By Nicholas Elders
A keen pastoral ingenuity, mixed with a renewed emphasis on our responsibilities to the poor and marginalized, are the hallmarks of Pope Francis’ papacy, Archbishop J. Michael Miller says.
In an interview with The B.C. Catholic to discuss Francis’ 10 years as Pope, Archbishop Miller said Francis’ chief contribution to the Church has been “launching the joy of the Gospel” and “the whole notion of Catholics being called to be missionary disciples, with all that implies, such as engagement with the world, and relooking at how the Church understands its priorities.”
Archbishop Miller doesn’t believe that Pope Francis has offered the Church a new direction, so much as a development of existing Catholic themes.
“It’s an emphasis that started with Paul VI,” he said, “[Francis] has just given it a certain emphasis in his use of certain images and metaphors,” such as his description of the Church as a “field hospital.”
Pope Francis’ homilies and speeches have a grassroots feel that sometimes offers unique results.
“The notion of evangelization isn’t new, but he has a rather delightful way with words and homey examples that bring it home,” Archbishop Miller said.
“His predecessors came from a more academic background,” the archbishop said, “and their language just wasn’t as colourful as Pope Francis.’”
He offered an example. “When he talked about families he would say even though he knows people throw the dishes at each other from time to time the three most important words to say are still ‘please, thank you, and I’m sorry.” That, he said, is “a unique gift of Pope Francis.”
Pope Francis’ emphasis on evangelization and the joy of the Gospel have born concrete fruit, and Archbishop Miller says they were the inspiration for “our celebration of missionary month which launched Proclaim,” the archdiocese’s evangelization ministry.
“We talk about the Church’s evangelizing mission now,” he said, such as describing “our schools as evangelizing communities” or “the importance of friendship with Christ.” The archbishop believes the Church is “seeing the outgrowth of Francis’ unique ability to make the Gospel more practical and understandable.”
Pope Francis has not been without controversy, and while his comments can sometimes make people uncomfortable, Archbishop Miller says these are opportunities for growth.
“I find the Holy Father quite often challenging,” said Archbishop Miller, “because he puts things in new ways that I would not put it.”
Despite the discomfort Francis can provoke, “his emphasis on simplicity of life, on care for the poor and marginalized, can’t help but raise questions about one’s attention to those realities, and then the Church’s broader attention.”
When he thinks about the notable moments of Pope Francis’ papacy, certain images have been emblematic for the Archbishop of the papacy’s unique connection to Christ.
One is from the Urbi et Orbi (to the City and the World) blessing during the pandemic in March 2020.
“He was all alone,” said Archbishop Miller. “I spent many years in Rome. I am used to seeing the Pope in St. Peter’s Square with tens of thousands of people, and there is hubbub and clapping. But he was just alone with the Lord.”
For the Archbishop, that scene of Pope Francis, alone in St. Peter’s, illustrated the difficult-to-define relationship between Pope and Christ in the papal title “vicar of Christ.”
Pope Francis has not a stranger to controversy, and much of the mainstream news coverage of his tenth anniversary has focused on hopes some people have for Francis as a reformer of Church teaching.
Regardless of the issue in question – be it women’s ordination or some other change of doctrine – Archbishop Miller said the popular narrative built up around Pope Francis as a disappointing revolutionary misses the point.
“The Pope’s concern is really in the pastoral question,” he said. “How do we make the doctrine of the Church alive and joyful for people to receive?”
Ultimately, Archbishop Miller said, the response should be gratitude..
“I think it’s a time for the Church to be grateful once again for the ministry of Peter that is now embodied in Pope Francis,” he said.
“[Pope Francis] really is the touchstone of the Church’s unity and it’s a blessing that we have such a touchstone. People might have wished he said more about this, or less about that, but in the long run, those are secondary to the important role in which to be Catholic is to be with Peter.”
There is “certainly room for human discussion about this or that, but at the bottom, at every Eucharist, we pray that we are in communion with Francis our Pope,” The Archbishop said.
“There is no Catholic Church without Peter.”