One of the most memorable Synod interventions so far came from Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, who apologised to young people for all the ways the Church and its members have harmed them or let them down.
Many of us long to hear an archbishop, indeed any Church leader, tell it like it is, so Archbishop Fisher’s intervention is very welcome. For one thing, the archbishop apologised for the child abuse scandal and “for the shameful deeds of some priests, religious and laypeople, perpetrated upon you or other young people just like you, and the terrible damage that has done.” He went on to apologise for “for the failure of too many bishops and others to respond appropriately when abuse was identified, and to do all in their power to keep you safe; and for the damage thus done to the church’s credibility and to your trust.”
What a relief to hear such forthright words which seek no excuse for the failures of the past, and do not try to ascribe blame to “clericalism” or some other fashionably vague concept.
But the Archbishop went further in his analysis of the way the Church has failed the young. He also made it clear that there had been a failure of leadership in the Church, and a failure to be faithful to the deposit of faith and the tradition received. Recognising that young people want clear and challenging teaching, and not some watered-down version of the Gospel, the Archbishop apologised for the ways in which the Church had failed to “introduce you to the person of Jesus Christ, his saving word and his plan for your life.”
The Church, Archbishop Fisher continued, often “sold you short” by not challenging young people to live up to their baptismal call to holiness, by offering them “unbeautiful or unwelcoming liturgies” and by not sharing with them Church traditions such as the sacrament of reconciliation, pilgrimages and Eucharistic adoration.
In addition, he apologised for “poor preaching, catechesis or spiritual direction” that failed to inspire conversion and for families, dioceses and religious orders that adopted a “contraceptive mentality” that did not even try to give birth to new vocations.
There is a fine tradition of no-nonsense Australian prelates. But Archbishop Fisher’s straight-speaking will not be universally popular, particularly with those, for example, who are responsible for “unbeautiful” liturgies, or who like to insist that young people are demanding a weakening of Catholic teaching. Nor will the Archbishop’s words be welcomed by those who are eager to deny that there might be any connection between the child abuse scandal and a decay in Catholic doctrine and catechesis.
As if to prove this point, Archbishop Fisher’s speech earned what looked like a coded response from the very man sitting next to him in the Synod, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who told the assembled fathers that the Synod was not about child abuse. Archbishop Scicluna said the subject that could wait till next year’s meeting of the presidents of bishops’ conferences. The trouble is that the world’s expectations do not run to a Vatican timetable: people expect action now.
The time for excuses and blame-shifting is past: we need a real analysis of what is wrong, so that action can be taken. Archbishop Fisher has pointed us in the direction of that analysis. With his mention of pilgrimages, Eucharistic adoration and great use of the sacrament of reconciliation, he has also pointed us to the cure to our present woes.