Earlier this year, Father Michael Shields received an invitation to give an eight-day retreat in Rome for nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity congregation. He had no idea that the invite would land him face to face with Pope Francis, in the pontiff’s private chapel.
Since the early 1990s Father Shields has served as a missionary from the Anchorage Archdiocese to Magadan, Russia — founding a church in Far Eastern Siberia and building a vibrant Catholic community there.
From time to time he gets requests to give spiritual retreats. When Mother Teresa’s order asked him to come to Rome in May, Father Shields thought he would try writing a personal letter to Pope Francis, requesting the chance to celebrate a Mass with the Holy Father.
He thought it would be “a great blessing,” he said in an email to the Catholic Anchor.
So, like many Catholics around the world, Father Shields wrote a personal letter hoping that the pope might read it and respond as he has become famous for during his first year as Bishop of Rome.
“My name is Fr. Michael Shields, a priest of 34 years, originally from Anchorage, Alaska but the last 20 I have spent in joyful service in the former prison camp city in Far East Siberia, Magadan Russia,” Father Shields wrote in his letter. “I pray in my hermitage and serve a small Catholic parish.”
The letter went on to note that he is the only priest in Magadan “with the nearest priest over 800 miles away. That means the greatest trial is I can only receive the sacrament of confession when a priest happens by or I go to visit. This happens every three to six months.”
Father Shields explained that he regularly gives retreats and has done so periodically for the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa, as he was scheduled to do again May 25 to June 2 in Rome.
“Dear Holy Father I know it may not be possible but if during these days preceding the retreat — May 20-25 — there might be a last seat in the back row when you celebrate Mass, I would with great joy pray the Mass with you,” Father Shields’ letter continued. “If this is not possible, I still ask your blessings on us, my people and myself as we continue to watch the dawn break in the coming again of faith in the frozen lands of Siberia.”
The letter was dated Jan. 30.
“I had a priest friend print the letter and hand it to the pope’s secretary,” Father Shields explained.
He was told that with such requests, if there is any reply at all, the response usually comes only a week or so before the actual date. To Father Shields’ delight, he received a response in just two weeks, inviting him to attend the pope’s private 7 a.m. Mass on May 22.
Father Shields arrived in Rome early to visit with some seminarians. His lodging was a 25-minute walk from the Vatican.
“On May 22 I was so excited I got up at 4 a.m. to get to the gate by 6:30 for a 7 a.m. Mass,” he recalled. “I spent the morning praying and thanking God for this grace.”
Father Shields was led to a front row seat in the chapel at Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guest house where Pope Francis has been living for the last year since being elected Bishop of Rome.
“A lovely and simple chapel,” Father Shields said of the place where the pope celebrates daily Mass with the guesthouse’s permanent residents.
The pope’s homily returned to one of the reoccurring themes of his pontificate, namely that a healthy Christian is a joyful Christian, even amid times of suffering (see article below for more about the pope’s homily that morning).
“There were four groups of lay people and 10 priests and one bishop for the morning Mass,” Father Shields recalled. “After the Mass we stood in line and I wanted to especially ask a blessing for my preaching. I felt I needed a deeper conversion to preach the Gospel more effectively.”
Walking up to greet the pope after Mass, Father Shields told him he was from Siberia, Russia, where he has served for 20 years in a mission.
“His eyes lighted up,” Father Shields noted. “I asked for his blessing so I might be more converted so I could share Jesus more faithfully. Then I asked him to bless my Bible so I would more deeply fall in love with the word of God and it would be my bread and life. (The pope) said enthusiastically, ‘Good, good’ and then with a lovely chuckle, ‘Now you must pray for me.’”
“I also smiled,” Father Shields related. “The joy was so deep and my heart just sang.”