Posted March 9, 2006
Interview with Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney,
March 6, 2006
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, was in Rome
this week for meetings with the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Vatican
office in charge of World Youth Day. He sat down with NCR Rome
correspondent John L. Allen Jr. for an interview.
NCR: Why is World Youth Day important for Australia?
FISHER: In sheer statistical terms, it will be the biggest event
ever in Australia, bigger even than the Olympics. For the opening day of the
Olympics, there were some 300,000 to 400,000 people outside, plus 110,000 to
115,000 people inside the stadium, but this was spread out over an entire day.
It wasnt one big event. We imagine that for the concluding Mass of World
Youth Day there will be something like a half-million people.
Are you confident that the pope will be there?
Were as confident as any previous host has been. Of course, this
was a big issue for Cologne, as John Pauls health was in decline. They
were very worried about what was going to happen. In 2008, Benedict XVI will be
81. He looks pretty strong at the moment. I spoke to the pope last week, during
an audience for members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and he said he is
looking forward to coming to Australia. When I introduced myself I said I was
from Australia, and he said I am coming to Australia and that he
was looking forward to it. The Vatican has also written to say hes
One challenge is that the pope has never traveled this far before, even
before his election. To do it at the age of 81 is hard, even though hell
have the whole front section of the plane, probably with a bed installed. Right
now were investigating the possibility of flying direct from Rome to
Sydney without making a refueling stop somewhere. The airline experts tell us
that it can be done, if we configure one of the large jets so that it carries
less weight than during a normal flight. It would amount to roughly 20 hours in
the air. We could stop off somewhere to take on more fuel, but if we do that
the problem is that there would probably have to be a formal diplomatic
welcome, and in effect it adds another leg to the trip.
What does World Youth Day mean for the Australian Church?
I think the sheer scale of it creates the possibility of a kind of
renewal wed hope for our church. Thats without imagining it as a
kind of magic, that just because we put on World Youth Day that all of a sudden
every young person in the country will be knocking on the doors of the church.
We had 2,500 Australians at Cologne. If we get 250,000 this time, it has
enormous potential. If we do it right, with the proper preparation and
follow-up, it could make a real difference in the religious life of the
country. The key is to think of World Youth Day in terms of three phases: 1)
preparation, 2) the event itself, 3) follow-up. That last stage is critically
important, because the risk is that you run out of energy and theres no
one to receive these young people when they return home to their parishes, full
of new energy. Thats why weve already created a team in charge of
follow-up, thats planning right now for what will happen after the event.
Theyre not going to be involved at all in World Youth Day itself, but
will be ready to swing into action afterwards. The idea is to offer programs
that will enrich their faith, and challenge the parishes to make space for
these young people.
Are you aware of any research on the long-term effects of World Youth
Day on the young people who take part?
We have two sociologists in Melbourne who have studied young people at
five years and ten years after participating in World Youth Day. The majority
came back with an overwhelmingly positive affective experience of the faith,
many for the first time. What the sociologists found is that after five and ten
years, the young people have higher rates of participation, are more likely to
be involved in parish circles and the life of the church. But the sociologists
say we still have to sort out whether these young people were self-selected,
and hence already more likely to be more involved than their peers. What the
sociologists tell me, however, is that theyre convinced there is some
World Youth Day effect.
The key for our parishes and youth ministries is that we have to be
ready for an invading army of young people. We also have to be ready, too, for
some disappointment. In some cases, it may be that these young people come back
promising revitalization, and then six months later theyre gone. Again,
we cant imagine this as a magic solution to all our problems.
Some have suggested that World Youth Day may be a jolt to the very
secular character of Australian society.
Yes, it will be a jolt. The Germans talked about bringing God out into
public view once again. I would say that Australian secularism is often
premised on an underlying Christian heritage of which people are often not
conscious. Theres also a secularism which is more dogmatic and
intolerant, that puts up with religion as long as it stays at home, like a
pussycat that sits in ones lap and doesnt cause any trouble. The
young people who will be at World Youth Day will challenge the stereotypes of
religious youth. The event will confront secularism, not with the
aggression of the rioting weve seen around the world against the Danish
cartoons, but in a way that will convert hearts and get people to be more open
to new possibilities. Theyll see young people happy, not heading to the
pubs and getting into brawls after football, but helping each other and loving
God. That will challenge secularism far more effectively.
