John T. Shields: An appreciation of the author of
The Priest Who Left His Religion
By PATRICK S. WOLFE
John Terance Shields was born in New York City on December 20, 1938. He died in Victoria, British Columbia, on March 24, 2017, at the age of 78. At his April 9th memorial service, Penny Allport, the Life Cycle Celebrant, adroitly observed that John had walked a mystical path wearing very practical shoes.
“When I was a baby, my grandfather held me in his outstretched arms and proclaimed that I would be the first American Pope.” This is the first sentence of John’s book, The Priest Who Left His Religion: In Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality (2011).
The years when John was studying for the priesthood were an extraordinary period in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Much of it occurred during the papacy of John XXIII and the Vatican Ecumenical Council he established in early 1959, soon after becoming Pope. “Almost all my teachers had been students of the leading experts who were drafting the Council documents for the bishops,” John wrote, recalling that exciting time and his “brilliant teachers.” He “felt privileged to be reviewing the same documents that the bishops were debating.” He felt he “had a front row seat in [the] making of history…. [and that] a new dawn was breaking.”
One of John’s teachers was Father Daniel Berrigan, who became “the leading Catholic critic of the war in Viet Nam” and the founder of Plough Shares. Father Berrigan introduced John to social action and to a “program called the Sodality, which was based on the principles of… see, judge, act[–a] method of approaching and assessing situations.” John applied these principles when he examined conditions at New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project.
Ordained as a priest on May 8, 1965, when he was 26, John was assigned “to teach the new Vatican Council theology.” He did this for two years until Paul VI, John XXIII’s successor, reversed course and stymied such activity. Paul VI’s Credo of the People of God “rejected every insight that had emerged at the Council.” Deeply disheartened, John walked away from the priesthood four years after his ordination. He did this to preserve his “mental health and integrity.” That summer he joined the Victoria Family and Children’s Service as a social worker.
I met John in early 1994 when he was more than half-way through his fourteen year tenure as president of the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU). The union had just undertaken a partnership initiative with the B.C. government to “renew” the public service. I was a member of the government’s small Renewal Team. I got to know John more deeply during the early 2000s when I joined the Men’s Spirituality Circle he and counsellor Darrell Pacini co-founded in early 2000. About 2008, John granted me the privilege of reading an early and quite different version of what eventually became The Priest Who Left His Religion.
It was during sessions of the Men’s Spirituality Circle that I first heard John speak of a number of the key turning-points in his life, which he later wrote about in his book. Perhaps the most significant of these was “an explosive crisis” he underwent in the late 1980s. While bargaining for a new collective agreement, he “turned the negotiation into a one-person show” (his description), which alienated members of the BCGEU bargaining committee, two of whom subsequently ran against him for president. He was re-elected by just twelve votes and “felt defeated.”
The situation led to a period of deep soul-searching for John. When his first wife, Madeleine, who died in 2005, counselled him to pay attention to his dreams, he had “a vivid dream” that very night. His grandmother appeared to him; she told him to examine his heroes. Nothing popped when he reviewed his adult heroes, but when he searched those of his childhood he knew he’d “struck gold” when he came to the Lone Ranger. The lone hero myth was often his response when challenged. It reflected his “early life sense of isolation and separation” and it excluded helpmates. This epiphany led to important changes. John replaced the Lone Ranger with Arthur of legend as his guiding hero—not the young Arthur, but “the older Arthur who presided at the round table.” This shift helped him “make others the centre of [his] motivation.” He said he became “a different person….strong without being overbearing.”
John was always in pursuit of self-knowledge. He consulted psychiatrists and therapists to identify and release “stored-up anger”—some of it aimed at the Catholic church for turning its back on Vatican II—and to untangle emotional knots arising from the dysfunction of his early life with his parents, who, along with his grandmother, were the most important influences on his priestly calling.
My sense of John is that, in some ways, he never got over his loss of the church. “Up to that point, religion had been my whole life,” he said. His calling was still there, as was the defining expectation of his grandfather’s proclamation. John channeled his dedication and devotion, his intellect and passion for a new dawn, into a life of service and accomplishment—as a social worker and union leader, as an activist and champion of progressive causes, and as a spiritual searcher and mentor to many. Upon his death, the Victoria Times Colonist called him a “pillar of social justice” who “negotiated landmark pay-equity agreements and advocated for women’s, workers’ and First Nations rights.” His legacy, according to the BCGEU, exists in every workplace in British Columbia.
During his post-BCGEU “retirement,” John not only established the Men’s Spirituality Circle, he also played a key role in founding the Centre for Earth and Spirit, which he chaired from 2006 until his death, he served as the Executive Director of a Gulf Island educational centre for a couple of years, he taught labour relations and negotiations at Vancouver Island University, and he received a fellowship at the University of Victoria’s Centre for the Study of Religion and Society. In 2013, he became Operations Director for the Land Conservancy of B.C. By the end of 2015, he’d rescued it from a dire financial predicament and ensured that nearly 50 properties would remain protected.
John repeatedly achieved his overarching goal of influencing “the world for the better.” The inspiration for this came from his heroes: Father Berrigan, John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Tommy Douglas, and David Suzuki. He achieved goal after goal in very practical ways, and in doing so, he provided clear-eyed support to common folk, the commonwealth, and the Earth that sustains them both.
In the autumn of 2015, John was diagnosed with a rare, terminal blood disease. Ever the champion and pioneer for social reform, he used his illness as an opportunity to advocate for the right to a medically-assisted death, an option he exercised in hospice. The New York Times documented this last hurrah in a moving three minute video, “Attending His Own Wake”, https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/100000005127238/canada-medically-assisted-death.html?emc=edit_th_20170526&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=60239990 and in a front page story on May 28, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/25/world/canada/euthanasia-bill-john-shields-death.html
A highly literate man, John appreciated the poetry of Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others. Eight days after his death, The Globe and Mail published the obituary of another man, which resonated for me in the context of John’s passing. This other man, who I didn’t know, was Brett Allan Enemark. His older brother, Tex, had been a deputy minister in the B.C. government in the late 1970s. Brett’s obituary tells us he was a poet and a “Renaissance Man” who died on World Poetry Day, March 21, and that: “Always a ‘leftie,’ Brett did his time as a somewhat reluctant steward in the BCGEU.” His last fifteen years were complicated by brain tumours, “six recurrent brain operations, and the development of a seizure disorder,” but “he never let the challenge of [all this] slow him down.”
Brett, like John, was undaunted. Emphasizing this quality, Brett’s obituary concludes by quoting Rilke’s mystical prose on loss: “One must never despair when something is lost: a person or a joy or a blessing; everything returns with a magnificence even greater. What must fall off, falls away; that which belongs to us, stays with us, for everything proceeds according to its own laws which surpass our understanding, and with which we merely appear to be in discord. One must live within oneself and think upon all of life, all of its millions of possibilities, distances and futures, against which nothing shall prevail that is either past or lost.”
John became an ardent cosmologist during the latter decades of his life. “One of the biggest steps on my way to spirituality,” he wrote in his book, “was the recognition that the inner world creates the outer and that there is energy in the synchronization of the two…. While there is a great deal of chance [in the universe], there is no sense of accident. The universe is directing evolution. I ask myself, why am I in this moment? Everything I do comes from how I understand the answer.”
John is survived by his second wife, Robin June Hood, stepdaughter Nikki Sanchez Hood, and niece Alice Meyers.
Text copyright © 2018 Patrick S. Wolfe
All rights reserved. Short segments may be quoted with due attribution.
An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.