This week's stories | Home Page
Posted March 9, 2006

Interview with Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia
March 6, 2006


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 wasn’t 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?
We’re as confident as any previous host has been. Of course, this was a big issue for Cologne, as John Paul’s 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 he’s coming.

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 he’ll have the whole front section of the plane, probably with a bed installed. Right now we’re 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 we’d hope for our church. That’s 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 there’s no one to receive these young people when they return home to their parishes, full of new energy. That’s why we’ve already created a team in charge of follow-up, that’s planning right now for what will happen after the event. They’re 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 they’re 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 they’re gone. Again, we can’t 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. There’s 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 one’s lap and doesn’t 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 we’ve 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. They’ll 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 don’t 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. They’ll 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, we’ll 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 it’s back into the box. …

Australia needs World Youth Day. There’s 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. It’s 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. We’re 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 one’s 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 Day?
There are the natural advantages of Australia. It’s a beautiful country, it’s young, and we have a stable polity and a stable security situation. It’s 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 didn’t have. Sydney is a much larger city, so the events won’t have to be spread out over several sites. Plus we have the Olympic facilities, so we don’t 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 editions.

What will the weather be like in Sydney in July?
It’s 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?
We’re 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, we’re 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 we’re a small country to start with, and we don’t 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. We’re 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, we’re 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 won’t 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.

I’ve 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 there’s an argument for that. Catechesis, for example, works better pedagogically when it’s 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 it’s a group of 5,000 or more. With the final Mass, one big issue in past World Youth Days was whether it’s realistic to administer communion to everyone. We shouldn’t face that. Also, it’s tough to feel connected with the pope when he’s a half-mile away, a little dot on the horizon, and basically you’re 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 who’s presenting and what they’re doing, because we won’t 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 Sydney’s World Youth Day be different from past editions?
We can pick and choose among what was best about Toronto, Rome, Cologne and so on. We will plagiarize unashamedly! For example, there’s a general consensus that the Stations of the Cross in downtown Toronto on Friday night were very effective, and we’re 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 the Christ’?
We’ve investigated it. As things stand at the moment, however, he won’t 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 Gibson’s ambiguous statements about the post-Vatican II Catholic Church given you any reservations?
It does effect how hard we’re pushing for it. We’d 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. It’s 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 that.

I sometimes had the impression that John Paul II’s ‘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 that’s what it took.
That’s very likely. But even if the focus is on the next generation because every pastoral strategy tried with the previous one hasn’t 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 don’t 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, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: