A leading Dominican theologian has been named to succeed Cardinal Pell as archbishop of Sydney, Australia. How he will teach the faith in these difficult times?
On Wednesday, November 12, 2014, Anthony Fisher, O.P., 55, was installed as the 9th archbishop of Sydney, Australia in a moving ceremony at St Mary’s Cathedral, attended by many priests and bishops from all over the country. He succeeds Cardinal George Pell, who had been appointed by Pope Francis to take charge of the Holy See’s finances.
Anthony Colin Fisher was born in 1960 Sydney, of a Basque Spanish mother and an Australian father, who was a pharmacist. He was the dux of Riverview College (a Jesuit school) in the archdiocese, in 1977. Obtaining honors in arts and law, he worked for a law firm in the city, before entering the Dominican order, in 1985 at the age of 25.
After his ordination to the priesthood in 1991, he completed doctoral studies at Oxford University in Britain, in the field of bioethics.
During this time, he was the spokesperson for life issues for the Episcopal Conference of the United Kingdom and Wales, and was the President of the Society of the Protection for the Unborn Child. He testified before several parliamentary committees on bioethical questions. In 1985, he wrote with Jane Buckingham the landmark book about abortion in Australia, entitled Abortion in Australia, reprinted many times.
Upon his return to Australia in 1995, he was a lecturer at Australian Catholic University, in Melbourne. He then became the first director of the newly created campus in Melbourne of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, in 2000, as well as the Episcopal Vicar for Health, a position he also had later on in the archdiocese of Sydney.
In 2003, he became an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Sydney. He was put in charge of World Youth Day celebrations in 2008.
He became the bishop of Parramatta in 2010, his most recent appointment. As a bishop, he was known at times to still don his Dominican habit, saying “If Archbishop Sean O’Malley [in Boston] can wear his Capuchin habit, I can do the same.” Many times on his sojourns, he has been known to reside at Dominican houses.
It would be remarkable to find so learned a bishop in a metropolitan archdiocese, who also has a reputation for being so approachable. He recently answered a number of questions from Australian ITV journalist Andrew Rabel.
You are the 9th archbishop of Sydney. What is your particular vision for your archdiocese?
Archbishop Anthony Fisher: In my installation homily I said: “What will this Archdiocese look like when, God willing, I retire in 2035? My hope is for a Church in which the Gospel is preached with joy, the wisdom of our tradition mined with fidelity, the sacraments celebrated with dignity and welcome, and the seminaries, convents and youth groups teeming with new life; a Church in which our parishes, chaplaincies and educational institutions are true centers of the new evangelization, our laity theologically literate and spiritually well-formed, our outreach to the needy effective and growing, and God glorified above all.” One of the mottos the Dominicans (from St. Thomas Aquinas) is contemplare et aliis tradere contemplata: “to contemplate and then pass the fruits on to others.” The thought is that you can’t give what you haven’t got; you can’t exhale unless you first inhale. So the faithful of Sydney must contemplate the person and Gospel of Jesus Christ and grow in closeness to Him (“holiness”) if they are then to embrace the missionary imperative to which our recent Popes have called us (the “new evangelization”). I want them both inhaling and exhaling!
Do you hope to draw on the foundations laid by Cardinal George Pell, and are their some individual goals you want to bring to your job?
Fisher: Yes, and yes! Biographers and historians will one day write important books on the contribution of Cardinal Pell. In my view, he was the most significant Australian Churchman of the past century. He had a huge impact on both Church and society in Australia in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He affected the doctrinal and pastoral tone of the Church here, her public profile, political impact and evangelical temper. Those are big shoes to fill!
But Cardinal Pell left a wonderful legacy on which to build, through his contributions to tertiary education, youth ministry, seminaries, retreat and pilgrimage centers, public engagement across of very broad range of issues… I do hope to build on these foundations.
I suppose there are differences between us — for one thing, I’m shorter!
I have my particular personality, interests and background. As a religious I might bring a quieter, more contemplative tone to things. As a Dominican I will make preaching a real priority in my own ministry. As a polyglot — my family comes from four continents — I suppose I represent the Australia that has emerged in recent decades. As a Sydney boy through and through, I suppose I am aware of the gifts and challenges that are particular to this city. And as a moral theologian and bioethicist, I am likely to have a particular eye to where our culture and technologies are leading.
