WINNIPEG — Pope Francis dreams of a poor church, calling the faithful to poverty. “That is the church that Jesus and his disciples preached,” said Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver as he spoke of the teachings of Francis. “The church must be poor in imitation of its founder. The poor are present throughout the Gospel, from beginning to end. They have much to teach us because they know the poverty of Christ, his suffering.”
Miller was the opening keynote speaker at an academic conference examining the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg at 100: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba, Oct. 22 - 24. The conference was one of many special events marking the 100th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Winnipeg which concludes Dec. 4.
Miller’s topic was The Future of the Universal Church and the Place of the Local Churches in that Future. The archbishop said it remains to be seen what such a call to poverty means to local churches, particularly rich churches such as in Canada or the U.S.
“Pope Francis has a warning of danger in times of prosperity,” Miller said. “A rich church community just becomes another part of society, lacking the leaven of prophecy. When this happens the poor lose their place in the church. The church becomes so middle-class the poor are ashamed to be a part of it. It becomes a church for the rich. Francis is concerned the faithful are too insular. We have retreated from outreach to the comfort of the sacristy. A church closed in on itself is a sick church.”
As goes the universal church, said Miller, so go the local churches. “The ministry of Peter has assumed such influence that the universal church is inextricably tied to the local church.”
Miller said when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose the name Francis he set himself squarely in the footsteps of Assisi and his vocation to reform the church. Miller said Pope Francis hears the same invitation from Jesus that was heard by Assisi: “Francis, go and repair my church, it is in ruins.”
For Francis, Miller said, “spiritual renewal must precede institutional reform. It is a renewal of the church by living the Gospel. A simple radical return to the real Gospel, to the style of the life of Jesus and the disciples as described in the Gospel.”
Miller said Francis hasn’t set an agenda for renewal because of his belief in God’s newness, “that he is continually surprising us and guiding us in unexpected ways. Francis is a great counsellor of patience regarding change, believing God did not hurry his history of salvation. He preferred a long history.
“So much of the new life of the church comes from the Christian Life Community or Catholic Charismatic Renewal that emphasize a personal relationship with Christ,” said Miller, “and for Pope Francis, that is the sine qua non (what is indispensable).”
Miller said Francis preaches that “where we find decadent churches, we find Christians who have never encountered Jesus Christ or forgotten the encounter.” The archbishop said in the pope’s view, the church has “involved itself in small-minded rules; not that rules are unimportant, but they make sense only in light of what is primary, the encounter with God. People need a church that shows love in concrete, practical ways, a church that is reluctant to decry but quick to accept.”
Miller said the pope compares the church to a mother, “a mother that never gives up on her children, even those who erred or are erring. She offers her love even to those who have fallen into a deep abyss and finds a form of mercy for all.
“Pope Francis believes what the church needs is the ability to heal wounds, like a field hospital after a battle. You have to heal the wounds first and then you can talk about everything else.”
Miller said in the pope’s relations with bishops, and by extension local churches, Francis prefers synodality to collegiality. Miller said synodality allows for more inclusive and multi-layered relationships.
“The synod is one way of the church walking and talking together,” Miller said. “Francis believes a synod is a place for real consultation with bishops and the laity and if the future church becomes more synodal it will become a more listening church, a church that ‘journeys together with the eyes of faith and the heart of God.’
“Pope Francis is pointing the universal church and local churches to a path of renewal,” Miller said, “first spiritual but also practical, also progressive, looking at the future with fresh eyes. May our own local churches be ready to accept his challenge.”