Priest spends sabbatical seeking solutions to religious tensions
By JOEL DAVIDSON
Alaska-born priest Father Michael Shields, 62, spent a good part of his 2011 sabbatical year exploring how Christians and Muslims might live together peacefully in the modern world.
In addition to reading up on the history of the 1,400-year-old tension between Islam and Christianity, Father Shields also sought out Christians who have lived in majority Muslim countries and then traveled there himself.
Father Shields’ quest took place amid a year in which a number of Islamic fundamentalist groups have gained power in the wake of the social and political unrest across much of the Middle East.
“I think the issue today for every Christian is how to encounter the Muslim civilization and how to dialogue with Muslim cultures,” Father Shields said in a recent interview with the Catholic Anchor. He was in Anchorage, where he spent several weeks before heading back to Russia in January to the Catholic mission where he has been stationed since 1994.
Father Shields noted that Christians and Muslims together make up more than half of the world’s population.
Muslims account for 25 percent of the global population, while Catholics and other Christian denominations comprise about 33 percent.
“Dialogue is an obligation,” Father Shields emphasized. “It is really about the survival of our world.”
Father Shields is no stranger to cultural and religious tension. Born and raised in Alaska, he spent the first 15 years of his priesthood serving in the Archdiocese of Anchorage.
For the next 16 years, he served in Siberia, establishing a mission in Magadan, Russia — the site of a former Communist-era gulag prison.
As a Catholic priest in a predominantly Russian Orthodox culture, Father Shields has made a point of personally reaching out to those of differing beliefs. He has worked closely with Evangelical and Protestant Christians on a number of projects. These efforts have convinced him that personal encounters are key to reconciling religious tensions.
“If you give the person respect and dignity there is already a hope for friendship,” he said. “Then you can disagree and speak your views and not be offended.”
Father Shields’ one-year hiatus from his Russia-based parish offered a chance to pray and reflect on his ministry, but the ecumenically minded priest also spent considerable time examining how Christians might interact with Muslims in positive ways.
It’s a question that is beginning to resonate a little closer to home, as Muslims have begun constructing the first mosque in Magadan.
During 2011, Father Shields’ travels took him across parts of the United States and to several countries in Africa and Europe.
After spending the first few months of his sabbatical year in intense prayer, he traveled to Detroit, Mich. to live with Chaldean Catholics who had fled religious persecution in Iraq.
The Chaldean Catholic Church is an ancient Middle East church comprised of ethnic Assyrians. In recent decades, however, the community has suffered from severe religious persecution in Iraq, and many have fled the country.
“I wanted to have a sense of what it was like to be a Christian in a Muslim country,” Father Shields said.
“Most of the Chaldeans had family members who were martyred or who immigrated from Iraq as that community has shrunk,” he said. “You have a sense of the urgency of their lives as Christians.”
For the most part, the Chaldeans could not envision how dialogue with Islam was even possible, Father Shields noted. “Their views were pretty strong.”
He said living among the Chaldeans was eye opening for a priest who, before his sabbatical year, had little personal contact with Muslims.
“I did not have a Muslim friend growing up and didn’t know what a mosque was,” Father Shields said of his past. He noted that most Americans are in the same boat.
“Even today, all that most people have are flash words and emotional experiences,” he said. But vague impressions can’t bring real understanding or help people to reach out to Muslims, Father Shields observed
“And that is the issue that has to be dealt with — the crisis of cultures together,” he said.
THE WAY OF LOVE
After living with Chaldeans, Father Shields said he felt a bit more prepared to travel to the North African country of Algeria, which has been marred by Islamic terrorist activity in recent decades.
Father Shields had several goals — to visit a monastery where Islamic militants murdered Trappist monks in 1996, and to pray at the gravesite of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a Catholic priest who was martyred in 1916.
“Part of my trip was about the knowledge base — I had to learn more about Islam and about its founder Mohammad,” Father Shields said. But he also wanted a first-hand experience of life in a majority Muslim country.
“I wanted to learn more about being a Christian in an environment that is more restrictive than I would find in the United States,” he said.
The difference was immediately evident upon arriving Algeria in October. Father Shields, who usually wears a long grey habit, was asked to dress in plain clothes so as not to be easily identified as a Catholic priest.
