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Interview
January 13, 2014
An interview with Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver, British Columbia, who has just celebrated the 10th anniversary of his episcopal ordination.
Archbishop J. Michael Miller, pictured in June 2007. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada celebrated the 10th anniversary of his episcopal ordination on Sunday, January 12. 

Archbishop Miller, 67, was born in Ottawa. He joined the Basilian Fathers, who once had a significant presence in Canada and the United States, and was ordained a priest by Pope Paul VI in 1975. He went on to work in academia and in the Vatican. In 2003 Pope John Paul II appointed Miller to the episcopacy and named him secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education and vice president of the Pontifical Work of Priestly Vocations. In 2009, Miller became archbishop of Vancouver. The region is home to about five million Canadians, of which 460,000 are Catholic.

Archbishop Miller is fluent in four languages, has received six honorary doctorates, and is a specialist on the papacy and modern papal teaching. He is author of seven books, including one on the development of the papacy and Catholic education. He is a naturalized American citizen.

Archbishop Miller recently spoke with CWR.

CWR: Tell us about your upbringing and how you decided to become a priest.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller: I was born in Ottawa. My father was Catholic and my mother was not, so I was the child of a mixed marriage. I attended Catholic schools when I was growing up, including a high school run by the Basilian Fathers.

The Basilan Fathers are teachers. I wanted to teach, so I thought it would be a good fit and a good way to serve the Lord. I know a lot of guys today have dramatic stories about how they decided to enter the seminary; [laughing] I guess we were less romantic in those days. It was the early 1960s, and it was commonplace. Lots of guys entered the seminary. I was one of them.

The Basilian Fathers had a lot of vocations in those days, and had schools in many cities.

CWR: How has the Church in Canada changed since you first entered the novitiate?

Archbishop Miller: I grew up before the Second Vatican Council. At that time in Canada, most people either attended a Catholic or a Protestant church. Society was based on Christian values. As I look back, it was more “rule bound,” with clear markers of one’s religious identity. The notion of dissent among Catholics was non-existent.

When I entered the novitiate, the Second Vatican Council had just concluded. We first noticed some changes in the liturgy. Huge changes followed, particularly in the period 1965 through 1970. I was an undergraduate seminarian, so I was less affected by the changes. The major changes were with the theologians.

CWR: Give us an overview of the Church in Vancouver.

Archbishop Miller: We’ve always been a minority church in this region of the county. Even 60 years ago, only about 10 percent of the area was Catholic. The Anglican church was once a dominant force in our area, but they’ve seen a huge decline in membership. In fact, today, Catholics are the single largest denomination here.

The Catholic Church in Vancouver never had the large social position that the Church had in the bigger Canadian cities of the east. We’re in a similar situation as the Church in Portland or Seattle vis-À-vis what the Church once was in Boston or New York.

In recent years, Vancouver has seen its Catholic population grow, however, due to immigrants from Asia. Percentage-wise, I believe we have the highest concentration of Asians in the West. Most are immigrants are from China and the Philippines. It’s been a huge boon to the life of the Church.

CWR: What are some of your priorities in the Archdiocese of Vancouver?

Archbishop Miller: We have several. First, we want to foster a culture of vocation. I don’t say vocations, but vocation, meaning both the marriage vocation and the vocation to the priesthood and religious life. We’re currently re-doing our marriage preparation courses, and we’ve just hired a person full-time to teach Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. We’re also sending people for training in Natural Family Planning and family enrichment programs.

We’re also working to evangelize our families. We’re developing our youth ministry programs, and providing more adult faith formation with a stronger catechetical component. Some of our programs in the past have been good, others not.

We’re also developing our stewardship programs in parishes, and have many infrastructure renewal projects in the archdiocese, particularly in the schools. We’re in a major earthquake corridor here and there are seismic retrofit regulations we must meet.

CWR: What Catholic programs have been popular in your parishes?

Archbishop Miller: Father Robert Barron’s materials have been very popular, as have Jeff Cavins’ Bible studies. We also have some excellent groups for men and women. We use the YOUCAT program to catechize our young people.

CWR: In 2012, you took part in dedication ceremonies of a cloistered community of Dominican nuns in the Squamish Valley north of Vancouver. How is Vancouver doing for vocations to the priesthood and religious life?

Archbishop Miller: We’re doing okay for vocations, not great, but not in the pits.  We’ve never had huge numbers here, but we’re maintaining ourselves. We have 16 seminarians right now.

We were pleased to welcome the Dominican sisters in 1999. They’re our second cloister of nuns; the other is the Poor Clares who have been here for 60 years. The Dominicans are a wonderful community and they have a beautiful monastery.

CWR: The number of children attending Catholic schools has declined tremendously in the United States over the past 50 years. Has Canada seen similar declines?

Archbishop Miller: In most provinces, no, because the way we fund schools is different in Canada. The government pays all or part of the tuition, including for Catholics attending a Catholic school. In British Columbia, where Vancouver is located, the government has been funding schools for 30 years. There’s a greater risk that they might try to influence what is taught, so we only accept 50 percent of our funding from the government, to prevent them from interfering more.

CWR: When you talk about sensitive issues, such as same-sex marriage, do you fear reprisals from the Canadian government?

Archbishop Miller: These types of issues don’t come up too often, like they do with the American episcopate. There is a political dimension of American Catholicism that we don’t have here. Canadians know the Church’s position on these issues.

Vancouver is a secular city, but not anti-clerical. Many people think Catholic positions are misguided or wrong, but there is not an angry, anti-Catholic bias.

Occasionally we might have an issue come up—like a little boy in one of our schools who wants to dress up like a little girl—and we’ll get dragged before the Canadian Human Rights Commission. But that doesn’t happen very often.

CWR: You’ve publicly advocated for laws to protect the unborn in British Columbia. Have you made any progress towards this goal?

Archbishop Miller: No. There are no legal protections for the unborn in British Columbia. Although we have restrictions in practice, we have none in law. The prime minister has blocked votes on it; he doesn’t seem to want to take up the issue. I hope that will change.

CWR: You’ve studied and written about the development of the papacy. How are popes of today different from previous centuries?

Archbishop Miller: In the past 50 years, popes have emerged as central symbols. When you read the secular papers, they mention the pope two or three times a week. This wasn’t true in the ’30s or ’40s. The pope seemed to be more of a remote individual, not as visibly present in the lives of Catholics. The popes became a more present reality, I believe, beginning with the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

This can be good, but there is also a downside. The pope is not a rock star. You don’t want the Church to become overly focused on a single person and his activity. Pope Benedict was aware of this, and did his best to avoid it.

CWR: How is working in the Vatican different than working at the diocesan level?

Archbishop Miller: [laughing] Here you’re in charge, there you’re not! I worked in the English-language section of the Secretariat of State for five years and then for the Congregation for Catholic Education. There is very much a vertical chain of command at the Vatican.

CWR: How does the Church in Canada differ than the Church in the United States?

Archbishop Miller: Religion is more of a private affair here. I lived in Houston, Texas for a long time, where I was president of the University of St. Thomas. Houston is a publicly religious city. If you went to a gathering, you’d immediately know what everyone’s religion was.

In Vancouver, people don’t discuss their religion openly, even if in private they’re very devout. We just, for example, started a Red Mass for those in the legal profession. I noticed that you could have multiple members of a single law firm, all practicing Catholics, who weren’t aware anyone else in the firm was Catholic. Certainly, we’re looking to change that.
 
About the Author
Jim Graves 

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
 

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