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Archbishop Fisher: a strong voice who inspires affection

In a country which has little by way of firm leadership, Archbishop Fisher is an admirable exception

Australia’s second youngest archbishop, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney, has made quite an impression on the global Church. Speaking at the Vatican’s youth synod in October 2018, he apologised not only for the failure of bishops to protect minors, but also for the more general lack of clear episcopal leadership in the Church. He was even listed by Crux’s John Allen as a possible future pope.

Fisher was born in Sydney in 1960, the eldest of five children. After graduating dux of his school, Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview, he went on to achieve a BA (First Class Hons) and LLB (Hons) at the University of Sydney. Later, taking respite from his work at a high-profile law firm, the young Fisher backpacked across Europe to discern his vocation. In 1985, he entered the Dominican order.

After his ordination in 1991, Fisher obtained a doctorate in bioethics at the University of Oxford. Returning to Australia, he was appointed foundation director of the then newly established John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, where he worked from 2000 to 2003.

In July 2003, Pope John Paul II appointed Fisher as auxiliary bishop of Sydney. He was ordained alongside bishop Julian Porteous, who now serves as Archbishop of Hobart. He took as his episcopal motto “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Fisher was later appointed Bishop of Parramatta by Benedict XVI and installed just days before his 50th birthday. In September 2014, he was appointed by Pope Francis as the ninth Archbishop of Sydney.

Reflecting on his 15 years as bishop (from auxiliary, to bishop of Parramatta to archbishop of Sydney), Fisher names two episodes that profoundly shaped his episcopacy – the coordination of World Youth Day Sydney in 2008, the largest religious gathering in Australian history, and the sexual abuse crisis that continues to rock the Church. During this time, Fisher contracted a rare autoimmune disease, Guillain-Barré syndrome, which attacked his nervous system and left him partially paralysed for more than five months. His illness began the day after Christmas in 2015. He recalls that he “didn’t know if I was going to die” and describes how on that first night he went from being “completely normal … to totally paralysed”.

Perhaps nothing marks how the Catholics of Australia felt about their Sydney archbishop better than the thousands of messages of prayers and support he received during this time. Within days, groups were gathering across the country to offer 54-day novenas for his recovery. There was celebration when he returned for his first public Mass on May 29, 2016.

In a country which has little by way of firm leadership (clerical or otherwise), Archbishop Fisher is one of the stronger voices in the public arena. With his Dominican training in logic, he has earned a reputation for public speaking. His 2003 debate with euthanasia activist Philip Nitzschke at the University of Sydney still echoes in bioethics tutorial rooms.

Last year, Fisher was elected vice-president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ACBC), and chairman of the bishops’ commission for Catholic education. He is chancellor of the Catholic Institute of Sydney and a member of the company and board of identity of the Australian Catholic University. He has been appointed a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He is the author of several books on bioethics, including his most recent Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium (2012).

Natasha Marsh is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne