy in Münster. I do not know what it really was but after a while I decided to write a letter to Bishop Henk Te Maarssen of Kundiawa diocese asking him about the possibility to join my home diocese. At the same time, I sent a letter to my parents informing them that I was not at the arts academy but in the seminary now. Surprisingly I got a positive response from both. My parents were happy with my decision and promised to help me in whatever way possible. Bishop Henk Te Maarssen also accepted my request to come back and join Kundiawa diocese so I began to prepare my papers as quick as possible. After only four months in the seminary of Münster I finally returned home to PNG in January 2002, and went straight away to Good Shepherd Seminary in Fatima, Banz. After graduating from Fatima in 2005 I spent one year doing pastoral work in Koge parish, Sinesine. By then I already knew of my Bishop’s plans to send me to Rome. It was already during my final year in Fatima, that I was informed as being one of two possible candidates for studies in Rome.
Finally, in May 2007, I left for Rome. I was nervous but not afraid. My fellow companion Philemon Korake from Lae diocese left for Rome already a year earlier so I knew there was already someone who would help me in the beginning. Studying in Rome, the centre of Catholicism, is a privilege and blessing but it also means responsibility. I am not here for my home diocese only but for the whole church of PNG. It is not only me, but also all of us who are here for studies, that we have a great responsibility to be good ambassadors of the church and country of PNG. Experiencing the universal character of the Catholic Church in Rome is a real blessing and we also try to show what PNG has to offer and can contribute to the Church in general. I completed my theology in 2010. After that, I could have already returned to PNG but my Bishop wanted me to stay on and continue studies in Biblical Theology. So now I still have one year ahead of me. An important day on my way towards priesthood was the 12th May 2012. On that special day I was ordained a deacon along with 16 other young men at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Relatives and friends came from Germany and Austria. My parents tried everything possible to come for my diaconate ordination but unfortunately, they were unable to get their papers on time. Only a sister came all the way from PNG. The ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica has been a very emotional moment. It is hard to describe all the thoughts that rush through your mind at a moment like that. After 10 years as a seminarian in Germany, Papua New Guinea and Rome I was finally ordained a deacon.
I thank God for the many blessings he has bestowed on me so far. Much has been given to me, and much is expected from me. I ask all to pray for me and all those who prepare themselves for priesthood that they may persevere in their call and become good, worthy and holy servants of the Lord. (CBC Communications 290512 – firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rome, May 2012