I think the Church can propose afresh a vision of the good life that will speak to our contemporary world, ideals for people to live by and a promise of something better in Christ’s promise of eternity.
With your appointment, you become the youngest archbishop in Australia. This in addition to three other bishops in the state of New South Wales born after 1960. Is it beneficial for the Catholic Church to have an increasingly “young” look?
Fisher: It is noticeable that about half the bishops of Australia have been replaced in the last few years or will be in the next few years. That is a case of ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church always reforming herself, always being renewed by the Holy Spirit.
St Augustine called the God of the Christians “beauty ever ancient, ever new.” When God assumed a human nature, it was the nature of an unborn child. He lived and died as an infant, a kid, an adolescent and a young man. In fact the only stages of life he didn’t experience are what we call “mid-life” and old age! The ancient of days was incarnate in a young and fresh one. And in redeeming us He united us to this freshness, this energy, this eternal youth.
So the Church shouldn’t be afraid of youth, even a few younger priests and bishops, even if they might lack the experience and wisdom that comes with greater age!
The paradox of the Church’s ever-ancient-ever-newness was brought home to me when I was in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in 2013. A Protestant man approached me to say he loved “our Pope.” When I asked him why, he said it was because the Pope was so young! In fact he was 76 years old. But our ancient Church, like our ancient God, always has a young look, a fresh message, a youthful energy. That ever-ancient-ever-newness will be reflected not just in her Gospel but in her hierarchy, institutions, ministries, agencies, programs, approaches. “Things new and old” was Christ’s description.
In your last diocese you emphasized vocations to the priesthood. In renewing the Church, what qualities are essential in promoting vocations? What are you looking for in future priests?
Fisher: I have noticed a few things that help with vocations. One is that the bishop is very publicly pro-priest and pro the things of the priest: Word and sacrament, pastoral care, the works of sanctifying, teaching and guiding.
I love the priesthood, I love being a priest, and I plan to do all I can to convey to young people — and to the whole archdiocese — how important it is that we have a new generation of priests. World Youth Day plays a part in the vocations of many seminarians today. So, often enough, does Eucharistic devotion. Promote these and vocations follow.
I am looking for young men — and in religious life, for young men and women — who are willing to let go of some of the control, comfort and intimacies of their present lives, of their possible future lives, or that their surrounding culture tells them most matter. I want young people who are willing to give themselves generously to the service of God and His Kingdom, to that “pearl of great price.”
Prospective priests and religious must ask themselves: do I love God and trust him completely? Do I love God’s people and have great hopes for them? Am I willing to devote myself to bring God and people closer together? Does the life of a priest or religious appeal to me and would it make sense of who I am and what I’m made for? Do I have the be-not-afraidness to give it a go, to give myself time for discernment and formation in the seminary or convent so that the Church and I can work this out together? Am I set on the path of putting God first in all aspects of my life, on the path of discipleship?
A priest thinks with the mind, feel with the heart, speak with the tongue and heal with the hands of Christ and His Church. Our priests must be truly men of God, of the Church, of the people; our religious likewise. They must open wide the arms of the Church, preach the truth and offer examples of holiness and self-sacrifice themselves. That’s what I’m looking for in my candidates.
Like in other eras, the Catholic Church today is only one amongst many voices in a pluralist society like Australia. What positive role can you play in being a source of dialogue between people of other faiths or none?
Fisher: My episcopal motto, from the fourth chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, is ‘Speaking the truth in love’. Without reliable teachers, the Apostle says, people will easily be confused, hard-hearted, alienated from God or each other, callous, licentious or greedy. So it is an act of alms, of charity, of ‘making love’ for the apostle-pastor-preacher to speak the truth and call people to conversion into the very image and likeness of God. So St Paul’s thought is: of course we want to speak to people of all sorts, out of love for them, to reverence and learn from them, and to offer them the precious gift we have received.
