Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP will return home to St Mary’s Cathedral house and begin his return to work from Thursday, 5 May.
His return comes after four months of rehabilitation due to having contracted the debilitating Guillain-Barré Syndrome at Christmas.
Speaking last week to The Catholic Weekly at Mt Wilga Rehabilitation Hospital in Hornsby, it was clear the archbishop’s finger has never really left the pulse of the archdiocese, and that the people of Sydney – “my people” – had never been far from his thoughts.
“My people have not let me forget them for a moment, because they have been so generous and close to me,” he said in reference to the “torrent” of prayers, cards, social media messages and other well-wishes that have come his way.
‘Grace in answer to prayers’ is how he explains his relative sense of peace throughout the ordeal, one which began with rapid and terrifying onset of paralysis from the neck down.
He said it was most likely that he would work half a day each day of the week, with the other half days devoted to his ongoing rehabilitation program, which has gone remarkably well in doctors’ eyes.
One of his first duties would be attending and participating in the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference plenary due to be held from 5-12 May.
In the interview with The Catholic Weekly he discussed what the past four months have been like and his hopes for the future.
What does your return to work look like?
We’re thinking at this stage that I will probably work a half-day to begin with, then the other half the day spend in physiotherapy and the various things they have me doing trying to maximise getting back the use of my arms and legs.
Then I’ll gradually up that, as I’m able. The day after I get home the national conference of bishops starts in North Sydney, so I’ll go off there. But then, when that’s over, I’ll be back in the cathedral. I’m hoping to be back celebrating the Mass regularly there, attending more of the meetings and doing more of the governing and sanctifying and teaching that is my normal task.
Have you been conscious of the effects of people’s prayers? It seems you have made an extraordinary recovery.
Yes, they say with this Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) that one to two years is the normal time it takes to recover. I started recovering within a few days of my getting seriously ill with it and my legs are now very largely recovered, although I’m walking a bit robotically. And my hands are recovering more slowly, but they are recovering as well. Every day I am able to do something that I wasn’t able to do before.
They’re little victories: being able to get my shoe laces undone and my shoes off, or being able to pick up a glass of water and hold it myself and drink it myself; these sorts of things which we just take for granted, little daily victories for me. Those are all signs the hands are coming back.
I have been very aware of those prayers – not just because people keep telling me – but because the doctors have been surprised at how quickly I have been recovering, and really how good my spirits have been through this, because it is, naturally, very frightening for an active person.
It would incline you to be depressed, that you couldn’t be your normal self and not for many months. But I’ve found that I’ve been in very good spirits and right the way through, very peaceful.
We do believe in the power of prayer (laughs) and every so often you feel the effects of it.
You would have preached about the Catholic understanding of suffering for years, and I’m sure – like any human person – you have experienced suffering in your life. But when something like this happens, how did you navigate that? How do you ‘process’ it?
I do think that in the future when I preach about suffering it will be more personal and that I will have learnt some things about it that I might have known notionally, or not known, but which will have a greater bite and be more personal.
I think I will have learnt some new things about suffering and its place in the spiritual life and its place in the spiritual life and recovery.
I think I’ve learnt to appreciate ordinary health rather more. I appreciate my hands now that I don’t have them so much.
And there are many people in the hospital here who are very much worse off and some of whom know are only get worse.
What I’ve got I’m going to recover from and almost certainly completely recover from. And while it’s frustrating at the time, it’s only a matter of time.
For many of the people here, they are going to recover a certain amount only and going to live with it for the rest of their lives, or they’ve got some other neurological condition which means they are going to keep going downhill from here. So while I wouldn’t pretend having GBS has been easy, it’s been a lot easier than others have.
What’s an average day for you been like here?
This is a specialist hospital that deals with neurological issues.
They work you very hard. So I’ve been spending a minimum of 4-5 hours a day in the gym, supervised sessions pushing me everyday to be doing more than I could do the day before, trying to recover the muscle tone, rebuild the muscle that’s been lost, getting those neurons firing again.
At the physiotherapy sessions and the gym there’s lots of walking, climbing stairs. Right now I’m working on whether I can get up from a kneeling position on the floor. So in one way or another it’s really extending me in the lower half of my body.
In occupational therapy, they’ve worked on the upper half of my body; rebuilding muscle that’s been lost. And I’m now doing things like bench presses. I had to ask exactly what they were, not being a gym junkie. I had never had experience of such things (laughs). I’m pumping iron every day.
I’m being extended in lots of ways: seeing if I can cook an egg; seeing if I can hold a wine glass; helping me get my trousers up; a hundred-and-one exercises to get me to improve the use of my hands.
I’ve been celebrating Mass each day. I had the great pleasure of when Bishop Columba [Macbeth-Green OSPPE of Wilcannia-Forbes] was here (for recuperation after heel surgery), celebrating Mass with him each day.
And the chief medical officer here, Dr Peter Stephens, is a pious Catholic and he serves my Mass each day and helps me to vest and to set up and to get through Mass. So my Mass and my daily prayers have been part of the rhythm of this day, as well as all the exercise.