Of course, I dont imagine that overnight Australia will become the
most Christian country in the world. But our media will ask why so many young
people are interested in the Mass, in catechesis, and so on. Theyll ask
some God questions, letting the G word out in public. That by
itself will be a massive step forward. This will be as true inside the church,
by the way, as outside the church. Part of the problem is that for the people
in the pews, we have sometimes internalized the secular notion of religion as
far removed from the rest of our lives. Minimally, well at least have the
chance to tell our people what World Youth Day is all about, even if it amounts
to having a kid come back into the parish and talk for five minutes about how
it changed his life, and then its back into the box.
Australia needs World Youth Day. Theres a widespread indifference
to God, and the things of God. We have low rates of connection with the church
among our young people. Our weekly Mass attendance rates are perhaps 1 in 6,
and among young people it may be 1 in 12 or even less. Its around 5
percent in some brackets. Most of our universities are actually forbidden to
have theology faculties, a point which reflects the particular moment in
history when their statutes were formed. We have great Catholic primary and
secondary schools, but little contact with young Catholics beyond those levels.
Were just not connected with young adults. World Youth Day should shake
all that up.
For a long time, Catholicism in this country lived on the capital of an
Irish tribal Catholicism, which defended itself against the rest of the culture
and other ethnic groups. It was safe and even strong while setting itself
apart. That passed, for all sorts of reasons. The risk now is that ones
Catholic faith is something for baptisms, funerals and marriages, but with very
little day-to-day impact. I would hope that the public demonstrations of the
faith World Youth Day will occasion, and the conversion to Christ that will
happen for a lot of young people, will mean that for them and those they touch,
the act of checking Catholic on the census takes on a different
significance than just a kind of surname. It should describe something that
relates to who you are.
What advantages does Australia have in staging World Youth
There are the natural advantages of Australia. Its a beautiful
country, its young, and we have a stable polity and a stable security
situation. Its an affluent economy with a great logistical capacity.
Sydney by itself will attract a lot of people.
We also have a huge Catholic school system, with something like
one-quarter to one-third of all school-age children attending our schools,
including large numbers of non-Catholics. The state system is shrinking, while
ours is expanding. That infrastructure gives us a great head-start. But still,
our schools reach only about one-half of all the Catholic kids in the country,
so we clearly have to reach beyond the Catholic schools system.
In addition, we have a number of advantages that Cologne didnt
have. Sydney is a much larger city, so the events wont have to be spread
out over several sites. Plus we have the Olympic facilities, so we dont
have to construct new venues. Among other things, that means the total outlay
for this World Youth Day will be considerably lower than for previous
What will the weather be like in Sydney in July?
Its our winter, but Sydney winters are very mild. In the days you
can expect it to get up to the 70s, while the evenings may go down to the low
60s. It may get a little chilly, but probably not as cold as Toronto, for
example, on the night of the Saturday vigil, with that terrible rainstorm. July
is actually a very dry month for us. Obviously we would have preferred to hold
the event in January or February, which would be our summer, but the feeling
was that the only way to get large numbers from Europe and North America was to
hold it in July.
What are you expecting in terms of attendance?
Were working on projections of 150,000 from overseas and 150,000
locals in terms of registered attendance during the week. By the final Mass, we
expect that to be more like 500,000. In other words, were planning on
roughly half the final attendance in Cologne. The main factor is the distance
and the cost of travel, combined with the fact that were a small country
to start with, and we dont have any huge Catholic countries like Italy
next door. Our largest Catholic neighbor is the Philippines, and unfortunately
they also happen to be perhaps the poorest Catholic country in the world.
Were not going to have the phenomenon of Italians, Spaniards and Poles
just hopping on the train at the last minute and showing up. On the other hand,
relative to the population size in the country and the region, we actually
expect a higher turnout than previous World Youth Days.