Today, as in Paul’s day, the Church operates in a pluralist environment and cannot expect that everyone will agree with, let alone live, all her teachings. As Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis so often said, the Church proposes rather than imposes her ideas: people are free in practice to accept or reject them. Which is why Saint Peter thought Christians must be ready to give their reasons – rational, authentic, persuasive reasons – for the hope that is in them (cf. 1Pet 3:15), trusting that they will be given a fair hearing even in a world where many ears are deaf to the spiritual, many minds indifferent and hearts hostile, yet where souls still hunger for more and better.
In The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis suggested that this preaching task is a joyful if sometimes arduous one: joyful, because Christians know that what they offer is inexhaustibly fresh, exciting and life-giving; arduous, because we preach in polities increasingly threatened by terrorism and other violence, in economies presently rather shaky, in societies marred by religious persecution and secularist intolerance, in public spheres corrupted by rejection of transcendence and absolutes, and in private spheres marred by relativism and the cult of self. Of course there is lots of good in the world around us and inside us to build upon too.
Australia is of course the sort of demographic St John Paul II had in mind when he talked about the need for a ‘new evangelization’. Is this still relevant today?
Fisher: Australia has been hit hard by the sexual and consumer revolution, increasingly dictatorial secularism and relativism, the clergy child abuse crisis that undermined the credibility of the Church, and the good and bad effects of various technologies and other cultural trends. Australians also have a rather easygoing, relaxed attitude to life: the upside of that is they tend to give others a go and not get so worked up about things that they riot or have civil wars; the downside is a sort of complacency and anti-intellectualism, a lack of passion about the things that should stir us to reflection and action.
In Catholic Sydney regular Sunday Mass attendance is around one in six. While that’s higher than in most of the rest of Australia, let alone for Europe, it is not good enough and marks a significant decline from where we were a few decades ago. The practice of all the other sacraments has declined similarly. Many people hear or read the Scriptures only rarely, if ever, and are poorly informed about their faith. And too many of our young people – and indeed their parents – are disconnected from the life of the Church.
So, the call to a new evangelization is every bit as relevant today as it was when St John Paul II first made it. It is very important that the Church embrace this call joyfully, as Pope Francis has emphasized. At its heart, the new evangelization aims to present the fullness of the Gospel of Christ to people, cultures and institutions that are, or were, or should be Christian already. The renewed encounter with the God-man who saves can come through face-to-face encounter with faithful and enthusiastic Christians, through old and new media, through an experience of the Sacred Liturgy, through the witness of Christian family life or a quiet act of charity.
A few weeks after you took up your new office, we saw the tragedy in Martin Place with the killings of two innocent persons. When the nation feels a sense of helplessness and the tendency may be strong to scapegoat others, what positive role can the Church play?
Fisher: By and large, Sydney has been an example to the world of how people of every ethnic and religious background can be neighbors, colleagues, friends. Australians are used to living in a peaceful, tolerant, secure society in which people may enter a café and order a hot chocolate without fear. The Catholic Church can take a lead in responding to such threats to the cohesion of our society. Immediately in the aftermath of the Martin Place siege I celebrated Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral to pray for the dead and for peace. The cathedral was packed with the Governor-General, the Premier and the entire state cabinet, as well as people from all walks of life.
Your professional career as a clergyman, and in several countries, has been in the fields of bioethics and marriage and the family. But so often Catholic moral ideals do not seem to resonate in the larger society. What can we still do to affirm the truth of the dignity of the human person, from conception till natural death, and the preciousness of marriage and the family?
Fisher: The Catholic Church’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family last year sparked much media interest, especially around topics such as divorce and homosexuality. What the pundits missed, however, was the main concern of the Synod members: the much more fundamental problem that modernity has forgotten how to love. That might sound odd in a culture saturated with love songs and ‘making love’, but it is interesting that the questions most commonly asked of the Google search engines are “How to love?” and “What is love?”
I think modernity struggles with any kind of love that goes beyond feelings: the cross-shaped, self-spending, Easter sort of loving rather than the heart-shaped, self-pleasing, Valentine sort of loving. People today are less and less willing to commit, for the long haul, to another person or a small community of persons, come what may, even when the loving is hard. They are less willing to engage in the self-sacrifice that requires, to moderate wilfulness, even unto death. They are also less willing to put up with discomfort or to invest themselves in relieving other people’s discomfort, when there is no quick fix to suffering available. Abortion, euthanasia and the like seem like the best way out. Many of our current debates reflect the anti-family, anti-life turn in our society over the last fifty years. In a relativistic culture, unions are seen as merely contractual and revocable, terminable at will, and lives, especially tiny or disabled or elderly lives, as dispensable when they fail to give pleasure.
