Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP says that if he’d known as a young man or Dominican friar that he would one day add ‘Archbishop of Sydney’ to his CV he would have “run away in terror because it is so big”.
Speaking to The Catholic Weekly in the formal dining room at St Mary’s Cathedral House and surrounded by portraits of his predecessors, the archbishop reflected on the upcoming anniversary of his ordination as a bishop on 3 September.
Pope John Paul II appointed him Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney in July 2003, plucking him from the ordinary religious and academic life of a Dominican friar, which was a “huge shock”.
Cardinal Pell ordained him in St Mary’s Cathedral on 3 September that year alongside Fr Julian Porteous, now the Archbishop of Hobart.
After serving as Bishop of Parramatta from January 2010 to September 2014, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Anthony as Archbishop of Sydney and he was installed at St Mary’s Cathedral in November 2014.
These 15 years have gone incredibly quickly, the Archbishop says, and have encompassed intense highs and lows, “gifts and challenges”.
For example, he became a bishop amid the first major revelations of clergy sex abuse throughout the world culminating, in Australia, in a four-year Royal Commission into institutionalised abuse.
As the organiser of World Youth Day 2008, he oversaw the visit of millions of joy-filled pilgrims, including Pope Benedict XVI, to Sydney in a week that enchanted the locals and confirmed the city as a world-class venue.
However, shortly after becoming Archbishop of Sydney he consoled a city shocked by the 2014 Martin Place massacre.
A year later, he succumbed to (and ultimately triumphed over) a sudden onset of the rare and debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome at the end of 2015.
“Being asked to organise World Youth Day in Sydney was the biggest thing I will ever do in my life and it has affected my episcopal ministry in all sorts of ways,” says the archbishop.
Through that experience he developed “a passion for young people and the ways that they can be connected to the life of the Church and actually be at the heart of the life of the Church, which is where they should be”.
The other aspect of the Church’s life that formed his ministry as bishop has been the clergy and religious sexual abuse crisis.
“I think there’s a strange paradoxical relationship between these two big things that happened to Australia at about the same time,” he says.
“The child sexual abuse crisis mostly related to events that happened in the 1960s, 70 and 80s but when it was exposed and we were shamed as a Church it was in the very same decade that we were celebrating World Youth Day.
“So you’ve got the highs and the lows of the Church’s relationship with young people – times when it really has served and loved young people and the times when it’s let our people down, silenced young people and really hurt them.
“And that’s a real paradox. But I think that is actually being real, because I think the Church can actually be really good for people and do wonderful things by God’s grace and there are other times we have let people down terribly and we should be ashamed and determined to fix that and do better going forward.
“What we cannot do is deny that part of our history or ourselves.”
The archbishop says that what has kept him content in his role is a promise he made to God.
“I said when I embraced my vocation as a Christian and then as a priest and religious that, ‘My life is your life, God. I give it back to you as you gave it to me and I trust you to do what you want to do with me.’
“And that might seem innocent and naive and maybe I was innocent and naive back then but I think actually, it’s right.
“When I was a boy growing up here in Sydney or as a young man coming here sometimes for Mass, my feet washed one Holy Thursday night by Cardinal Freeman, I would never have dreamed I would have my portrait alongside his one day as an archbishop of Sydney,” he says.
“But I believe that if you just give yourself to God and see what he does with you, it will surprise you, it will delight you, it will frighten you but in the end it’s for the best.”
The archbishop said he was also “blessed by” his religious community, family, friends, fellow priests and faithful lay people who sustain and inspire him.
It was a “grace,” he says, to learn about the life of a bishop from “good mentors and companions” such as Cardinal George Pell and the then-Bishop Porteous.