a monument to those in the camps - outside Magadan

A Missionary in Siberia—Part 1

Interview by Nikolay Syrov, a freelance journalist based in Moscow

Fr. Michael Shields, an American from Alaska, is the pastor of the Catholic parish in Magadan, a city created by Communist Russia as an administrative center for the gulags or labor camps. The only Catholic priest in Far East Siberia for over 800 miles, he has been serving in Magadan for over twenty years.

When we had our mission house in that city from 1993 until 2006, Fr. Michael was a friend and spiritual guide to our members stationed there.

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Nikolay Syrov: Anyone who is familiar with your work can tell that you strongly believe in mission as central to the Christian life. What does mission mean to you?

Father Michael Shields: I am a missionary; you are a missionary. The Church exists because it is on mission.

A missionary is not some special person who says, “I will go to Africa.” A Catholic missionary is a baptized Catholic who says I am united to Jesus and my mission is to promote his mission to save the world.

What are we supposed to do? Our mission is to convince the world of Jesus’ mission. See John 17: 21: that the world may believe that You have sent me.

This is our mission whether we’re doing something in deed or with words or whether we’re building a beautiful, loving community.

In community, in word, in deed, in everything we do, our mission is to try to get the world to believe in Jesus’ mission: that Jesus was not just born, but that he was sent, that Jesus was not just a great man born into the world to teach people how to love one another, but that he was the Son of God, sent into the world from the kingdom of heaven.

The Gospel is so sweeping. It is far more optimistic than most of the other religions of the world. It offers hope and a new life. But at the same time, it has a far more pessimistic view of man than the secularism of the world. It teaches that you can’t create new life by yourself.

Nikolay Syrov: When and how did you come up with the idea of setting up a mission to Magadan?

Father Michael Shields: I didn’t; God did. I came to Magadan for the first time in 1989 and fell in and out of love with this prison camp city. I said that I would not return to this desolate and ugly place.

I went on a 40-day discernment retreat to find out what the Lord wanted me to do with the rest of my life as a priest. I had been a priest for ten years at the time.

During this retreat, I heard deep in my heart, “Go and pray in the camps.”

These words filled me with fear and repulsion, and I wanted my retreat master to do an exorcism so that my retreat wouldn’t be ruined by these simple words.

These simple words have ruled my life and heart now for the 23 years I have been in Magadan.

I died to myself one night when the Lord healed my heart of fear and gave me a great unending joy. That joy has never left me for these 23 years.

A prayer came up from deep within when I finally said yes to the call. “Oh Lord, you fill me with such joy. How can I repay you? Forgive me my many sins, and give me but one home, there at the foot of the cross with Mary, my Mother and Queen. Teach me but one thing: to love.”

No matter how many times I have felt beaten up, used, and hated here by the enemies of the Gospel or the Church, I have never lost this joy.

I remain alive today because of this call and Our Lady’s love for me and this parish.

I have a young heart and an old body that will soon become potato fertilizer. The reason my heart is young is that I can say for sure that I have surrendered my will to the Father, and his will is the sweetest thing I know.

To actually say that to the Father and to do everything to please him is a sweet taste in the soul. I am in love with the One who loves me.

Nikolay Syrov: Tell us a bit more about Magadan, I mean, the environment and local community. What is it like to live in Magadan?

Father Michael Shields: It is hard and it is joyful. Hard because the city is in the style of a Soviet city with gray apartments. Many things are unkept-up and unrepaired.

The environment has improved in the last twenty years, but none the less, it is not a city that takes your breath away because of its beauty.

The nature and the hills around the city is a different story. That is beautiful. I have a poustina [a simple prayer cabin] about 40 minutes from the parish. I pray there from Sunday to Monday night.

The gift of the poustinia is to be in Christ’s presence with no presumptions or demands. You simply step into a prayer time that says, “Jesus, I am here and you are here. Isn’t that great! I am yours.”

The nature around my poustinia changes with the seasons, and I must say that God is beautiful in his creation.

In the dark Siberian nights when the stars are so close you can almost touch them, I see his face. Fall days with the golden leaves and blue skies shout his glory. Summer days of rain, sun, and growth tell of his fecundity.

And spring, when one day it seems all is dead and the next day Resurrection again shows God is always bringing forth life from death.

The city has a population of 100,000 of all kinds of non-believers, believers, and wanderers. My call is to say that we are born for a reason, we are living for a reason, and we die for a reason. And the best explanation of life, of real life, is found in Jesus.

Nikolay Syrov: The very name of the city is strongly tied with its past, especially with the infamous Kolyma labor camps. Is this history still palpable in terms of the impact on people’s lives in modern Russia? Is it still in the air?

Father Michael Shields: I came to pray in the prison camps. I found that Magadan was one big camp in the past. It closed in the 1950s, but still you can feel the evil that was there then.

I found myself praying deeply the Jesus Prayer and hearing words in the way you hear the wind. “Get out of here.” I knew the Evil One wanted me to leave.

I had many trials in the beginning with language and culture. But God taught me through these trails:

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I can’t speak Lord, I am not a homilist.

I don’t want your words, I want you.

I can’t fix these people; they are so broken.

I don’t want you to fix them. I want you to suffer with them.

I am weak, Lord.

I can only work with those who often fall to their knees.

***

I met some prison camp survivors, and I decided to have a meeting for them at the public library. Eighty showed up, and that began my love relationship with these suffering saints.

I found two things that changed my life. After doing interviews of over 90 of them so as to write a book of their prison life, I found no bitterness or resentment in their hearts. When I asked them why, they said if they didn’t forgive, they would die.

I asked them how they had survived the horrible inhumane conditions? They said if they didn’t pray, they would have died.

I, too, if I don’t forgive or pray, I die. I must eat this bread of forgiveness at each Eucharist and offer my life to the Father through the Son.

Most of the camp survivors have gone to God. Some remain, and I give them my heart and my attention, but most importantly, I give them Bread for their journey home. I give them the Eucharist as much as I can.

to be continued