At the heart of social and cultural renewal, then, will be re-emphasizing the preciousness of life and love and re-cultivating self-sacrifice, fidelity, hope and endurance. In a culture living the contradiction of a highly sentimentalized view of marriage and persons, yet a throwaway view of relationships and children, this is a complex task. But to begin with it requires our own people to appreciate the preciousness of life and love and the arguments for our traditional wisdom about them. We need to demonstrate that this is not about bigotry or absolutism, but about honesty, fidelity and compassion. People living with infertility, same-sex attraction or terminal illness, for example, are all children of God in need of our love and support. We can offer that friendship while still speaking up for voiceless children, for true marriage, and for the vulnerable elderly and dying. And I hope we can do so without suffering discrimination and harassment.
Pope Francis seems to appeal to a wider audience than many pontiffs. How can the Church make use of his message and popularity?
Fisher: I think the so-called “Francis effect” is an enormous evangelical opportunity for the Church. All sorts of people who have been rather disconnected from the Church or even a long way from the Church are suddenly interested. He has a gift for drawing them in.
What then? It’s up to us Catholics to make the most of that opportunity. That means we much be as conversant as possible with the authentic teaching of Pope Francis (indeed all Church teaching!) and not just the media inventions. So we need to read what he actually says for ourselves and mine those nuggets we can then use for our work of evangelizing and encouraging people. I’ve heard stories not just of journalists but of Catholic priests or school teachers saying that Pope Francis supports homosexual activity or same-sex “marriage” or bigamy or “dinks.” In fact, he’s been an outspoken advocate of Catholic teaching on life and love. We mustn’t just rely on the headlines.
The real Pope Francis often draws attention to the temptations common for the human heart (ambition, vainglory, greed, envy, revenge) and the resulting vices (gossip, self-aggrandizement, consumerism, division, violence). These are at the heart of failures in the areas of life and love. Francis dares attribute much of this to the Devil and personal sinfulness, which is why he so often exhorts people to return to their parishes and make a good Confession! Not very radical stuff this — except in the true sense of radical that is “getting to the root of things.”
Finally, you also restructured religious education in the diocese. You have outlined an ambitious plan as archbishop for when you retire, that the young will be in the ascendancy in Church life. Do you think in this area, we are making progress, in spite of the fact that many young abandon the Catholic faith, and even embrace other faith traditions, or none at all.
Fisher: Last year, when still Bishop of Parramatta, I published a study on the positive effects of World Youth Days and other Catholic youth festivals (Australia had its World Youth Day in 2008 and has had an Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Melbourne in 2012 and will have another one in Adelaide in 2015): they are a way of connecting directly with the young, of offering them some quality catechesis and of allowing them to experience life as an unabashed Catholic, even if only for a week at a time.
Here in Sydney one of the fruits of those events has been the very successful Theology on Tap series each month, with hundreds of young people gathering to hear talks from orthodox and interesting Catholics in a pub. The young people often end up talking through the night, so fired up were they about the topic. There are also opportunities for Confession and the context of Christian friendship, food and drink.
These are just two examples of where I think we’ve had successes in reaching out to the youth in the Church in recent times. Many of the pundits will tell you young people just aren’t interested in religion, aren’t interested in ideals, just want to get ahead and have an easy life. That’s not my experience. That’s not what the last three Popes have found either. All three have reached out to young people, to affirm their place not just in the future of the Church and the world, but right now. Rather than romanticizing youth, they’ve challenged them to reach beyond the superficiality of so much of pop culture, to aspire to more than comfort and consumerism, to dare to live lives of heroic holiness and self-giving.
I have enormous confidence in young people. But there is no cause for complacency. We have to do all we can to evangelize and catechize them, bring them into the liturgical and prayer life of the Church, give them various missions in the world, be there ready to listen to and support them. It can be done!