Grace Under Pressure

May 1, 2010

By Cam Sylvester

If Archbishop Michael Miller is piloting the car you’re riding in, never, ever ask if he’s been in love. Chances are he’ll blush, then sputter something like “I haven’t been asked that since I entered the novitiate” before almost veering into oncoming traffic. Miller, who replaced Archbishop Raymond Roussin in January 2009, is notoriously difficult to pin down. This makes him appear the consummate Vatican politico, hoarding his privacy like myrrh and wielding his irony like a sword. Yet others have a different view. “Miller has a great sense of humour,” the American Catholic commentator John Allen said. “He’s down to earth and he’s approachable. He’s not a theoretical prelate living on a self-made planet surrounding himself with flunkies.”

So which is the real Miller? And why did Pope Benedict XVI dispatch him from the pinnacle of the Roman Curia to this land of pagan sun worshippers, far from his beloved Italian cuisine? It would be hard to know if all you had to go on was Miller’s biography. Like Christ’s, it’s filled with tantalizing gaps: he was born (in Ottawa, in 1946), then he sort of disappeared; years later he became a priest and things really started hopping. But it would be easier to part the Red Sea than to get Miller to flesh out the details of his life; he is nothing if not private and politic.

People who know him paint a more nuanced portrait, one that suggests he’s destined for greater things than a midsize archdiocese on the west coast of Canada. What drives him? He’d have you believe it’s the power of his heavenly father. But in Miller’s case you might want to toss his earthly father into the psychic soup as well, along with a portion of ambition.

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As in all heraldry, tradition defines an archbishop’s coat of arms, which is used as an official seal and as the principal identifying device for his see. Michael Miller’s can be studied in three parts
1. External Elements Patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, and arch-abbots all use the green pontifical hat, with tassels hanging on either side. Archbishops use four rows; popes and cardinals get five. The double-traverse archiepiscopal cross stands behind the shield.
2. Shield The white area holds a book, symbolizing the word of God and recalling the task of education (Miller’s role as secretary of the Congregation for Education at the Holy See put him in charge of 1,200 universities and thousands of primary and secondary schools and seminaries); it also appears in the arms of Miller’s Congregation of St. Basil. The jagged line dividing it from the red section recalls Vancouver’s mountains. On the red field stand a dove, symbol of St. Thomas Aquinas (also on the arms of his former employer, the University of St. Thomas); a rose, representing Our Lady of the Rosary, patroness of the Archdiocese of Vancouver; and the dogwood, B.C.’s flower.
3. Scroll Miller’s Latin motto means “To Serve the Truth.” He adopted it when he became a bishop in 2003. Pope John Paul II called it “an eloquent summary of the commitment that has marked his priestly life.”

 

 

THAT JOHN MICHAEL MILLER GREW UP CATHOLIC is itself a minor miracle. His mother, Katharine Rob, was of Scottish Loyalist stock and remained a staunch Protestant her whole life. His father, Albert Miller, was a Catholic almost in spite of his lineage. His father, Miller’s grandfather, grew up Catholic, but only as Catholic as one could be in a household where his mother, his stepfather, and all of his stepsisters were Anglican.

Albert sent his son and daughter to Catholic schools. And it was at St. Joseph’s High School in Ottawa that young Miller, hobbled by polio, found ways other than contact sports to hit his stride. He debated. He swam. He was selected student body president. He honed an ironic, if distancing, sense of humour. And he nurtured a penchant for drama, starring as George in the school production of Our Town.

Playing Emily opposite him was former CBC Radio As It Happens host Mary-Lou Finlay. “At lunch a few weeks ago he reminded me how we competed fiercely for top grades in the class,” Finlay said. “His Excellency—I looked that up, by the way, so I got it right—says I beat him, but he’s just being kind. I think he scored 100 percent on everything.”

Finlay said Miller was extremely hard-working, a trait noted widely. And she mentioned his movie star good looks. There’s more than a little Jack Lemmon, with perhaps a splash of Noel Coward, in Miller’s bright eyes and dramatic, rubbery facial expressions. “I’d say he’s even more handsome today than he was back then,” Finlay said. “Of course, you aren’t supposed to talk about an archbishop like this.” That hasn’t stopped the Catholic matrons on Vancouver’s West Side from doing so—they sometimes refer to him as Archbishop Hottie.

Smart, handsome, perhaps an overachiever, Miller could have gone just about anywhere for university. He chose St. Michael’s, the Catholic college at the University of Toronto run by the Basilians, the congregation of teaching priests that also ran St. Joe’s. In 1966, at the end of his first year at St. Mike’s, he announced he’d be joining the Basilians.

Asked why he chose the priesthood, Miller raises his deflector shields. “I was a Catholic school kid in the 1960s. Choosing to go in was not as exotic as it is today. Half the football team went into the priesthood.”

Were his parents surprised? He hadn’t said much to them about entering the priesthood before his announcement. “I suppose they suspected it.” Here Miller’s eyes widen wryly. “But my parents had always told us to do what we wanted to do, so in a sense they were hoisted on their own petards.” Not long after, Miller’s father died. “Fortunately, he saw me enter the novitiate and my sister married before he passed away.”

Miller’s trajectory quickly climbed past those of most of his contemporaries. He graduated top in his class, garnering a Governor General’s medal. He received special permission to enroll at the University of Wisconsin and pursue a masters’ in Latin American studies. “It was the ’60s and rules had changed, so for better or worse I went to Wisconsin on my own. There was no seminary there, of course, so I fended for myself.” He returned briefly to St. Joe’s to teach, and then, in 1974, he was sent to Rome to study theology.

The following year, while classmates were being ordained in Toronto by the local archbishop, Miller was professing his final vows to Pope Paul VI himself at St. Peter’s Basilica. “The ordination had to be held outside in that enormous piazza.

I mean, where else could you fit 359 men all prostrating before the Pope?”

The whole “priesthood thing” remained a bit of a mystery to his mother, and he recalls fondly (with tongue firmly in cheek) that she was happy he was ordained in Rome. “If I’d been ordained here, it would have been a big social problem for her. You know, she’d have fretted over issues like, ‘What kind of a party is the mother of a new priest supposed to hold?’ ”

Miller completed his PhD in Rome, then taught theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, eventually becoming vice-president of academic affairs. Called to Rome a second time, he toiled for five years in the lower ranks of the Roman Curia’s Secretariat of State (the Holy See’s foreign ministry). He returned to St. Thomas and served as president before being summoned back to Rome in 2003 for a third go-round. Appointed secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education (equivalent to a deputy minister of education) and Archbishop of Vertara (a titular archdiocese), he was catapulted into the upper echelons of Church hierarchy.

Before Miller could complete the five-year position, however, he was dispatched to Vancouver to assist Roussin, who was suffering from clinical depression. In January 2009, when he replaced Roussin, the hallelujah chorus was nearly  deafening. Conservative Catholic websites went bonkers. “Outspokenly orthodox, Pro-Life Archbishop Takes over Vancouver Diocese,” gushed LifeSiteNews.com. My own brother, president of Corpus Christi College at UBC at the time and usually not one prone to embellishment, said, “It’s like Luongo coming to the Canucks.”

“CHECK THE DOOR HANDLES IN HIS OFFICE.” I’d asked Mary Catherine Sommers, a colleague at St. Thomas, what Miller’s key strengths are and, laughing, she explained, “When he was president here in Houston, what I remember clearly is he would polish the brass door handles in the admin offices because the cleaning people would forget to do it.” Hard work, detail, and order are very important to this man. “And generous to a fault,” she added.

Indeed, my notes are filled with stories of Miller going out of his way, whether to help locate a friend’s lost daughter in Rome or to welcome a friend of a friend to a new city during the chaotic Christmas season. The affection clearly runs two ways. In 2004, almost 400 friends and family, most of them from Houston, trekked to Rome to witness his installation as archbishop by Pope John Paul II.

Not everyone loves the man. More than a few people find him too glib, too polished. When I asked one local priest what he thought his archbishop might do about a politically charged issue then making the rounds, he replied, “Who knows? He hasn’t had time to stick his finger out the window and see which way the wind is blowing yet.” And a long-time Vatican observer told me, “Miller is a cagey fellow, and that’s being charitable.”

According to Joe McFadden, president of St. Thomas until 1997, Miller’s appointment as vice president, academic, in Houston was opposed by more than a few doubting Thomases on the faculty. That’s because Miller had another nickname back then: “Killer Miller.” Students considered him a tough taskmaster, and the nickname rang true with faculty as well. “They saw him as a stern and organized academic leader,” McFadden recalled. “He had to work hard to win their trust.”

He did so by launching a $65 million capital campaign, twice as ambitious as any St. Thomas had attempted before. “Here we had this new president who had never done fundraising before,” recalled Ken De Dominicis, St. Thomas’s vice president for institutional advancement hired by Miller to help with the campaign. “Overnight he had to learn to salt the people, work the rooms, sit on boards, give speeches at Rotary and athletic clubs, and make relationships outside of the Catholic community.” The result? “We went over the top and raised $67 million.”

Most telling was the type of people Miller attracted. The two biggest philanthropists in Houston, George Mitchell and Jack Blanton, gave generously. And a key social networker, Elizabeth Ghrist, agreed to serve as campaign chair after meeting Miller. Not one of them is Catholic.

Sommers said this was also when Miller refined his public mask. “When the new president is the guy from down the hall, you wonder if he’s really up to the challenge. Father Miller is naturally a private person with a public face he learned to wear in Rome. But he cultured that mask further here in St. Thomas in order to gain authority first as a teacher, and then as a colleague, and finally as a president.”

Miller has always had the proper, detached air of his mother’s Scottish Methodist clan about him. In the 1970s and ’80s, many priests were throwing away the collar, breaking down the wall between clergy and the flock. At Gonzaga University, in Spokane, where I was studying, some priests were dating my classmates.

Not Miller. According to Peggy Humm, one of his former students, he maintained a detached decorum. “He wasn’t one of those priests wearing Hawaiian shirts. He wore his priesthood with dignity. And he certainly wasn’t warm and fuzzy.”

Even before that, in Wisconsin, with the campus ablaze with students denouncing the war, Miller floated above the fray. “It was their passion, really, because of the draft. It wasn’t a biting personal issue for me, being Canadian and in the novitiate.” As for the campus ministry serving Catholic students with Vatican II-inspired folk masses and spiritual retreats, Miller recalls it as “lively and active, but goofy.”

THIS RAISES THE BIG QUESTION for Catholics in Vancouver. Does Miller support Pope John XXIII’s vision of Vatican II as a way to open up the windows and let in the fresh air of masses in the vernacular, empowering the laity, and pursuing ecumenical urges, as liberals hope? Or would he tear up that flawed document and take us back to the great old days of priests mumbling in Latin and placing Communion on the tongue, as conservatives pray? We might start by looking at two policies promulgated by the Congregation for Catholic Education during his time there, both of which Sommers said had Miller’s fingerprints all over them.

The first was a series of fact-finding visitations to all the seminaries in the U.S. Sommers, who for decades taught many young men going into the seminaries and almost as many fleeing them, has heard all of what she called the “horror stories of the seamier side” of what goes on within their walls. “As I see it, there isn’t a crisis in vocations in the Catholic Church, just a crisis in the education going on in the seminaries, places where predatory classmates and teachers stalk and pressure young men trying to discern their vocation.” Sommers said that previous visitations left many stones unturned, overlooking the decay and abuse. Not the one under Miller’s watch. “This time seminarians were interviewed individually, not in groups. The message was clear that it would no longer be ‘business as usual.’ ” The Vatican had called for the visitation before Miller arrived in Rome, but the congregation implemented it while he was secretary, and Sommers believes “the thoroughness of the visitations and subsequent report was very much him.”

Almost simultaneously, the congregation dropped a bombshell by publishing the “Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies.” It stated that “The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’….One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”

“There was the expected reaction—a lot of flurry—then things died down,” Miller says now, somewhat dismissively. But with pedophilia scandals rocking the Catholic Church in recent decades and no clear official response from Rome to those abuses, some read the instruction as an attempt by the Church to distance itself from the abuses by scapegoating homosexuals.

“I used to focus on the fidelity to the vow of celibacy, and not sexual orientation,” Mary Catherine Sommers said. “And that’s true for abuse in general, which can be heterosexual or homosexual. But in terms of the Catholic experience in the seminaries, the abuse is always homosexual. So a document calling for banning practising homosexuals, or those with deep-seated tendencies, from the seminaries could be seen as prudential.”

Fair enough. But there is an irony to all this. Gay men have always been attracted to the priesthood. Studies suggest there is a higher percentage of homosexually oriented men in the Catholic clergy than in the general population. Rumours about specific popes and bishops persist. And if you walk into any chancery office, including Vancouver’s, and your gaydar doesn’t go off, it probably needs adjusting. As Sommers said, “Most Catholics know priests who are gay and do stay faithful to their vows”—just as they know heterosexual priests who remain celibate. Most Catholics also know priests of both orientations who don’t. Some of them (both gay and straight) diddle little kids and deserve to be jailed. As for the ones who break their vows with consenting adults, well, that’s for the Church to deal with, taking due note of the power that clergy have, and the way that influences “consent.”

No matter what the authors of the instruction wrote—Miller’s signature is on the document—to declare that a man should be barred from the priesthood merely because of sexual orientation is disrespectful, if not hurtful, to any gay man entering with the intention of remaining celibate. It’s equally so for the gay men already in the Church who have stayed true to their vows. Surely this was on his mind when he sat around the table with others drafting the document? “Yes,” he says. “And that’s why the language is so carefully chosen.” He’s referring to this statement later in the text: “Different, however, would be the case in which one were dealing with homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem.”

According to one noted religious commentator, Miller was very uncomfortable with a hard-line interpretation of the instruction written just after its release by Monsignor Tony Anatrella, a French Jesuit psychoanalyst, and published in the official Vatican newspaper. In it Anatrella argued homosexuals were a menace to society and should be barred from the priesthood, full stop; it’s suggested that Miller was opposed to the article because it lacked balance. But as another religious journalist, David Gibson, noted, how do you say so publicly? “It’s a nervous time for the Catholic Church,” he said. “If you poke your head up over the ramparts too high, especially if you’re a bishop, bad things can happen.”
WHY WAS THIS CAREFUL MAN  (“The Pope would say ‘prudent’,” Gibson noted) sent to lead the 450,000 Catholics who live in the Archdiocese of Vancouver? One reason might be that he’s something of a cosmopolitan. In university, he volunteered to work on development projects in Mexico, and he’s picked up a number of languages along the way. He’s held jobs outside the Catholic hierarchy. He’s successfully run a university in the Hispanic community of Houston. That may not seem all that multicultural in the real world, but it’s head and shoulders above the experience of his predecessors, men like the towering Archbishop James Carney, who grew up Irish Catholic in Vancouver, attended a local seminary, and served his entire career (he was archbishop from 1969 to 1990) here in the city.

The ability to reach across cultures is essential in Vancouver today because this is not the Church I grew up in. The pews would be even emptier if not for the influx of immigrant Catholics from Latin America, Korea, China, Vietnam, and, most importantly, the Philippines. According to Aprodicio Laquian, a retired UBC prof, “The arrival of 500,000 Filipinos to Canada has revived the Catholic Church in places like Vancouver because 85 percent of them are Catholic.” By “revived,” Laquian means made it more conservative. “A lot of Filipinos who arrived here in the ’70s were middle class, pro Aquino, and progressive. Since then more live-in caregivers came in under the Caregiver Program and they tended to have lower educational qualifications. They are much more traditional.” As a result, Vancouver will see more Catholic masses in Tagalog, and a bull market in elaborate processions on feast days, complete with Filipino flag-waving and feather-capped Knights of Columbus serving as honour guards.

