[Editor’s Note: This is part one of Crux contributor Christopher White’s conversation with Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia. Part two will appear on Crux tomorrow.]
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – This past Christmas, Archbishop Anthony Fisher — barely a year into his new post as the Archbishop of Sydney in Australia — contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease, resulting in temporary paralysis.
In September 2014, Fisher had been tapped by Pope Francis to replace Cardinal George Pell, called to Rome to serve as Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy. Prior to being named archbishop, Fisher served as the Bishop of Parramatta and before that as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Sydney under Pell.
After four months of difficult 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 currently 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.
Although he’s known to be a mild-mannered Dominican, he has not shied away from the spotlight, engaging in high profile debates against the likes of Peter Singer and Philip Nitschke over euthanasia, and most recently taking to the pages of The Guardian to defend the Church’s teaching on traditional marriage and calling for a civil public debate.
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.
White: You’re a bioethicist (among many other degrees) and have written extensively on sickness, aging, and dying. Did your recent experience of Guillain-Barré Syndrome change the way you think about these matters?
Fisher: I don’t know that my having found myself paralyzed from the neck down last Christmas and then gradually recovering—so far it’s been over six months, and it will probably be a year to two years before I fully recover—will lead me to radically different conclusions.
But I think certainly it will make some of the matters I talk about more personal, and that may affect in some ways the kind of argumentation I use or the examples and experience I draw upon.
For example, I think I’ve long been persuaded of the thought of writers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas that we should think of the human person not as the perfectly autonomous, independent, powerful choosing agent, but much more as a being that’s a part of a web of relationships, often very dependent or interdependent and very vulnerable.
I already knew that, but now I’ve experienced it much more firsthand than at any time in my life since my infancy.
I think the starting point for some of my reflections will be that common experience of dependence, of suffering, of weakness that much of humanity is in fact suffering much of the time — but I hadn’t, at least very much in my life, until recently.
I think that when I reflect on issues at the end of life, or issues for people with degenerative illnesses, or illnesses for people with quadriplegia or a paraplegia, it will have a certain additional bite now because I’ve had a window into that as someone who was completely paralyzed and only gradually regained the use of my limbs.
But unlike those people, I will recover and recover completely, while with many others things only get worse with time. So, I’ve had a window into their experience without perhaps having to have the full extent of it. I hope that’s made me more understanding, more compassionate, and given me certain wisdom about their lot in life.
A final thing, possibly, that I’ve gained from this is a certain humility that comes with humiliation.
I have been weak. I have had to depend completely on others to do many things, including many things most of us would not want anyone to have to do for us. That’s very humbling. I hope it’s had good effects on my own character, and that might come through in my writings on bioethics and other topics.
As you’ve expressed, you’ve experienced real suffering, but all things considered, you’ve had a rapid recovery. Do you mind sharing a few of your highs and lows?
Probably my lowest point was my very first night, when I went in the day after Christmas. I went from completely normal to being totally paralyzed from the neck down, and the paralysis was creeping up my face as well. I was on the verge of having to be respirated because my lungs were not functioning properly either.
I feared I could end up with one of those locked-in syndromes where you can’t communicate with the world, but are entirely conscious and lucid, and that was a frightening prospect. Happily, that didn’t happen, but it was something I was trying to come to terms with.
In those first days, trying to make sense of what was happening was hard, as it must be for anyone who’s sick with no warning.
Because it was Christmastide, I remember thinking about the powerlessness of the Creator of the universe, made a baby at Christmas, and how the omnipotent one let himself be united to human form — a child who was, at that stage of development, completely powerless to toilet himself, wash himself, feed himself, and so on, just as I was.
I felt like I was being taken back to infancy, and that somehow gave me a little appreciation for what an extraordinary thing it was that the second person of God would empty himself in that way to become as we are.
Other low points were probably times when I’ve bumped up against the frustration of not being able to do things I should be able to do, times when my legs or my arms were not cooperating. I remember thinking and puzzling, the philosophical puzzle of me willing something and me not doing that something. I’d try to tell my arms or my fingers to do something, and they wouldn’t move.
I reflected much on my illness, which was during the season of Lent and then Easter, which brings to mind the suffering of God in Jesus Christ and the powerlessness of Jesus Christ on the cross. My own hands and feet, if not nailed to a cross, were certainly as ineffectual as he found his. I learned something more about what he’d been through, something he allowed to happen for the sake of my salvation and that of the world.
These were low points for me, but certainly times of gaining some wisdom.
High points were often the little victories, on a particular day discovering that I could suddenly walk up stairs again. Very painfully, very slowly, but I could actually get up stairs. Or, realizing that I could grip something in my hands when I hadn’t been able to do so the day before.
Each time there was a little victory like that, it helped to buoy my spirits and to give me all the greater determination to keep doing the exercises and keep working to regain my strength.
I received some wonderful messages from people—thousands from people all around the world were sending e-mails and letters, trying to visit me, and one way or another trying to convey their concern and love for me and to let me know they were praying for me.
That included some lovely messages from schoolchildren. One eight-year-old boy wrote to say: “Dear Archbishop Anthony, I hear that you are sick. I’m here to make you better. I’m going to pray for you, but in the meantime you should take lots of nurophen [the Australian equivalent of Tylenol].”
It was those sort of delightful, little communications I’d get, whether from children or people who’d had Guillain-Barré Syndrome themselves and fully recovered and wanted me to know that there was a real light at the end of this tunnel. People like that, and communications like that, were great high points and encouragement.
In happier news, you’ve just had two new auxiliary bishops appointed here in Sydney. Can you tell me about that?
I’m very excited. I’m now the youngest archbishop in Australia and I’ll now have the two youngest auxiliary bishops, which makes for a very young team.
In the case of my two new auxiliaries, they are both very talented men with diverse pastoral experiences, very good education, energetic, and I think will bring tremendous gifts to the Church here in Sydney and beyond to the Church in Australia.
Bishop-Elect Anthony Randazzo as Director of Vocations and then as seminary rector, with the help of others no doubt, turned around the whole vocations scene in his diocese from a state where there had been relatively few vocations and ordinations for many years. In his time as vocations director, there were 27 ordinations.
That was a huge cause for optimism and hope for the Church in Brisbane and state of Queensland where he was working. Our vocation scene is a bit better here in Sydney, but I’m still hoping for an extra boost with Bishop Randazzo.
Bishop-Elect Richard Umbers will be the youngest bishop in Australia, and is a great enthusiast for the new media. Some would say he’s the Robert Barron of the Australian Church. I think he’s likely to help us communicate our message to the world, and especially to younger people here, better than we have before.
That’s just two examples of what I think they’re going to mean for the Church here in Sydney. I’m hugely encouraged myself, particularly while I’m still recovering from sickness, that I’m going to have these two energetic young guys to prop me up and make me a better archbishop, as well as making their own contributions.
Australia is once more facing a push to legalize same-sex marriage. What is the Church’s strategy, and will it manage to resist what some believe is an inevitable tide?
I take the view, which I think is the Catholic view of history, that nothing is inevitable until it actually happens. There are no inevitable tides of history that mean because this country or that country has gone a particular way with same-sex marriage or any other social trend, that we have to do so in Australia.
We know there are countries in the world that have decided to embrace euthanasia, but we have not in Australia, and happily most countries have steered clear of that very unhelpful trend, even though twenty years ago people were saying it was inevitable—that one country after another was going to go the way of Holland and Belgium and a few other nations.
Well, that’s not happened, and it’s not happened in good part because the Church and many of its friends of other faiths, or none at all, have worked to ensure continued respect for human life towards its end stages.
Likewise, with respect to marriage and sexuality, I think nothing is inevitable until it has happened, and we have to continue in this debate with the real hope that people will see the truth on this and will continue to reverence real marriage.
I know people coming from the United States might think it’s a doomed cause because all of the countries they know best have gone that way. In fact, only twenty or so countries out of almost two hundred have gone that way. Most countries until now have resisted it, and I am hopeful that we will continue to resist it in Australia.
That will require of me and the other bishops and pastors and people of the Church, and our friends outside the Church, to be really working hard this year to communicate the good news about marriage, what it is and can be, its beauty and its meaning, and why it matters so much for the health of families and for the good of children and societies.
We have to make clear that recognizing, appreciating and supporting marriage for what it really is — the union of a man and a woman, exclusively and for life with a view to founding a family — in no way means not supporting other people involved in other sorts of relationships, or with particular struggles in their life.
It’s not demeaning them, denying them any goods to which they might reasonably aspire, or any human right that they have.
I think that we can show everyone, including those with same-sex attraction, that we want to do everything we can to ensure that they flourish, that they are happy in this life, and given every opportunity to do so, while at the same time teaching the good news about marriage and why it’s so precious.
Not everybody can have everything in life. In fact, for most of us the path to maturity is learning that I am limited, my opportunities are limited, I have to make the best of the opportunities open to me, and that in fact, I can flourish within those limitations. That’s everybody’s lot, it’s not some terrible thing visited upon one class of humanity.
Likewise, part of maturing is that we all struggle with the demands of chastity. All of us have to integrate our sexuality into our vocations, our personality, and find a way to live a full, rich Christian life, sexually, emotionally, and in every other respect.
This is not a challenge that only one class of humanity has to meet, it’s there for everybody. I think we can all do this together, civilly and with civic friendship, in a way that doesn’t involve terrible division or bigotry or hateful speech, or any of the things that people fear from the plebiscite or parliamentary votes ahead.