Beyond Australians and New Zealanders, were expecting a large
contingent from the United States and from Canada, and probably from Ireland.
For North Americans, flying to Australia is not that much more expensive than
flying to Europe. We think that despite the cost and distance, there will still
be a lot of Italians, especially since Australia has a large Italian community.
Almost every Italian has relatives in Australia. We probably wont get the
same number of Poles, however, or the same numbers from other traditionally
Catholic European nations. For some, the idea of going halfway around the world
is just too much.
Ive heard senior World Youth Day officials in the past worry
that the event has become almost too big, with everyone hustling after a piece
of the action, and little opportunity for quality control. Is there
a sense in which smaller is better?
No doubt theres an argument for that. Catechesis, for example,
works better pedagogically when its on a human scale, more like a
classroom or lecture hall rather than a football stadium. For one thing, a
young person stands a good chance of being able to ask a question of the bishop
leading the catechesis, which can be very difficult when its a group of
5,000 or more. With the final Mass, one big issue in past World Youth Days was
whether its realistic to administer communion to everyone. We
shouldnt face that. Also, its tough to feel connected with the pope
when hes a half-mile away, a little dot on the horizon, and basically
youre watching the Mass on TV, even though the youth are always energized
just by being in the presence the pope. Our choices can become more thoughtful.
The youth festival on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be on a significantly
smaller scale, with fewer activists and groups taking part. We can exercise
more discernment about whos presenting and what theyre doing,
because we wont just be scrambling to fill slots.
The Pontifical Council for the Laity supports [the smaller scale], in
part because if the event seems more manageable, then it will be less likely to
intimidate smaller dioceses and countries, especially in the developing world,
from ever volunteering to host a World Youth Day. What 2008 may show is that a
smaller country can run a World Youth Day.
How will Sydneys World Youth Day be different from past
We can pick and choose among what was best about Toronto, Rome, Cologne
and so on. We will plagiarize unashamedly! For example, theres a general
consensus that the Stations of the Cross in downtown Toronto on Friday night
were very effective, and were planning to do something like that. It
allows the ordinary population to join in, straight after work on Friday.
Is there any truth to the rumor that Mel Gibson has been asked to
stage the Stations of the Cross on the model of his movie The Passion of
Weve investigated it. As things stand at the moment, however, he
wont be involved.
What was the attraction?
At that time, the film was still very fresh, and it was a great hit with
young people. It was a form of catechesis and evangelization that worked
extremely well with a young audience. Mel is himself Australian, and we thought
that given his capacity to blend his faith and his art, it would make sense to
invite him to be part of the event.
Have Gibsons ambiguous statements about the post-Vatican II
Catholic Church given you any reservations?
It does effect how hard were pushing for it. Wed have to go
into any arrangement with a clear understanding about what would be said and
what would not be said. If this were used as an opportunity to attack the pope
or the Second Vatican Council, it would obviously not be good. Our bid document
involved a lot of grand dreaming, but obviously the details would have to be
worked out with great care.
What else will be different about Australia?
I think the kind of people Australians are, and the kind of venue
Australia is. People will find it very multi-cultural, with people of every
language group and so on. Its not like most venues, where they have to
import people to speak other languages. We have a large French population,
Latin American, Italian, Filipino, and so on. I think people will find the
culture friendly, welcoming, and informal. I suspect the young people will
quite like that. Also, those young people who take part in a home-stay during
World Youth Day always talk about that, and Australians will love doing
I sometimes had the impression that John Paul IIs youth
policy, in effect, amounted to an end-run around the previous generation
and its focus on post-1968 ideological battles. The pope seemed to want to form
a new generation with different points of departure, and was willing to become
the chief catechist and youth minister of Roman Catholicism if thats what
Thats very likely. But even if the focus is on the next generation
because every pastoral strategy tried with the previous one hasnt worked,
I still believe World Youth Day in some ways effects the parents as well. There
will be an indirect effect. In other words, I dont think World Youth Day
means just giving up on the parents generation, even if there is
recognition of special challenges there.
National Catholic Reporter, Posted March 9,