Miller may also have been sent to “polish the handles,” rubbing out anything that might be seen to stain orthodox Catholic teachings. “With this Pope,” said Gibson, “there is no more talk about celibacy, or women priests, or altar girls.” The American writer John Allen agreed but took a slightly different tack. “The Papal Nuncio in Canada thought the Catholic Church needed a remake from its reputation of being one of the more left-of-centre national churches in the world. They want the Church to be more centrist. Miller would do that without burning the bridges with progressives.”

Cynics might also point out pickings are slim in the Catholic hierarchy. “Good leaders who can relate to the outside world—a skill not taken for granted in the Vatican, by the way—are in short supply,” Allen noted. “Someone with Miller’s skill set was needed back home in Canada.”

IN ROME, BEFORE BEING DISPATCHED  to Vancouver, Miller lived in the Paul VI house, which he describes as “a cross between a seminary and a clerical hotel.” He wrote books (his scholarship on the history of the papacy is renowned), and often walked to work through the streets of one of the oldest, most stylish cities in the world. On his way to his Vatican office (down the hall from the Pope’s), he’d stop for an espresso. And after a long day at work, rubbing shoulders with princes in the Pope’s court, he could take a friend visiting from Canada or Houston to enjoy a late meal at one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants he’d discovered, often sharing an excellent Chianti.

Things are different in Vancouver. He lives alone in a small bungalow in south Vancouver. He drives to work, and while the view of Moshe Safdie’s library from the Cambie Bridge is oddly familiar, it doesn’t hold a candle to Piazza San Pietro. His office is housed in a brick building, long past its prime, with beige carpets and 1970s oak panelling. He spends his days attending meetings on the archdiocese’s Twittering strategy delivered by earnest young men in ill-fitting shirts, or visiting prisons, or celebrating the latest Filipino novena. And while he has discovered good Italian restaurants here, “In Italy,” he says, “they go out and pick the real Italian tomatoes right there, sweetened in the sun. You can’t beat that.”

By all reports, he works as hard as ever. Is it ambition? Ambition is a queer thing in the Catholic Church. It’s not like being ambitious at, say, General Motors. In the Church, you can’t strategize to become a plant manager in Deerborn, Michigan, as a move in your grand scheme to end up in head office. When people do talk about why some in the hierarchy move up and others don’t, it’s always in the passive voice: they are chosen; they are recalled. It’s never anything they do themselves.

If Miller is indeed moving up, the next step would be cardinal, one of the 180 or so scarlet-robed Church princes who vote for the Pope. Archbishops in dioceses like Toronto and New York are usually given that position by tradition. It would be unusual for the one in Vancouver to be so honoured, but not unheard of.

Or he might be raised to cardinal and shipped back to Rome. His Houston friend Elizabeth Ghrist thinks he might even be Pope one day. “Let’s put it this way,” she effused. “He’d be up to it.”

Perhaps. But it has been a long struggle already, and Miller notices that the polio is making it more difficult to do things like climb stairs. He’s not sure his life would be different without the impairment, mind you. “My only frame of reference is the imagination; I have no before and after to compare.” He says his body is like a flawed appliance: it works, but you only have a certain amount of time before it wears down. And it is wearing down.

Without prompting, he asks the question I’ve resisted. “ ’Does it make me work harder?’ Who knows where that comes from?” And then he tells me again about his father, Albert Miller. A Mountie, and then a salesman, the archbishop’s father was an excellent athlete who would recount tales to his only son about the speed of the ice when he played semi-pro hockey in Atlantic City, or the roar of the crowd when he competed in the Grey Cup for the Regina Roughriders.

“My father taught me how to ride a bike and how to swim,” says Miller. “If I’d been able to be quarterback of the football team, I think that would have been good. He would have liked that.” He then pushes himself up out of the chair, shakes my hand firmly, and, in his crisp black shirt and pants, makes his way to the door. He turns the spotless brass handle and bids me good afternoon. VM

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