Archbishop Fisher introduced himself to his Sydney flock at his installation on 12th November 2014. He knows the Sydney Church and its history from personal experience. He is, after all, a born Sydney native whose early years inculturated him into that city and church.
He was always a leading student at Catholic primary and secondary schools. He gained a First Class honour law degree at Sydney University and practised as a lawyer till entering the Dominicans. After ordination his life was academic – first as a post-graduate student and then as a lecturer. He was the founding director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family before appointment as Auxiliary Bishop to Cardinal Pell in Sydney. He has been a bishop for eleven years – seven as auxiliary in Sydney and four as Bishop of Parramatta.
Cardinal Pell has pushed Archbishop Fisher’s career as a churchman. Fisher’s qualifications and ideology made him an ideal academic to steer the establishment of the John Paul II Institute for the Marriage and the Family which Pell established when archbishop of Melbourne. This institute is an apologist for John Paul II’s Theology of the Body which rationalises the conservative view of sexual ethics. It was strongly pushed by the John Paul bloc in the culture wars in John Paul’s reign. It has always struggled for numbers but now appears to be in decline. Cardinal Pell’s patronage is key to Archbishop Fisher’s promotion to be his auxiliary in Sydney and then bishop of Parramatta and now Sydney.
Archbishop Fisher’s four immediate predecessors were cardinals. Will he get a red hat? Well, not soon. Cardinal Pell, (73) is an Australian and still eligible to vote at papal elections for the next seven years. Archbishop Fisher (54) has plenty of time. If there is another Australian cardinal in the next list it could well be Archbishop Hart (73) of Melbourne. Another possibility is Archbishop Coleridge (66) of Brisbane. He has enjoyed Roman favour in the past. It could happen again either via an appointment to the Roman Bureaucracy or even a move to Melbourne when Archbishop Hart retires in a couple of years.
Archbishop Fisher’s self-presentation at his installation was personable, unpretentious and light-hearted. He sees himself primarily as pastor of the Sydney Church and pledged himself to that task. The church he envisages over the next twenty years is clerical – with seminaries, convents and youth groups teeming with new life as a result of the New Evangelization carried out by parishes, chaplaincies and educational institutions. He sees the three key factors in achieving this are the clergy and religious, families and young people. These views are typical of the symbolic utterances of the conservative power bloc under the previous two popes. Episcopal utterances are changing under the reality check of the Pope Francis regime.
In fact the clerical model of the Church has failed. Religious life is now marginal instead of mainstream. The seminaries have been virtually empty for forty years. Only a small out-group is interested in the clerical profession. Once strong social pressures to belong to the Church have vanished. Younger generations for the last fifty years have not needed the Catholic vision of life. The “New Evangelization” is simply a repetition of the old, rejected ideology. Jesus’s central message of life overcoming death and of love, mercy, justice and mutual support is still compelling. But it is obscured by an accretion of beliefs and rules irrelevant to life today – but held as sacred by the clerical power bloc.
Archbishop Fisher foresees a laity that is theologically literate and spiritually well-formed. Such is already there in significant numbers. This small but switched-on group is the real hope for the future, as is the lay leadership they embody. Is the archbishop able to embrace this new, non-clerical model?
Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic Priest who lives in Melbourne. He ‘also writes a bit’.