Algeria still suffers from the effects of a bloody civil war that raged from 1991 to 2002, in which militant Islamic groups fought for control of the country. Periodic terrorist activity continues to plague the nation.
In the 1990s, it “became very dangerous to be a Christian,” Father Shields said of Algeria.
The monastery Father Shields visited was the site where seven Trappist monks were executed in 1996 by Islamic terrorists during the Algerian civil war. A 2010 film, “Of Gods and Men” documented the life and death of the monks.
Living in the town of Tibhirine, the monks dwelt peaceably with the largely Muslim population. They maintained a life of monastic prayer but also provided medical assistance, education and community service to the townspeople who held the monks in high regard and considered them a vital part of the community.
Despite warnings about the growing danger to their lives from militant Islamic terrorist groups, the monks refused to leave Tibhirine and ultimately were killed.
Father Shields prayed in their old monastery, now empty apart from one priest who serves as caretaker.
“I prayed in their cells, I celebrated Mass in the chapel and I was in the graveyard where they are buried,” Father Shields said. “There is a strong peace there in the sense that you feel the presence of the monks and their commitment.”
Father Shields was most struck by the monks’ unwavering commitment to the Muslim people they lived with, and he saw a possible model for how Christians and Muslims might live in harmony.
“The monks loved the people of Tibhirine,” Father Shields said. “They stayed because of Christian love.”
More specifically, Father Shields was impressed by the monks’ “quiet evangelization” which he sees as a model for Christian-Muslim interaction, especially in those majority Muslim countries where overt expressions of Christianity are prohibited.
In providing health care, education and community services, the monks forged deep personal friendships with many of their Muslim neighbors.
It wasn’t an overt proclamation of the Gospel but “they had ways of empowering the people,” Father Shields observed.
This was the same approach taken by Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who inspired the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus religious congregation, the spirituality of which Father Shields follows.
Blessed Foucauld wanted to live among and serve the isolated and impoverished Tuareg people in southern Algeria, whom he considered some of the most abandoned people in the world.
“Brother Charles wanted to be a universal brother for Muslim, Jew, Christian and non-believer — so they would see in him a brother, first of all,” Father Shields said. “He wanted to treat people with such respect and humility that they would see him as a great servant and would ask this question: ‘If this is the servant, what is his master like?’ By showing his heart, he preaches a quiet evangelization.”
Inspired by Blessed Foucauld’s life, Father Shields flew into the town of Tamanrasset, where Blessed Foucauld was martyred. Then, alongside two Muslim guides he traveled to a 9,000-foot-high plateau in the Sahara Desert, where Blessed Foucauld’s private prayer hut is still located.
In Blessed Foucauld’s fearless life of serving and living among his “Muslim brothers,” Father Shields found another poignant example of Christian interaction with Muslims.
“First we have to face our fears,” Father Shields said.
Some of those come from lack of knowledge or understanding, he noted, but others are founded on life experiences.
“You have fears on both sides,” Father Shields said. “If you talk to my Chaldean Catholic friends, they say there is no possibility for dialogue and there cannot be.”
And without courageous efforts to forge personal encounters and genuine friendship, the Chaldeans are probably right, Father Shields noted.
“First there must be respect for each other,” he said.
But Father Shields is under no illusions that this will be quick or easy on a large scale, especially given the fact that there are profound religious differences between Islam and Christianity — as well as cultural and political realities that complicate problems.
The immensity of the challenge was brought home when Father Shields had to cut short his pilgrimage to Blessed Foucauld’s prayer hut. Due to recent kidnappings by Al Qaeda terrorists, Americans were considered to be in some danger, and Father Shields was asked to leave.
But the local Muslims whom he encountered in Algeria were “so good and so kind,” Father Shields said.
“The people were hospitable and gracious, and many people knew I was a priest,” he said. “That is the other side of this tension, caused by the fanatics and the Islamists.”
In many instances Father Shields believes common projects can help forge friendships between Christians and the many Muslims who are open to peaceful coexistence. To that end, he pointed to calls from Pope Benedict XVI to work with Muslims in defending the sanctity of unborn human life and religious freedom in secular societies.
“If you have a common project, then you can do this,” he said. “But first you must respect each other.”
To watch the first of three short video clips of Father Shields speaking about his travels, click here.