Posted February 15, 2010:
What I Learned in Russia

by Fr. Michael Shields.

The author, who has been a missionary in Russia for fifteen years, is the pastor of the first Catholic parish in Magadan, a city which, under Communism, was an administrative center for the gulags (prison camps).

People outside Russia usually ask me how I am doing and what I am doing. I then give a litany of what we are doing, leaving out what we should be doing and our failures.

At the end of the conversation, the questioner often acts like he thinks I should be beatified. I, on the other hand, run to the nearest priest to confess the sin of exaggerating in order to look good.

But one priest wrote me and asked me a different question: what have I learned in Russia? This was a better and deeper question that caused me to chant a different litany. So what have I learned these past fifteen years? Here is the answer I gave him.

I have learned to be a true spiritual father. I have fallen in love with the cross of Jesus.

I have learned to be quiet and let God speak to me. I have learned to love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I have learned to love and pray to Our Lady.

I have learned about the spiritual battle. I have learned that Satan is real and wants to destroy me, the Church, fatherhood and motherhood, and the family. The family is one of his favorite subjects of attack, and yet families keep struggling to be families.

I have learned to love my weaknesses and to depend on God. I have learned that my strengths can lead me away from God. I have learned I can be too independent and live as if God is my helper and not my savior.

I have learned about real evil that destroys souls and real good that reveals God’s face in another, especially in the poor and broken.

I have learned to hope when it seems hopeless, to love when I don’t feel like it, to forgive when I am right and don’t want to forgive. I have learned that my faith is weak, and even so, miracles happen around me all the time.

I have learned that people can’t be trusted, but I still trust them. I have learned to embrace the cross and love the Eucharist, which is the salvation of the cross given to us to eat.

I have learned that falling isn’t the hard part. The hard part is having enough humility to get up again and start over.

I have learned that the sacrament of Reconciliation is one of my greatest joys, both to receive and to give.

I have learned that I love poorly but God loves perfectly.

But above all I have learned what it means to be a priest. I have learned to really be his priest.

What is a priest? What do you think is most important to us priests? My definition would be the one in John 15: 15-17:

I shall not call you servants any more…I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father. You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last …. What I command you is to love one another.

A priest is a friend of Jesus. It seems too simple, doesn’t it? But what is most important for us priests? I think the most important thing is to have a deep, loving, honest, and open relationship with our Savior Jesus Christ, who is also our brother priest.

Everything changes when we have this deep friendship with Jesus. But if we don’t have a deep personal friendship with him, it is a dead definition. And so is priesthood.

Pope Benedict XVI said this in 2006: "Only when God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is.

"We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.

"There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him."

What have I learned here in Russia? God is a marvelous God who loves and loves and loves.

Maybe these truths are for everyone to learn. All I know is that God sent me to the city of the gulags to get my attention, and I am so very thankful.

Fr. Michael is a friend of Madonna House, whom we know from the time when we had a house in Magadan.


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