Then in the late afternoons, each day, I’ve had my meetings.
A series of my different officials come and visit me with correspondence, with meeting agendas; to get my decision on different matters and discuss things with me. And sometimes the curia have come here to the hospital to meet with me to make some big decisions about where priests might be appointed, and other matters that needed to be decided quickly.
It sounds like the future of the archdiocese has never been far from your mind.
Yes, we’ve had a lot of discussions about the evangelisation review; how we can continue to do evangelisation better and keep expanding the Church out into the world and brining more people into the Church. That’s been a big one on my mind while I’ve been here.
We’ve had a big discussion about the marriage debate and how the Church involves itself in that with the forthcoming plebiscite.
There are a lot of big issues: the Royal Commission will obviously be reporting in the next two years and it will have a lot of things to say to the Church in Australia.
There are a lot of big things afoot and I didn’t just want to lie in my bed or hide in my gym while those are going on. So, to the extent I’ve been able to be involved, I have been, (albeit) rather less than I normally would have been.
When I get home, in a fortnight’s time, each morning I’ll be meeting with my people and working on correspondence, or talks, or attending meetings. So, I’ll be able to be a bit more involved.
Veteran US journalist John Allen was in Australia earlier this year and made a prediction that Pope Francis would, at some point this year, “hit a wall” because of how hard he worked himself. I imagine you are the same. Will your experience of illness change the way you work?
Some people have said to me, “This is God telling you to slow down”; and that I tend to work 20-hour days; and they get emails from me at 3.30am, and maybe I’ve learnt something through this.
My doctor here has been insisting that an hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight. I should sleep more and better hours.
Yes, it may be that I have to learn that while I’m young for a bishop, I’m 56 now and that my body can’t take what it could take at 26 or 36.
That said, I am a naturally very energetic and “gives his all” sort of person. That’s my personality.
I may have learnt some things and be a little more contemplative, a little more peaceful than I was before, but I’d be surprised if there was such a major conversion that I am not still working, once I’m up to it, pretty long days.
You’re known to be something of a cinephile. What have you been doing to relax while you’ve been here?
One thing I’ve not been doing is playing tennis. That was one of my favourite relaxations.
In addition to having GBS I now have my rotator cuffs in my shoulders torn. So it’s probably going to be quite a while before I get back to playing tennis.
It was very good for me, some very physical exercise; avoiding getting too fat and clearing the cobwebs. It’s the kind of sport where you can be social at the same time and
I’m a very social animal, so I much prefer tennis with a friend than jogging by myself.
We’ll see what I can get back to when it comes to exercise. In the meantime the gym work is keeping me fit, well and truly.
A wicked friend told me I’d be putting mirrors down the sides of St Mary’s Cathedral so I could look at my muscles (laughs). I won’t be doing that.
I love going to concerts: opera, the theatre, performing arts. I haven’t been able to do much of that of late, but as I get more energy, I will.
I’ve been to one opera since I got sick, The Barber of Seville. I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time and I was thoroughly wrecked for about three days afterwards. I’m a lot stronger now than I was then.
One of the joys of having a bit more time on my hands is I’ve been able to read. And I’ll certainly keep that up.
And I love movies too and the hospital only has a limited number of channels and I look forward to seeing a bit more when I’m out of here.
I’ve had some things put on the iPad. I’ve watched some episodes of a series I might never have imagined watching had I not been here, the series Breaking Bad.
It’s fascinating to me. I think it’s actually quite a moral tale, even though it’s about the manufacture of (illicit) drugs and engaging in assaults and murders and all sorts of things. But there’s quite a strong moral message coming through it.
I’ve been out twice, to see The Revenant and Risen; two fairly different movies from each other. And in terms of leisure, I hope to get to more.
But whatever leisure activities, they tend to be social, whether with lay friends or priest friends.
I’m an enthusiast for my priests also having healthy leisure.
You use a lot of movie references in your homilies. You were ahead of the curve when you used My Big Fat Wedding 2 (Easter Thursday, the same day it was released).
(Laughs) I had already read what was going to be in it but I didn’t actually get to see it until afterwards.
I don’t think it’s as good as the first one. I think it is remarkable they were able to get the same cast, almost completely. And they managed to bring back some of the same gags but I think they were funnier the first time.
How did you like Risen?
I liked Risen very much.
There were things that disappointed me. I thought [the fact] that Our Lady was almost completely absent was extraordinary given what a lynchpin she was in holding the apostles together in that period, then after the Ascension and then at Pentecost.
That disappointed me, but these were evangelicals who put it together so it was not surprising.
The story is of a centurion searching for the body (of Christ) who is converted in the process. I thought it was a very clever device.
At times they moved stories around, just like (Mel) Gibson did with The Passion of the Christ.
It gave you some clever insights into what might have been going on in the lives of the apostles and what Christ was doing with them in those days.
I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think I needed a little bit of Easter at that time in my life and the hope of Easter.
And then – happily – the real Easter also came, and my experience of going back to the cathedral was just so encouraging. It was such a delight to be back.