Well-known Anchorage priest Father Michael Shields, who has spent most of his ministry in Magadan, serving Russians in the Far East, is turning his sites to a mission field closer to home this summer.
The 68-year-old priest, recovering from knee replacement surgery this past winter, will bring his team of missionaries to the Archdiocese of Anchorage to spread the Gospel across Southcentral Alaska while he continues his medical rehabilitation.
He’s very excited about the idea.
“This is the kind of focus we need right now,” he said. “We need clarity of focus on the Gospel here at home.”
Originally from Alaska, but serving in Russia since 1992, Father Shields brings teams of American young people from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, to the Magadan region for the summer, where they pray, make friends and share the faith.
This year, six students from Franciscan will spend June and July in Alaska, beginning with presentations at the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference (ACYC) in Anchorage. After ACYC, the group leaves for mission work at several rural parishes.
Joe Young, a junior at Franciscan University, is on this summer’s team, spending last summer as a missionary in Magadan.
That experience was “life changing,” he said. “The most impactful summer I’ve ever had.”
Young, who is a humanities, theology and catechesis major, said the missionaries in Magadan engaged in “friendship evangelization” and spent much time hiking, enjoying music and game nights, and going out to dinner with their new friends.
“And the church and God would come up in conversations,” he said.
Although most people in Russia identify as Russian Orthodox, few have a personal relationship with Jesus, and that was the focus of the mission group, he said.
When Father Shields’ surgeon advised him to stick close to Anchorage this summer because of his operation, he was disappointed the Magadan mission would have to be cancelled.
“But as the Exultet says, ‘oh happy fault, or necessary sin of Adam,’” Father Shields said. In other words, he could turn his medical restrictions into a new, positive plan in a new location.
“The archdiocese has done so much for us,” he said of his work in Magadan. “And within 24 hours of making the decision to bring our mission to the Anchorage Archdiocese, we found a house for the group to stay and two vans for travel. The priests in the parishes I contacted were thrilled with the idea.”
Father Shields has been invited to do missions around the world, including Europe and the U.S. He’s been to Ireland five times, and he sees a common thread in most of the places he visits: declining church attendance.
“The church in Ireland has been devastated,” he said, and he encounters many parents who lament that their children aren’t going to Mass anymore.
“When I was a kid, my whole life was centered on the parish,” he recalled, noting that that has changed for many.
One aspect of the summer missions will be reaching out to those who have abandoned their involvement with the church.
“The most important thing in the church today is mission. It’s the church’s main task. Pope Francis has been classic about this: We have to go out. We can’t just be a kind of Catholic ‘club.’
“Essentially, people need to experience Christ and witness to Christ,” Father Shields said. “There are basically three questions to ask: Why on earth are we here? How can I be saved? And how can I lead a fruitful life?”
Along with the students from Franciscan University, Father Shields is bringing two Russian young adults from his Magadan faith community to join the team.
At ACYC the missionaries will present chastity talks, faith witness, Marian talks, talks on prayer and the rosary, talks on friendship, and on being a man and a woman of God, Father Shields explained.
The missionaries will also maintain a prayer corner for youth to come individually to pray and receive guidance, and will be present during the conference’s busy schedule which includes everything from eucharistic adoration and Mass, to service projects in the community and social events.
After ACYC the missions in parishes will begin, with Father Shields preaching at Sunday Masses to encourage participation. The missions will be held Monday through Wednesday with parishes providing sleeping accommodations for the missionaries.
“If nothing else, a place to lay sleeping bags on the floor,” the priest said. A collection will help defray the cost of gas and other mission expenses.
The schedule will include time for children and youth during the day, and an evening schedule for adults and youth.
The missions kick-off at Our Lady of the Angels in Kenai with a parish picnic followed by the mission June 11-13. Other parishes participating include Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Soldotna, St. John’s in Homer, St. Peter in Ninilchik, Sacred Heart in Seward, St. Michael in Palmer, and St. Francis Xavier in Valdez.
The team will take six days for a retreat at Denali National Park — “a major treat,” said Father Shields. They will remain in Valdez after the mission for some hiking and fishing, leaving from Anchorage in early August. Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne will commission the group at ACYC.