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The new archbishop-elect of Sydney: ‘Being a bishop is not all misery’

Bishop Anthony Fisher, coordinator of World Youth Day, right, volunteers at a "sausage sizzle" June 8 in Sydney, Australia.

A small whirlwind in a Dominican habit flies down the stairs at Blackfriars. Blond, with merry blue eyes and an engaging smile, Bishop Anthony Fisher strides forward to say hello, rosary jingling at his side. At 48, he is young for a bishop –even for an auxiliary –and it is easy to see why he was given the task of organising World Youth Day in Sydney this past summer. His is the charisma of a man with forthright opinions and his willingness to stand up for them in the public eye has won him the admiration of some and the criticism of others.

Since Michelmas Bishop Fisher has been at Oxford, living in community, writing and giving the occasional lecture but mainly resting after his efforts organising the half a million young people who came to Sydney and keeping the press at bay. No easy task. Both Bishop Fisher and Cardinal George Pell got a roasting in the lead up to World Youth Day, even though the events themselves were generally considered a success. He says: “In general the media was positive, I think because it was irresistible. Even reporters who had gone determined to not like it found themselves carried along with the joy of the young people. The Sydney Morning Herald , which is probably our most reliably anti-Catholic newspaper, had the crucifixion from the Stations of the Cross pretty well across the whole of its front page. “To get that in a paper that’s posture towards the Church is pretty antagonistic demonstrated how people got swept along, people of all religions and no religion –even the secular press.”

World Youth Day, Bishop Fisher says, was a real grace for Australia, even if it will take time to see what sort of an impact July’s events will have on young people. The “World Youth Day effect” sometimes takes 10 to 15 years to start bearing fruit in some of the young people who were there. But there have been immediate benefits, he says. The young people have been given a sense of normalcy in their faith, while it has given priests a sense of hope. More young Australians are attending Sunday Mass –which in some parishes means the number of youngsters has gone from zero to five, while in others they have gone from 50 to 60 –and the experience has revitalised the priesthood. Bishop Fisher says: “Many of them had dozens or hundreds of young people coming to them for confession when they might not have heard a young person’s

Confession for years and some of these young people are saying: ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it’s 15 years since my last confession.’ It’s very moving as a priest. You feel like the father of the Prodigal Son.”

With an undergraduate degree in History and Law, an LLB and a legal practice before he entered the Dominicans and got a theology degree and a doctorate in bioethics, Bishop Fisher’s interests span a wide range of subjects.

Is the Church in Australia experiencing the decline seen in Europe? The bishop lets his eyes twinkle before resuming the serious, measured tones he uses when he is explaining things. Instead of presenting gloom and despair he says in a matter-of-fact sort of way that, yes, the Church in much of the West is in a state of decline and that the secularising trend is almost inevitable. “Certainly we have had in Australia and America and Britain historically unusually high rates of practice. So say, in the 1950s in all three countries, two-thirds, three quarters of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. Well, that’s not been the case in many countries for much of history,” he says.

We talk for a while about the future of the Church, the vocations expo at World Youth Day, which some 3,000 youngsters wandered through every hour for a week, and about the role of religious orders in the secularised West. We are speaking in the week that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has gone through Parliament, and the state of Victoria has just legalised abortion. In Victoria things are so far gone that doctors and nurses no longer have a freedom of conscience clause, he says. Something similar may be introduced in the United States. A medical practitioner in Victoria has to refer women for abortions and in an emergency perform one. Should this stop Catholics from becoming doctors?

“No, I think it means that Catholics can and must become doctors and they must be willing to be charged with a crime,” he says. “I’d be very interested to see whether anybody is going to dare to challenge them for living by their conscience. But it’s a monstrous situation that they should have to even live under the threat of that.” Bishop Fisher thinks that we are facing a situation similar to that experienced by the early Christians. “In the Roman empire Christians and Jews stood out for being against abortion, contraception, infanticide, polygamy and homosexual activity,” he says. “They stood against a range of things in the moral bioethical fields of marriage, family, sex. But they were really quite different because these were not just the standards of the Romans but the Greeks before them, and probably people thought that Christians were quite strange or prudish to have this sort of reverence for marriage and life.” He argues that taking a principled stand takes a great deal of courage and a strong sense of identity because the surrounding culture does not support virtue on that basis. Although society supports some types of virtuous behaviour, there are whole areas, he says, where we need to show the courage of our convictions. “The culture is not very sympathetic. In fact it just thinks we’re weird and looks at us uncomprehending,” he says. He worries that pro-lifers may become targets of persecution because their position serves as a reproach. Some of the language in the amendments proposed but not tabled on the HFE Bill bore witness to that, he says. The HFE Bill was pushed through too quickly without enough thought given to the consequences of allowing for hybrids.

We speak for well over an hour, covering euthanasia, human-animal hybrids, stem-cell research and his plans to take a slow boat back to Australia, (finally fulfilling a childhood dream). “What I really love is being back in a Dominican community, singing the divine office,” he says. “It’s just beautiful sitting here in the choir and the prayer washes over me like waves. “When I leave here in a few weeks time I know I will be grieving because it will rub in what I’ve lost. Now, there are lots of good things about being a bishop. I’m not going to pretend it’s all misery because it’s not at all. It offers lots of new opportunities to teach and to lead.”