An Interview with His Excellency J. Michael Miller, CSB

From the Fall 2009 Edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter


Q: In your Convocation Address you spoke to our students about making St. Thomas Aquinas their intellectual master. Can you talk about what that means and how one remains free even when he has a master?

A: It seems to me one of the great ways in which we do make St. Thomas a master is to appreciate the freedom that he actually brought to the study both of philosophy and theology in his own time - I mean his use of Aristotle and his willingness to engage both Arab and Jewish thinkers.

St. Thomas had an understanding that the truth brings with it freedom, not the suppression of questions. He didn't pull things off the table a priori. There was nothing narrow. St. Thomas was a man who raised the question and then made a determinatio, which is a method that we can continue to use.

Of course, the genius of St. Thomas, the Common Doctor, is that he so well formulated so many properties of the Faith. But to have an intellectual master does not mean that one simply repeats or parrots St. Thomas and his theorems; it's more about a Thomistic way of going about it.

Another thing that I think we should bear in mind is that Thomas was very much a man of his time who was dealing with the questions that arose in his environment at the University of Paris particularly, but also in the other centers and the other studia in which he lived.

Q: What were some of those issues?

A: Well, there were all kinds of arguments about universals. There was also the terrific argument about whether mendicant orders and the Dominican way of life were legitimate. So we see St. Thomas wasn't simply a man abstracted, but a lot of his work was in fact driven by the ecclesial situation in which he lived.

And that is what we have to do. The Lord has given us a particular time to live in the Church. He didn't give us 50 years ago. He didn't give us 300 years ago. And He didn't give us 100 years from now, either. He gave us this time. That is His gift, and we can't complain. This is the time out of which we work, because this is where souls are now, where their salvation is being played out. We can not just seek a refuge in the past nor pretend that we are arrived at a future that we might imagine.

Q: While we are talking about St. Thomas, would you comment about the place of reason in the life of faith?

A: Our way is not the Protestant way - to mine Scripture and become sort of fideists, separating faith and reason. Our intellectual tradition is the preambula fidei: that faith is, obviously, not a problem for reason, but that it is reasonable. It seems to me this is the greatest single contribution that Catholics make, because the Protestant tradition of Christian education just does not have the appreciation for reason.

This is one of the things, I think, on which Pope Benedict is much stronger even than John Paul II. I mean, he just insists on that over and over again. It is important because otherwise faith is a matter of will, which is actually a terrifying thought, for we would then have a capricious universe.

It would be like children who have been abused. They tell you that whatever they did, they never knew if they were going to be hit or not. Most parents are consistent, so children can know that if they do this, they will be punished. But a child in an abusive home does not know when he will be punished. He lives in a terrifying and ultimately psychologically damaging world. And to think that God could be like that! You would be simply, just simply subservient to capriciousness. Instead, as I mentioned in my Convocation Address, we are able to "give a reason for the hope that is in us." You know, each pope has his own quote. That quote of St. Peter is going to be Pope Benedict's quote!

Q: How would you describe your experience working in the Roman Curia?

A: It was really quite wonderful to be there, and I admire the fellows who do it for a lifetime because it's very ascetic. Rome is quite hierarchical. Some of the qualities that we would associate with good management - fast turnarounds, efficiency, widespread consultation - are not typical Roman practices. And initiative has never been the gift of the Roman seat of the Church; rather, the Roman See has always been the guardian of right thinking. The ministry of Peter is not the ministry, particularly, of innovation. It is a safeguarding ministry. Therefore it needs to move slowly. And so we can't apply to it the same criteria that we would use for another kind of bureaucracy. But we are not used to that kind of a system.

My first assignment in Rome was at the Secretariat of State, as a minor official, where there were seven or eight of us. You got off the elevator in the Apostolic Palace - the Secretariat of State, of course, is the only branch that is actually in the Apostolic Palace - and if you turned to the left, you went down to the doors that went to the Pope's apartment. But we didn't ever turn to the left; we always turned to the right! We would walk down those magnificent corridors decorated with frescoes of the world in 1570 - very wonderful. Then we would go behind the second set of doors where people who don't work there don't go, and you find the coffee machine and metallic grey desks. It looked like army equipment from the 1950s.

I learned there how the system worked. I didn't have much responsibility in that job, but I came to appreciate why things are slower in the Vatican. It is not the same thing as other bureaucracies.

Q: You were later appointed Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

A: Yes. That was a very different job. There I was responsible for the day-to-day running of the Congregation, which is one of the nine Vatican congregations dating from the reform of 1588.

We had three sections. The first was the seminary section, which oversaw the 110,000 seminarians in the world, both diocesan and religious, except for seminarians in mission lands that fall under the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

Then we have the section on ecclesiastical faculties and Catholic universities, or higher education. The Holy See issues in its own name university degrees, and has done so from the beginning. Of those there are about 250 faculties of theology around the world. Those are regulated by an apostolic constitution called Sapientia Christiana, and the Holy See is the guarantor of their academic excellence.

And lastly, the Congregation oversees the other 1,300 Catholic institutions of higher education which are regulated by Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Q: Would you tell us about the Archdiocese of Vancouver?

A: Vancouver itself is a very secular city, which is probably induced - this is a strange thing to say - by the fact that it is so beautiful a place that it can feed neo-paganism. And, I think, it has. Catholics have never, therefore, been a dominant force and have built up a world that has never been fully engaged qua Catholic in the wider culture. We built our own schools, and we have a very strong Catholic school system. Our practice rate is pretty high by Canadian standards. But we have never had a large Catholic university; we have never had that engagement with wider things. We do not have a resource like Thomas Aquinas College, or even another kind of Catholic university. But Vancouver has always been - thanks be to God - blessed with vocations.

Q: How does your appointment as archbishop of Vancouver differ from your previous assignments?

A: It is very different. My other assignments were not pastoral in the same way. I didn't have the direct care of souls, the direct cura animarum. So this is very wonderful - but frightening. One has a vision of the bishop leading his flock to the Heavenly Jerusalem. It's easy to say. But if you are the one who must lead, then you say to yourself, "Am I leading? In the right direction?" Actually, in the end you do have to have a little of Pope John XXIII in you and say, "It's your Church, Lord. I'm going to bed."

I don't ever remember being so aware that people pray for you. People often ask for my prayers, and I say, of course, "I'll pray for that." But I will also say, "Pray for me." And they will answer, "Oh, but we pray for you every day," or they will say, "at every Mass." Or somebody will come and say, "We always offer a decade of our rosary for you." I am really kind of caught up with the wonder of people, that they understand that a bishop needs prayers. They're not offering prayers gratuitously. I think they know that in order to carry out the responsibility given, they have to do this. That is very humbling.

Miller 2009 Interview
Dr. Jean Rioux

“If you come to the College with any spark of faith at all, it’s fanned into flames. That’s certainly what happened to me.”

– Dr. Jean Rioux (’82)

Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Benedictine College