Columbia Conversation: Bishop Anthony C. Fisher

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How has the Holy Spirit guided World Youth Day preparations? What have the last three years meant to you and the youth organizers who are working on the meeting, but also for the Church in Australia?

Bishop Fisher: The first thing I’d say is that we’re quite confident that even if WYD didn’t go ahead, it has already had an enormously positive effect on the Church here in Australia. For many young people it has been the hook that has got them interested in the Church, the start of something we hope will be deeper and more enduring. We’ve been very strong from the start on the importance of prayer, the importance of invoking the Holy Spirit’s help for this journey to WYD, and for its fruitfulness for the Church here in Australia after World Youth Day.

How does Sydney fit in with the overall WYD program and with Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy?

This World Youth Day will have a great deal in common with previous World Youth Days, but it will also have its differences, which come from the particular physical and spiritual geography of Australia. So many of the elements that we are familiar with at WYD — the opening Mass, the Holy Father’s formal arrival, catechesis each morning and youth festivals in the afternoons, Stations of the Cross in the city, the vigil under the stars, and finally the big final Mass — we have in common with previous WYDs.

Each of those and all of them together are more than just events or spectacles; they are part of a very well-thought-out pastoral program to engage young people in different aspects of the life of the Church, to catechise, to give a great experience of the message and devotion of the Church, and to give them a sense of their mission to the world in the generation ahead.

Clearly, Pope Benedict XVI brings to this WYD, as he did to Cologne, his particular personality and gifts. Above all, I would say he brings continuity with Pope John Paul II, who was his great friend. Pope Benedict has chosen to continue the WYD tradition and program, much as it was in the past, but he will bring to it his own theological focus and mind, his own preaching style and messages for young people. He will make it a teaching opportunity, as well as giving young people a sense of leadership that the papacy offers them for today’s world.

Recently we heard him talk to young people about not selling their souls to the world, not selling their souls to things less worthy than God. [Pope Benedict] is very conscious of the allurements, of the temptations, of the alternatives to God that [exist] for young people. He has a keen sense, then, of making WYD a strategy not only for the evangelization of young people, of bringing them to faith, but also of ensuring that faith is solidly founded — that the gifts of faith and reason, which point us toward God, really develop within the life the young people find in the Church.

Do you think today’s youth and the challenges they face are different from those of previous generations?

Young people today are like young people of all generations. They’re asking many of the questions that young people have asked throughout the ages. We should be wary of imagining that they are unique, with particular problems, challenges and gifts.

That said, however, young people do confront particular issues that young people in the past didn’t. People talk, for instance, about the “post-modern” culture, the world in which nothing is true or certain, where there are no absolutes or reliable signposts, where you have to invent a narrative, a story for your life that you can revise at will and where other people fit or don’t fit. Where ideals fit or don’t fit into that picture is up to you.

Clearly, in the face of that kind of relativism, as Pope Benedict has called it, young people today are particularly vulnerable to the whims of the media, of fashion, of predators in the drug or sex industries, or lots of other places where people are willing to use young people and to harm them for their own interests.

We would hope that one of the great benefits of WYD is to offer young people something — something…more deeply satisfying than some of the messages of the world that they might get from their peers or from the powerful institutions of our culture. For instance, for young people who have not had a very warm and secure family background, we hope that WYD can present to them the experience of the paternity of the Holy Father, his love for them and that love as a reflection of a much greater love of God the Father….

We hope that would encourage each young person there to be willing to embrace family life, which for many of them is the vocation to which they are called — to be spouses, to be parents. We want them to see that this is not an impossible ideal given the pressures of today’s world, but a place where they will find the most satisfying direction for their lives.

Some young people, in experiencing the bishops, priests and religious of the world, will be attracted to devoting their lives to Christ in that way. Others will be challenged to reflect on how their faith will fit in with the rest of their professional lives….

