While the Catholic church has struggled in recent years – through scandals and declining Church attendance – Vancouver’s archdiocese has experienced something of a boom of late.
The Vancouver archdiocese added 37,000 new members between 2007 and 2012. Since 2009, Archbishop Michael Miller has served as the chief shepherd of the archdiocese and its 475,000-person flock.
The Ottawa native was educated at the University of Toronto before heading to the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where he taught and eventually became the university’s chair and dean of the School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary. In 2003, Pope John Paul II named him secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education.
The Globe and Mail spoke to Archbishop Miller ahead of Easter weekend about the state of the church, the election of Pope Francis and Catholicism in the Lower Mainland.
The archdiocese is growing in Vancouver. What are the biggest factors behind that?
I think a lot of the growth is because of the arrival of recent immigrants, obviously the Filipino population has increased substantially in the Lower Mainland and is, for the most part, Catholic. Our largest numbers of those who were not baptized as children, but who were received into the church as adults, comes largely from the Korean and Chinese and East Asian communities in rather significant numbers. That spurs on the growth … We have parishes in the archdiocese, say at Joyce and 41st where St. Mary’s is, where on an average Sunday it has 5,000 people. At Easter, it has more than 7,000 on the day.
The new pope, Pope Francis, has paid close attention to social issues, particularly poverty. Do you see that focus resonating in the Lower Mainland?
His example will spur us to make sure that if it slipped away from our consciousness, that it should move back into a central place … In the building we’re in now, upstairs at night there’s 104 men sleeping. It’s the largest men’s shelter in British Columbia. We feed hundreds of people down on the Lower Eastside. We have a large outreach in prison ministries … The big questions for the church are homelessness, addiction, marginalization, attentiveness to the incarcerated, and the need for a broader understanding of restorative justice.
Despite local growth, some would argue that the Catholic church is losing its way in the West, with fewer new people coming to the faith. Do you think the church has lost its relevancy?
I don’t think it’s the church’s role to adapt to modern society. It is true that the decline in practice has taken place. In the West, statistics can verify that … The decline is certainly something to be paid attention to. And B.C. is one of the areas where there is the largest percentage of the population that reports either agnostic or atheistic beliefs.
Is that a concern?
We believe that the fundamental message is entrusted or given to us … It’s not something we’re free to change or adapt because we like or don’t like it. If we believe it comes from a revelation, our duty is to proclaim that, to do it as attractively as possible … but not at any cost.
But keeping young Catholics in the church must be a challenge, with young people largely in favour of gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose – two things the church is very much against.
They are slightly different issues. It’s really hard to find a real practising Catholic who thinks abortion is okay, someone who goes to church every week. On the question of gay marriage, there’s probably not the same unanimity, although I’ve never really heard any Catholic really suggest that they would see it [gay marriage] as really marriage as a sacramental marriage, which is marriage for Catholics.
What’s the single biggest challenge for the church both here and elsewhere?
The biggest challenge is always the fundamental one that the church is always facing: How do you talk about God, in a world which seems in some ways, in particularly in the West, to be uninterested in that question. It’s not that it [society] has articulated objections, it’s just indifferent … The superficiality of modern life – that is the biggest enemy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.