Fr Michael Shields, who has ministered in Siberia for twenty-six years, shares how Gulag survivors explained to him that forgiveness kept them alive.
Fr. Michael Shields
source – www.themagadanmission.com
Fr. Michael Shields has been a priest for 36 years. He was ordained in Alaska but now ministers in Magadan, Far East Siberia, at a small mission parish of 150 deeply prayerful Russians. At first there were three priests, but now Fr. Michael ministers alone, and the nearest Catholic priest is over 500 miles away. His spirituality is that of Bl. Charles de Foucauld, consisting of frequent contemplative prayer, especially in front of our Eucharistic Lord. Once a week he spends a full 24-hour day in prayer in a small hermitage he and his friends built.
The Call to Magadan
In 1989 Fr. Michael was a young diocesan priest. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the perestroika, the Russian rebuilding, had begun. With his Archbishop, Fr. Michael visited a former prison camp to celebrate the first mass since the plan’s closing. It was Magadan. Though the romance of being in Russia was short-lived, Magadan stayed. At a 40 day Jesuit Retreat in 1990, Fr. Michael received a call: “Go and pray in the camps.” The call was as clear and demanding as his call to the priesthood, and he knew he had to go and offer his life freely for those who were sent there to die. It took two more years, but at last his bishop allowed him to go. A prayer rose up in his heart at the prospect of spending his life there: “Lord, You fill me with such Joy, how can I repay you? Forgive me my many sins. And give me one home at the foot of the Cross with my Mother and Queen to teach me one thing: that is to love.”
After his arrival in Magadan, a little parish grew up around that prayer. It began in an apartment room, which it soon outgrew, and with the help of many friends a beautiful Catholic Church was built. Fr. Michael lives and prays there now, carrying out ministry to pregnant mothers in need, to those still living who survived the horrors of the prison camps, and to all the needs of his flock. He had worked for Life in the USA, and on coming to Russia gave a retreat for women needing healing from abortion. Four women had had 47 abortions between them. Now, as Russia’s birth rate has risen and the culture begins to heal, Fr. Michael’s missionary efforts contribute what they can to that healing. The moms and kids program provides 5-19 moms every month with food, medicine, baby supplies and spiritual help thanks to grants from Catholic Missions and other organizations. It is hard not to shed tears when the young moms come to the meetings with their babies who are only alive by the efforts of Fr. Michael and his parish.
Among its many works of mercy, Fr. Michael’s parish catches and freezes fish for the poor, cultivates a potato garden, picks berries and donates produce for those in need. Then there are those Fr. Michael calls his “treasures” – the repressed who suffered for their faith in the prison camps. Many have gone to God, and those who remain only desire a Christian burial, which he provides with joy to his lovely elderly.
Magadan is a name recognized throughout Eastern Europe as a place of suffering. It is Auschwitz for the Russians. Camps like it were established to mine gold and fund the communist state. Prisoners came from many Catholic countries like Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland and Germany. Many people of faith were imprisoned on false pretenses and given long, excruciating sentences which almost always ended in death. Fr. Michael has worked and prayed with the survivors for over 18 years. His life is simple and in many ways not too successful. He believes his call to pray in the camps is his main work, to pray for those who suffered and were persecuted, and to pray for those who are now suffering and persecuted. He offers his life here for a renewal of faith and the building of the Catholic Church in Russia. His favorite bible quote is the same has his spiritual father, Blessed Charles: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24.