Tim Pike remembers Father Michael Shields CMP SSC
It’s obvious, isn’t it, why the gospel account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus was chosen for Fr Michael’s funeral. Like those disciples at Emmaus, Michael loved and recognised the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Like them, he was keen to celebrate the resurrection joy in the company of the apostles, that is to say, in the Church. In fact, like the risen Lord himself on the Emmaus road, Michael accompanied so many disciples in their journey of faith, explaining the scriptures and encouraging them. No doubt many of you will be thinking of times when perhaps it even seemed as if your heart was burning within you as he gave inspiration on your road of discipleship. He built up the Church spiritually through his wise counsel, as well as quite literally at St Matthias’, Colindale.
The first time I ever met Michael Shields, it wasn’t just bread that was being broken. It was also Fr Timothy Lipscomb’s beautiful crystal trifle dish. I was on placement with Fr Lipscomb at St Bartholomew’s, Armley and after Mass I was invited to Sunday lunch because Fr Shields had come to stay. In honour of this visit Fr Lipscomb had made, among other things, a sumptuous trifle and after Fr Shields had dished himself up a portion he slid the dish along the table towards me. The table was polished to perfection and, like a giant ice hockey puck, the trifle dish instantly and alarmingly picked up speed. Before we knew what was happening it had shot off the end of the table and crashed dramatically onto the floor, great shards of custardy-creamy crystal everywhere. And while with characteristic presence of mind Fr Lipscomb instantly rustled up some emergency flambé-ed bananas by way of a replacement pudding, Michael was in a dual state of consternation and delight: consternation because, as we all know, he was a deeply courteous man, horrified to have spoilt the pudding and smashed the dish; delight because it was so funny and, as we all know, Michael Shields was a man of laughter as well as genuine seriousness and wisdom. He loved remembering that lunch!
I guess most of us knew Fr Michael through SSC or CMP, maybe through parish connections in Sevenoaks or earlier, or through Bromley College or the College of St Barnabas, where he was cared for so beautifully in these last months of his 88-year life. That life began in Penton House in Penton Road at Penton Hook on the River Thames in 1930, but it wasn’t long before the family moved to the Isle of Wight, where Michael’s dad worked in one of the prisons. Michael remembered the war years, when as a boy he watched the bombing of Portsmouth and the docks at Southampton. He told me that it was during the war that he first started going to church seriously. One Sunday evening when he was twelve he looked out of the window and saw a woman pushing her bicycle to Evensong and thought ‘I must go.’ And the rest, as they say, is history!
His vicar encouraged him to go to the Society of the Sacred Mission for pre-theological training and so in September 1945, aged fifteen, he embarked on his first train journey on his own to Kelham. It was here that the young Michael had his first experience of monastic life, the attraction of which I don’t think ever left him. And it is interesting to reflect that this only child, who (as far as I know) has no blood relatives at all, found throughout his life that the household of faith provided a loving family for him, among the baptized to whom he ministered, and among his brother priests, in whose company he delighted. Although he had no children of his own, he was a father to so many. With his characteristic courtesy, laughter, seriousness and wisdom he modelled what it is to live a Christ-centred and priestly life. There’s a bit more to say about that in a moment.
Michael Shields was a catholic Anglican to the core of his being. He served the church not only as a parish priest, but as a pastor to priests, both as Master and Master General of SSC and as the Warden of his beloved Company of Mission Priests. The Society and the Company meant a lot to this only child. ‘We are family,’ he used to say to us at CMP Chapter. And in his will he wrote that in the event of his death the Master of the Society and the Warden of the Company should be informed. In his life he brought tremendous fatherly reassurance to both fraternities, even in the most uncertain or troubled of times.
If it is not too strange a thing to say, I think Fr Michael’s seriously cultivated Christian joy is what equipped him, and many of us, to live through difficult times. It is as if he had truly assimilated the wisdom to be found in his very well-used Breviary:
‘For even though the fig does not blossom, nor fruit grow on the vine,
Even though the olive crop fail and the fields produce no harvest,
Even though the flocks vanish from the folds and stalls stand empty of cattle,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord and exult in God my Saviour.’
After 1992, Michael guided the Company of Mission Priests into a joyful new chapter in its life, thanks to his dedicated nurturing of new friendships in the Vincentian Family of which we are so delighted to be a part. Michael taught and exemplified the love of the priesthood, the concern for the poor and the Christian virtue of kindness, with which St Vincent de Paul is so rightly associated. Michael’s was a prayerful kindness and even now his Breviaries are full of Mass cards, lists of names and even photographs of many of us, as well as those who have gone before us. He prayed for us all.
His kindness and his rootedness in the faith meant that there was nothing narrow-minded about Michael Shields. If his faith was Catholic with a capital C his interests were catholic too: science-fiction, Buddhism, astrology, Eighties disco hits, the RAF, papal encyclicals, anything techie and vast numbers of cards and letters from friends; all this and much more were among the possessions we went through the other day. In his last months he relished reading those cards and remembering kind things about those who had written to him. He was particularly proud of those whose vocations he had encouraged.
I mentioned earlier that Fr Michael modelled Christian living. I would like to tell you that, for me at any rate, he also modelled Christian dying. We all know the theory about how Christians should face their death; Fr Michael lived out that theory in a very edifying way. Towards the end he spoke of being excited that he was going to be with the Lord. The old RAF man enjoyed the prospect of soaring through tracts unknown to be with the Rock of Ages. Having spent his life recognizing the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread, he was extremely thankful that he was at the College of St Barnabas, where thanks to the ministry of the Warden, the staff and all his friends, he could receive the Blessed Sacrament every day and even in his bed listen to Morning and Evening Prayer from the chapel. The last time I saw him he said he thought it was time to make his confession. I truly believe he died in a state of grace. Goodness knows what any of us will be like in our final days. I’ll be psycho-patient of the year, probably. But be that as it may, like St John Paul II, Michael Shields has taught me these last months about how to face death as a Christian. I am truly grateful to him for showing me that.
On Wednesday I went to the funeral home to say some prayers with Fr Michael. In his coffin he is vested as a priest, just as he wanted. He is holding his beloved rosary made of rope, which he had in his hands all the time in these last months. One of the psalms I found myself saying is one beloved of religious, an appropriate psalm for Fr Michael: ‘How good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity.’ The goodness and pleasantness of common life in the Church, common life with his friends, common life with his neighbours in the College of St Barnabas, in the Society of the Holy Cross, in the Vincentian Family and common life in the Company of Mission Priests: this was, I think, the locus of Christian joy for Fr Michael Shields. We praise God for that, because Michael also knew and strongly believed that these earthly joys are but a delightful foretaste of the true joy which constitutes the very hope of the Christian faith: beatitude in heaven with the risen Lord in the communion of the saints.
And so, as we delight at this Mass to meet the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread, let us offer the holy sacrifice for our brother Michael, as he would wish, and pray that this faith and hope in the risen Christ might be fulfilled in him now. Amen.
Father Tim Pike CMP SSC preached this homily for the Funeral Mass of Fr Michael Shields St Mary’s, East Grinstead, 11 January 2019.