Archbishop Anthony Fisher, 54, was installed as the ninth archbishop of Sydney on Nov. 12.
Pope Francis named him to succeed Cardinal George Pell, who heads the Vatican’s newly created Secretariat for the Economy.
Archbishop Fisher entered the Dominicans in 1985 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1991. In 2000, he was appointed foundation director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, Australia, where he remains a professor of moral theology and bioethics.
In 2003, Pope St. Pope John Paul II appointed Father Fisher as an auxiliary bishop of Sydney. He served as bishop coordinator of World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney. On Jan. 8, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him the third bishop of Parramatta.
Archbishop Fisher has published extensively in bioethics and moral theology and is the author of Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Since 2004, he has been an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
He recently participated in an email interview with Tom Wehner, the Register’s managing editor.
Would you please tell our readers about your upbringing?
I was born in 1960, the first of five children, and grew up in suburban Sydney. My dad was a pharmacist from a family, already several generations in Australia, of an Anglo-Irish ethnic background. My mother was of a rather more exotic pedigree: She was born and grew up in China and the Philippines, with a Spanish-Basque father and an Egyptian-born (half-Italian, half-Romanian) mother. So I’m a bit of a “United Nations.” We were fairly ordinary practicing Catholics and attended the parish schools. My secondary schooling was with the Jesuits, and I then took degrees in history and law at Sydney University. I practiced law briefly in a big city firm, traveled and entered the Dominicans in Melbourne in 1985.
I was ordained a priest in Sydney in 1991 and then sent off to “finishing school” at Oxford University, where I did a doctorate in bioethics. When I came back, it was to Melbourne, where I taught in the Australian Catholic University and had various roles in the Dominicans; I then started the Melbourne sister of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Rome and Washington, D.C.
Sydney finally took me back: I was named an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Pell in 2003, organizer of the World Youth Day in 2008, bishop of Parramatta (in the suburban west of Sydney) in 2010 and now archbishop. So you can see that I’m a very Sydney boy. I have a deep affinity for this place: I love the city and its people and will seek to bring them ever closer to God as their new shepherd.
When you were growing up, who were the people who were instrumental in forming you in the Catholic faith?
My big “conversion experience” came at St. Thérèse Church, Lakemba, late in the morning on April 3, 1960. Father Cyril Hatton poured water over my three-weeks-old head and said, “Anthony Colin Joseph, ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.” I’ve never known a time since then that I wasn’t a Catholic, and I certainly had the benefit of a “domestic church” to grow up in. We weren’t “Catholic Amish” or anything, but we went to Mass and confession, said the Rosary when we visited my grandparents and had a great-aunt who was a Mercy sister at the hospital in which I was born. So my family was the first instrument of my evangelization and formation.
I went to four Catholic schools, loved serving at the altar and was particularly influenced by two of my Jesuit teachers at school, Fathers McDonald and O’Donovan. They were excellent men — Catholics, priests, religious — and they certainly inspired me to want to be so, too. My Catholic formation was uneven: It was the dizzy ’70s, and religion classes at school tended to be the “Let’s all sit in a circle and exchange our feelings about the bomb” sort of classes. When I got to university, though, I was challenged by the secular environment and by some of my evangelical friends to take my faith more seriously.
Once I joined the Dominicans, they were the ones responsible for forming me. In all sorts of ways, I think experiencing their particular mix of community, liturgy and study — being immersed in their culture and life and being accompanied by their great saints (such as Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great and Catherine of Siena and their successors) — shaped the way I think about God and the things of God.
What makes the Catholic Church in Australia distinct from other areas in the world? Are there pastoral issues in Australia that other countries wouldn’t understand?
To generalize a bit, I’d say Australia is less religious than America and more so than Europe. We’ve been hit hard by the sexual and consumer revolution, increasingly dictatorial secularism and relativism, the child-abuse crisis and the effects of technologies (especially the car, TV and computer) — just like the Church in the U.S. I suppose what’s a bit different about us “down under” is that we have a rather easygoing, relaxed attitude to life. The upside of that is our sense of giving everyone a fair go and never getting worked up enough to riot violently or have a civil war about anything. The downside is a sort of apathy 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 higher than normal for Australia (let alone for Europe), this reflects an ongoing decline over decades now. In addition to declining Eucharistic practice, there’s decline in confession, marriage and holy orders. Our sacramental practice is poor. And too many of our young people, and even those a generation older, are disconnected from the Church. Of course, many people still regard themselves as Catholic or Christian even though they do not go regularly to church. They still pray sometimes, maybe even often. They often live lives inspired by Christian teachings, sometimes better than some churchgoers. They are mostly not hostile to the “Christian thing” and may well still go to church from time to time (big feasts, family occasions, etc.). Many also connect to the Church in other ways, e.g. through its schools, hospitals, welfare agencies and aged care.
