Pope Francis offers new development, not new direction – archbishop

Pope Francis Feb. 26, 2020 in St. Peter's Square - the Holy Father marked 10 years as pontiff on March 13, 2023. (File photo by Daniel Ibanez - Catholic News Agency)

By Nicholas Elbers, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – A keen pastoral ingenuity, mixed with a renewed emphasis on our responsibilities to the poor and marginalized, are the hallmarks of Pope Francis’ papacy, says Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller.

In an interview with The B.C. Catholic to discuss Francis’ 10th anniversary as pope marked on March 13, 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 re-looking 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,” Miller said.

“His predecessors came from a more academic background,” the Vancouver archbishop said, “and their language just wasn’t as colourful as Pope Francis.’”

Miller 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 relatable language and simple imagery is “a unique gift of Pope Francis,” Miller said.

Saskatoon Bishop Mark Hagemoen was appointed bishop of the northern diocese of Mackenzie Fort Smith by Pope Francis in the first year of his papacy. “I was quickly inspired by his spiritual and pastoral leadership, which has in many ways guided and mentored my own ministry,” says Hagemoen, who was later appointed the eighth bishop of Saskatoon by the Holy Father.

In particular, Bishop Hagemoen cites three of many features of Pope Francis’ leadership:

•  “I have been inspired and guided by how Pope Francis has approached the ‘New Evangelization,’ building on his predecessors: Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Perhaps in part because – as a former archbishop of a South American country – he is able to link to many of the unique issues of the Global South – he has expanded the discussion and reflection about the New Evangelization to be practical and focussed, especially in terms of reflecting on the marginalized and the stranger, and addressing our global relationship with our peoples and cultures, and also our relationship with creation.”

•  “Pope Francis has invited and challenged the Church to embrace the fullness of her teaching. In our world today – which features so much polarization – we witness at times the emphasis on only a part of the Church’s teaching and tradition. Pope Francis has endeavoured to bring to bear both Catholic moral and social teaching on the range of complex and difficult issues the world is facing.”

•  “I have very much appreciated Pope Francis’ reformer’s heart, as he works to always align the Church’s structures and bureaucracy with the Gospel. As all of God’s faithful are called to ‘ongoing conversion of life and heart’ – so with the Church’s structures and administration, which carry out difficult and complex tasks of stewardship and governance, all-the-while making sure that the Church’s institutional features always reflect and serve the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Pope Francis’ emphasis on evangelization and the joy of the Gospel have born concrete fruit, says Archbishop Miller, noting they were the inspiration for “our celebration of missionary month which launched Proclaim,” the archdiocese’s evangelization ministry in the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.

“We talk about the Church’s evangelizing mission now,” Miller 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 prays silently at the water’s edge at Lac Ste. Anne, during the papal visit to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. (File photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register – CCN)

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 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 of the papacy’s unique connection to Christ. One is from the Urbi et Orbi (to the City and the World) blessing during the early days of the pandemic in March 2020.

“He was all alone,” said 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 of Vancouver, that scene of Pope Francis alone in St. Peter’s Square, illustrated the difficult-to-define relationship between Pope and Christ, summarized in the papal title “vicar of Christ.”

Pope Francis has not been a stranger to controversy, and much of the mainstream news coverage of his 10th 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 – 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, 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.”

Pope Francis places flowers near a statue of Mary as he prays in the Little Chapel of the Apparitions at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal May 12, 2017. Pope Francis consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25, 2022. (CNS file photo by Paul Haring)