Editor’s note: This interview by Nikolay Syrov with Father Michael Shields was originally published in Moscow. It is reprinted here with permission.
When and how did you come up with the idea of setting up a mission to Magadan?
Father Shields: I didn’t. God did. I came to Magadan first 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 priesthood. I was a priest at that time for 10 years. I heard on this retreat deep in my heart “go and pray in the camps.” I felt fear and repulsion at the idea. I wanted my retreat master to do an exorcism so my retreat wouldn’t be ruined by these simple words. These simple words have ruled my life and heart now for 23 years 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 in Magadan. 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 that is to love.” No matter how many times I have felt beaten up, used and hated here by the enemies of the Gospel or 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 I can say for sure I have surrendered my will to the Father and his will is the sweetest thing I know. To actually say 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.
Tell a bit more about Magadan, I mean, the environment and the local community. What it’s like to live in Magadan?
Father Shields: It is hard and it is joyful — hard because the city is in the style of a Soviet city with gray apartments and many things in disrepair. The environment has improved in the last 20 years but nonetheless it is not a city that takes your breath away because of the beauty. The nature and hills around the city are a different story. They are beautiful. I have a poustina about 40 minutes from the parish. I pray there from Sunday to Monday night. The gift 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 poustina changes with the seasons and I must say God is beautiful in his creation. Dark Siberian nights when the stars are so close you can 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. At the start of springtime, it seems as if all is dead and then, resurrection — showing that God is always bringing forth life from death. The city is 100,000 of all kinds of non-believers, believers and wanderers. My mission is to say we are born for a reason we are living for a reason and we die for a reason. And the best explanation of real life is found in Jesus.
The very name of the city is strongly tied with its past, especially with infamous Kolyma labor camps. Is this historical perspective still palpable in terms of the impact on people’s lives in modern Russia? Is it still in the air?
Father Shields: I came to pray in the prison camps. I found that Magadan was one big camp in the past. Closed in the 1950s but still, you could feel the evil that was then. I found myself praying deeply the Jesus prayer and hearing words in the way you listen to 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 trials … I met prison camp survivors. 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 with more than 90 survivors so as to write a book of their prison life, I found no bitterness or resentment in their hearts. I asked why. They said if we didn’t forgive we would die. I asked how did you survive the horrible inhumane conditions. They said if we didn’t pray we would die. We die if we 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 now gone to God. Some remain and I give them my heart and my attention but most importantly the bread for the journey home, the Eucharist, as much as I can. And I die if I don’t forgive and I die if I don’t eat the bread of life.
Can you shed the light on things that can go wrong in Magadan? I mean, what struggles or obstacles do you have to face in your daily work and ministry?
Father Shields: Everything can go wrong and does go wrong here. My plans have been dashed, my life broken and my heart smashed and I might say many times. But the cross says this is the way it will be. Unless a seed that falls to the earth doesn’t die, it remains just a seed but if it dies it produces much fruit. I don’t like dying at all. I hate it when God takes away my good plans or great ideas. But a sign of a mature Christian is one that likes it when God tells him what to do and then obeys God. God breaks us to remake us.