But without regularly hearing the word proclaimed and preached, without regularly receiving the sacraments of mercy and Communion, without the support of a community of fellow sinners aspiring to be saints, that connection with God in Christ risks fading away. I saw a recent study commissioned by the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., into why Catholics no longer attend Mass or have left the Church altogether: People gave as their four main reasons issues with Church doctrine, lack of connection to the Church, Church scandals and a perceived lack of Christian values in the Church, parish or priest. It’s probably fair to say that many of these issues also confront the Church in Australia.
What is your relationship with Cardinal George Pell, whom you are succeeding as archbishop of Sydney?
I have known the cardinal since my student days in the 1980s, when he was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne. I remember being rather intimidated when he asked me to advise him on bioethical issues. When he became archbishop of Melbourne, he made me one of his episcopal vicars, and it was under his leadership that we got the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family going. When I returned to Sydney, it was as one of his auxiliaries, episcopal vicars and close collaborators. Perhaps most importantly, he got me to coordinate World Youth Day in 2008. He gave me plenty to do! George Pell has been the most consequential Churchman in Australian history. In all sorts of ways, he has been a friend and inspiration to me.
What is your main task as shepherd of the oldest diocese — and one of the largest dioceses — of Catholics in Australia?
My episcopal motto is “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). So it was that St. Paul described the lived words of those who attain “the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God” — those who grow up to be as fully human and close to divine as it is possible for mere mortals to be. Others, he warned, are spiritually stunted, “like children tossed to and fro,” carried about by the latest ideas and the spin of popular opinion-makers. So that we might be aided to maturity, God graces “some to be apostles, prophets or evangelists, some to be pastors or teachers,” together building up the Church (Ephesians 4:10-6). Episcopacy, then, is a grave responsibility, if also a graced one. Without reliable teachers, Paul continues, people may be dim-witted, hard-hearted, alienated from God or each other, callous, licentious or greedy. Charity requires, therefore, not only that apostle-pastor-preachers speak the truth lovingly, but that “everyone speak the truth with his neighbor,” that they might be converted from their old ways into the very image and likeness of God (Ephesians 4:17-25).
So, as St. Peter taught, Christians must be ready to give their reasons — rational, attractive, authentic, persuasive reasons — for the hope that is in them (1 Peter 3:15), hoping that they will be given a fair hearing, even in today’s world, where many ears are deaf to the spiritual, many minds indifferent or even hostile, yet many hearts hungry for more and better.
Before being a bishop, I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, with that great cloud of witnesses from Peter and Paul through to John Paul, Benedict and Francis. And I am a Dominican friar, too, heir to the inspiration of Dominic and Thomas Aquinas and the others.
Now, I am called to preach the truth in charity to the people of Sydney. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis suggests that that task is a joyful if sometimes arduous one: joyful, because Christians know that what they offer is fresh and life-giving and inexhaustibly exciting; arduous, because the task must be embraced amidst the sickness of the world economy, the growing attacks on religious freedom and religious minorities, the relativism, materialism and individualism that mar private life and the secularization and attendant rejection of transcendence and absolutes that is corrupting public life and even parts of the Church as well.
Is this how you expected your vocation to unfold?
Certainly not. Before entering the order, while I was a liberal arts/law student, I used to take off to the cathedral at times for Mass. One year, the then-archbishop washed my feet on Holy Thursday night. That was as close as I ever expected to get to the archbishop of Sydney! Then I joined the Dominicans, and that seemed to be sure protection against ever being a bishop: In those days, Australian bishops were chosen from the diocesan clergy, and that suited me fine. I expected to spend the rest of my years in a community of friars, praying and studying together, teaching in a university, priesting on weekends and preaching wherever and whenever I could. But God had other plans, it seems. At least I still get to preach: In fact, in some ways, I would say that the central part of my Dominican charism has been magnified by becoming a bishop.
