Thursday, September 18, 2014

For Sydney, The Fisher King – Pell's Protege Returns as Archbishop

In his most significant appointment to date in the English-speaking world, at Roman Noon this Thursday (8pm on Harbour Bridge) the Pope named Anthony Fisher OP, the 54 year-old bishop of Parramatta, as ninth archbishop of Sydney.

In Australia's marquee post, the Oxford-trained bioethicist and lawyer succeeds his mentor, Cardinal George Pell, who Francis brought to his side in February to oversee a revolution of Vatican operations as head of the newly-created Secretariat for the Economy, now the Roman Curia's second-ranking office.

Put simply, the move is little surprise. Practically from his appointment as auxiliary to Pell in 2003, the boyish prelate raised on the city's outskirts was acclaimed as a rising star, and his combination of youthful enthusiasm and sterling academic chops quickly garnered an unusual amount of attention across the Anglophone church.

A solicitor for several years before entering the Dominicans, Fisher's profile was bolstered even more in short order when the friar was entrusted with overseeing Sydney's turn at hosting World Youth Day in July 2008. The role would become a mixed blessing, however, as the now-archbishop created a furor during the event with his remark terming the focus of "a few people" on the Aussie church's sex-abuse crisis amid the celebrations as "dwelling crankily on old wounds."

Accordingly, in his first comments upon today's appointment, Fisher aimed to turn the page on the comment, saying that "Victims of abuse and all young people must come first – no excuses, no cover-ups.

"The church must do better in this area, and I am committed to playing a leading role in regaining the confidence of the community and of our own members.... The Catholic Church in Australia is going through a period of public scrutiny and self-examination. I hope it will emerge from this purified, humbler, more compassionate and spiritually regenerated."

The "public scrutiny" refers to an ongoing Australian state inquiry into the history of the church's response to abuse in its institutions. Pell himself drew outraged criticism after an August statement while testifying to the panel which sought to compare the church's degree of liability to that of a "trucking company" whose driver "picks up some lady and then molests her."

Markedly more finessed than his "bull in a china shop" mentor, the successor who, given his religious roots, prefers to be known as "Bishop Anthony" likewise comes to the post with a new generation's tech savvy. Since taking the helm of Parramatta – comprising the city's western suburbs, said to be Australia's "fastest-growing diocese" – in 2010, the archbishop-elect has likewise taken to Twitter and maintains his own Facebook presence, where his latest post shared the news of today's appointment.

"I'm very excited to be returning to the Archdiocese of Sydney and building on strong foundations," he wrote. "I ask you to pray for me that I might be a good shepherd after the heart of Jesus Christ."

Heavily tipped for the nod from the moment Pell's departure for Rome was announced, throughout the seven-month process the choice for Sydney was universally seen as a two-horse race between Fisher and another favorite of the cardinal's, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, who turns 66 next week.

Acclaimed in the Oz media for his searing commentary on the abuse storm, the appointment comes days after Coleridge gave a strikingly candid long interview to Australian state radio on topics ranging from his own "delayed" maturity to the Vatican's handling of the crisis' US eruption in 2002, which he witnessed firsthand as a staffer in the Secretariat of State.

By opting for the younger choice, Francis has given Fisher a two-decade run in Australian Catholicism's most prominent post, the traditional home of the country's lone resident red hat. On another front, meanwhile, the prodigal Friar-Preacher is the second Dominican to be given a major English-language post by Papa Bergoglio after Malcolm McMahon OP, who Francis named to Liverpool – Britain's largest diocese – in March. And while the Stateside church stands in wait for the all-important appointment to Chicago – now said to be pending before the Congregation for Bishops – the duo are among at least a dozen "cardinalatial sees" across the globe awaiting the Pope's selection of new occupants over the next several months.

Given the late hour in Sydney, the archbishop-elect will likely face the cameras on Friday, local time. Fisher's installation date remains to be announced.

SVILUPPO: In his first interview upon the announcement – a brief chat with Vatican Radio – an audibly stunned Fisher said he learned of the appointment about a week ago and has "been in shock" ever since.