[Editor’s Note: Part one of Crux contributor Christopher White’s interview with Archbishop Anthony Fisher appeared on Friday, July 15. This is the second part of their conversation.]
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – This past Christmas, Archbishop Anthony Fisher — barely a year into his new post as Archbishop of Sydney in Australia — contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease, resulting in temporary paralysis.
After four months of rehabilitation, he’s back at work—both catching up on past projects, but also plowing ahead to new ones.
Arguably one of the sharpest minds of the Church’s hierarchy (not to mention one of the youngest), he’s currenty at work on a forthcoming volume on bioethics. (Full disclosure: I am working with Fisher as a research assistant on the volume). And while medical ethics has been a significant part of his educational training, his thinking on these issues has been given a newly personal dimension due to his recent illness.
As he settles back into his demanding schedule, I sat down with Fisher to discuss his hopes and the challenges ahead for the Australian Church.
Among other things, Fisher said the popularity of Pope Francis is enticing many people who’ve been distant from the Church to give it another look, and that he doesn’t want future generations to look back and say, “What an opportunity you missed!”
White: Australia’s Royal Commission is looking into institutional responses to sexual abuse. How do you think the Church will fare in comparison to other institutions?
Fisher: I think the Catholic Church will probably be the most criticized of all institutions in our country in this matter. I’m not sure whether history will judge that we have been the worst offender, but we’re certainly the first to have been forced to face this head on and we are deeply ashamed and humiliated by what has been revealed by the behavior of some of our clergy and religious and by the failures of some of our Church leaders.
I think the fact that the spotlight has been turned first on us has forced us to try to deal with the fallout for victims, helping them in every way that we can to help them achieve justice and some measure of healing. We’re the first to have to look at what sort of systems we can put in place for the discernment of vocations and the support of people in the priesthood and religious life and Church workers in the future, and putting much better child protection protocols in place right across our institutions.
In all sorts of ways, we’ve had to face this first, which means we have not had templates from anywhere else to guide us. We’ve made mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes. I hope that that experience will mean that others can learn from us as they face the same sort of questions, and that if we’ve been through the humiliation of this first, we might come through the other end a better Church.
It may be a humbled and ashamed Church in many ways, but I hope a more compassionate and more respectful Church—a Church where people will really feel safe having their children and young people involved with into the future.
I think the Royal Commission will have some very hard things to say to the Church. We need to hear them with open ears and open hearts. We need to learn what we can from this external scrutiny, and to make the necessary reforms so that we are the best Church we can be for the people in Australia.
When you were auxiliary bishop here you were tasked with planning World Youth Day when Pope Benedict visited in 2008. Any advice for the organizers in Poland during these final weeks and how will the church here in Sydney be participating?
I’m praying very hard for the organizers in Poland, because I know very well what they’re going through. I think it will be a wonderful thing for the Church in Poland, but I think for the organizers it’s a time like we all know of the last five minutes before trying to get the dinner on the table on Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s just a mad scramble at the end.
That’s probably happening in Poland, as they try to get all of the venues ready and all of the different events rehearsed and all the different things that go with that—such as ensuring you can feed two million people or however many will be there—and to make sure they’re not distracted from the spiritual purpose, the pilgrimage that is World Youth Day.
The Poles have done this before. I think it was the first World Youth Day outside of Rome. It was a long time ago, but they have done this and they’ve certainly attended World Youth Days in big numbers for many years, so they’ve got a pretty good idea how to do this and I have great confidence they’re going to do this wonderfully well.
It’s going to be a tremendous World Youth Day for the young people that go there, especially as it will be in the city of John Paul II, the Father of World Youth Day and in the great city of Divine Mercy in this Year of Mercy. It’s going to be a very special World Youth Day for those particular notes, and of course with the particular gifts of Pope Francis leading the young people there.
For the young people of Sydney, I’ll be sending more than a thousand, which is a lot for one city in Australia at the furthest point in the world from Krakow. I think for them it’s going to be a tremendous opportunity not just to encounter Christ, to encounter him through his vicar Pope Francis and with the young people of the world, but to do so in the land of John Paul and via the various pilgrimages through the Holy Land and Marian Shrines or through the world of John Paul in greater Poland that the different groups from this archdiocese are doing on their way to World Youth Day.
In the lead-up to that, we’re giving them lots of formation and lots of different experiences to prepare them because you want to till the soil of their souls to receive the seed of World Youth Day so it really takes roots and flowers in their many years ahead.
We’re also planning now for the things we can do with the young people when they get back. We want to make sure there’s really good follow-up.
A lot of people come back from World Youth Day on fire with faith wanting to learn more and wanting to express their faith in new ways. We want to be able to catch them when they come back with that enthusiasm and give them places to put that energy.
World Youth Day is often the source of many vocations, the birth of new movements, and general enthusiasm for its host city. In the eight years since Sydney played host to it, what have been the effects that you’ve witnessed?
Certainly some of the ones you first mentioned. For instance, in priestly and religious vocations those have certainly gone up in Australia. I don’t have the exact figures but very many of the young men and young women that are entering the priesthood or religious, something like three-quarters of them would mention World Youth Day as a crucial point in the journey toward their vocation.
I also think that’s true of marriage vocations. They’re harder for me to monitor in the same sort of way, but I’ve often heard people say that it was at World Youth Day that they often thought through where God fit into the plan for their lives and to be asking him to help them know their plan for their lives. World Youth Day is often where they might have met someone that ended up being their spouse or at least clearly discerning that they’re called for marriage.
I think that across the vocational scene, Australia has certainly benefited hugely for being a host to World Youth Day—certainly Sydney has.
Another obvious fruit for us is that our youth ministry—what you would call youth and young adult ministry in the States—has flowered enormously as a result of World Youth Day. In cities like Sydney where there are three metropolitan dioceses within Sydney, before the lead up to World Youth Day there might have been thirty or forty youth groups in the city. Today there would be at least two hundred flourishing youth groups and ministries in this city, and World Youth Day is entirely the cause of that—at least after the Holy Spirit!
It unleashed a lot of energy and we were enormously graced by preparing for World Youth Day, as well as hosting it. For now, many of the young people in these movements, World Youth Day eight years ago was before they even have memories or certainly before they were youth or young adults themselves, but they’re benefiting from the continuing effects of that World Youth Day in Australia.
I think, too, for the Church beyond the youth and young adults, it was a turning point in terms of our awareness of the needs and the gifts of young people. For us older people, it changed the way we think of the Church and its role in the world. It made us more conscious that we have to connect better with young people and they’re not just the passive recipients of something we older people have to give them, but they are themselves agents of evangelization. They themselves bring many gifts.
I’m sure we always knew that in some theoretical way, but World Youth Day made that very tangible for us. We saw how the sheer joy, energy, and goodness of young people that was out on the streets and demonstrated in the liturgies and activities—how that converted the hearts of hard-hearted bishops, priests, and older faithful—and not just the hard-hearted, just the ones that needed rejuvenating!
Finally, speaking of the Church in Sydney—and Australia more broadly—what keeps you awake at night, out of fear, excitement, or both?
Well, I’m actually a very good sleeper so I must confess that nothing really keeps me awake. But yes, any human being has things that excite them and make them anxious.
Australia is a very secular country, much more secular than the United States, though I think less so than much of Europe. We face some very big questions going forward—whether we’re going to keep secularizing and pushing God to the margins in our communities and individual lives, or are we actually going to rediscover the importance of God for both our individual lives and our communities?
I’m excited by the opportunity to present the Gospel to people who are hungry for it. It’s not that they’ve had bad experiences of the Church or that they’ve rejected the Gospel. Many have just never been presented with it. It’s often received very warmly and openly by such people—they’re not coming with issues of anger toward the Church or the left/right polarization that some people within the Church suffer from, or preconceptions that almost vaccinate them to the Church.
In some cases they’re very, very open and ask innocent, almost funny questions about Christianity. And once you present well with passion and joy and with some real intellectual rigor the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the tradition handed down from the apostles, they’re often very excited by that and very ready to be part of that.
Now that’s the excitement—the anxiety is, will we miss that chance? We’ve been given a great opportunity at the moment. By having Pope Francis making lots of people quite distant from the Church suddenly listening and now interested, we’ve been given that opportunity.
Will a future generation look back on us and say, “What an opportunity you missed!” I don’t want that said of my generation and me and of the Church at this time. We’ve got some wonderful things to offer, as well as things yet to learn ourselves. We’ve got a great opportunity in front of us and I want to embrace it wholeheartedly.