With the teaching of the Church being distorted by popular culture, how do you catechize a media-assaulted populace?
A good question! It is very important that the Church embrace the call to the New Evangelization, which the recent popes have promoted, and do so joyfully, as Pope Francis has emphasized. In a media-saturated culture like ours, we have to be creative and prudent about how the various means of communication can be harnessed to present the fullness of the Gospel of Christ and to encourage a personal encounter with the God-man who saves. But powerful as they are — for good and ill — we can’t put the whole weight of evangelization and catechesis on the old and new media. A personal, face-to-face encounter with a faithful and enthusiastic Christian, an experience of the sacred liturgy, the witness of Christian family life or a quiet act of charity — these are often the most powerful vehicles for transmitting the Gospel of Christ.
I like to tell the story of St. Dominic, who, upon meeting a heretic, spent the whole night talking to (and drinking with?) him in a pub, eventually converting him to the Catholic faith. (Dominicans use it as an excuse for visiting pubs.) In western Sydney these past few years, we’ve had a very successful “Theology on Tap” series each month, with hundreds of young people gathering to hear talks from orthodox and interesting Catholics. The young people would often end up talking through the night like Dominic, so fired up were they about the topic. There are also opportunities for confession and the context of Christian friendship, food and drink. These things help. I have also recently published a study on the positive effects of World Youth Days and other Catholic youth festivals: They are a way of connecting directly with the young and giving them the opportunity to experience life as an unabashed Catholic, even if only for a week at a time, and to receive some quality catechesis. We need this sort of creative thinking to catechize today.
What have you taken away from the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family?
The biggest challenge to the family today is not the hot-button issues that gained so much media attention around the recent synod, but 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 what I am getting at is the cross-shaped, self-spending, Easter-sort-of loving, rather than the heart-shaped, self-pleasing, Valentine’s-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 and less willing to engage in the self-sacrifice that requires the compromising of our willfulness, even unto death. The hot-button issues are largely symptoms of this, and unless we address the causes — and offer modernity the radical alternative that is the Christian view of marriage and family — we will be forever focused on symptoms.
It is my hope that when the dust settles and this year’s and next year’s synods are complete, the Church will have found new ways of promoting the beauty of married love and family life and be better positioned to evangelize the culture, as well as to help people who are the victims of modernity’s amnesia about true loving.
Because of some of the themes brought up during the synod, do you think there is a tendency, especially for Western Catholics, to think of the Church as a democracy? What can be done to reorient the faithful?
There’s no doubt that many people in the media — and, therefore, many people who follow their lead — think the Church is, or should be, a democracy, in the rather limited sense that democracy is understood today, and therefore assume that by a simple majority vote of Catholics, or of Catholic leaders, we could change the Bible, correct “outdated” teachings of Christ and the Church — “move with the times.” Some Protestant churches have that sort of ecclesiology and have adopted that course and have, sadly, withered on the vine. But that’s not a Catholic understanding of the Church or of how we discern Catholic teaching.
The International Theological Commission recently published a helpful document on the concept of the sensus fidei. It recalled that baptism does not make us merely passive viewers of a film, recipients of a wisdom that comes from above, from outside. No, we are remade with the dignity of a priestly, prophetic, princely people, with our own part to play in securing and elaborating the faith. Guided by the Spirit, the entire Church is brought into the fullness of the truth and empowered to bear witness to that truth. She reads the signs of the times, discerns how best to proceed and transmits the faith as best she can. Laypeople, and not just the hierarchy, play a crucial part here. But that doesn’t mean deriving doctrine from opinion polls.
G.K. Chesterton suggested that Catholicism is the most democratic of religions because it extends the teaching franchise to all the baptized — not just those over 18 — and to the dead as much as the living — and to future generations as much as to present ones. In other words, it recognizes that the Church extends across time and space; that Revelation closed with the ascension of Christ and the death of the last apostle; that all have a role in guarding, communicating and witnessing to that Revelation; and that, ultimately, all will be fulfilled in heaven. So the Church cannot be beholden to one time or place or opinion poll only. Rather, as Paul said, “What I received from Christ, I in turn pass on to you.”