Young people of every generation have had to ask those questions, but we think that those today often don’t have the same good role models, or the same encouragement of the culture to be generous, to sacrifice, to commit long term — so, we hope WYD will give them the encouragement to dare to do such great things for God and with God.

How can the WYD movement and Sydney specifically bolster young people’s desire and willingness to do bold things for Christ and the Church, to live saintly hopeful charitable lives, measured by the Beatitudes?

I think the WYD in Sydney will encourage that kind of generosity and courage in our young people in many ways. We will be presenting to them 10 role models and patrons of WYD, such as Pier Giorgio Frassati, whose body will be coming to Sydney for young people to visit. He was a young man in his 20’s, a university student very engaged in works of charity, in promoting social justice, in promoting a deepening of faith and a practice of the Catholic faith. Frassati will be presented as a very lively model to young people, as will our other nine patrons, including Australia’s only beata, Blessed Mary MacKillop.

During WYD, we think the emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit will encourage young people to live their vocations in the world, to live saintly, helpful and charitable lives, lives of the Beatitudes, lives in keeping with God’s commandments, in keeping with God’s will for each young person. We hope to emphasize how God’s Holy Spirit enables that, makes it possible, even when it seems hard or challenging for them, but I think that is the encouraging part.

Similarly, the experience young people have at WYD of being part of a universal church with every nation on earth represented there, that’s terribly encouraging for young people. They see what they’re capable of in their peers, as well as in the saints who have gone before them. They see they are not alone, that they are part of something bigger and universal, that they are part of something that stretches through time and to every corner of the earth. That experience, I think, makes some people come home willing to dare to do great things.

Pope Benedict XVI said earlier this year that today’s youth need to “learn friendship with Jesus.” How can or will WYD respond to the pope’s challenge?

I think there are two parts to that. The first is that young people need to learn friendship. I think that is the most natural and easy thing in the world for human beings. We love to love and be loved, but it is also the case that we are in a world that in all sorts of ways degrades and demeans friendship — treats it as a means to an end, a business partnership to use each other…for our own recreational, commercial or other purposes.

Clearly one of the things WYD offers young people is that it presents them with peers full of ideals of faith and hope. There is a sense that to love and have a friend is to be willing to seek the good of that other person, to encourage them to seek their fulfilment by living out their vocation, and to assist that to happen. They, in turn, will be a great support.... Although they are given some fairly diminished understandings of friendship and love by the culture around them, young people are presented by WYD with a different message: the power of real love to expand the heart and to enable people to be truly noble, to be the saints that God calls them to be.

That means that young people need to learn not only what friendship is in itself — with their friends, their peers, their family around them — but also learn more deeply about friendship with God, which is the primary vocation of every human being. Our first love must be for God. Jesus Christ has taught us how to love God with all our hearts and souls. He has shown us the way to give ourselves completely to God and to give ourselves to our fellow human beings. WYD will be a catechesis, a way to learn how the Holy Spirit enables us to live that life of friendship with God and with our fellow human beings.

In his 2001 apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Oceania, Pope John Paul II wrote about preparing for a new evangelization in Australia. In what ways has that new evangelization been done?

Part of our preparation here in Australia for WYD has been to put a great deal of our energy not just into the week of the WYD events, but also into the spiritual and pastoral preparation of young people for WYD. We’re convinced that the better prepared they are before they come, the more fruitful the WYD experience will be when they get here. We have provided a whole range of programs here in Australia, many of which have been taken up overseas to help young people prepare for WYD.

We have our “E-Pilgrimage,” which every month has given young people material to reflect on: spiritual reading, the life of young saints, and ideas for helping prepare their hearts and souls better for WYD, whether they come to join us or take part from a distance if they can’t join us. Similarly, we have a whole range of programs for evangelization and catechesis for our Catholic schools and parishes, youth groups, university groups and ethnic chaplaincies here in Australia. Many of those have been available on the Web, on DVD and other formats so that they can be taken up and used in other parts of the world. We see all this as part of the new evangelization of our country and of every Christian soul.

Each of us needs to hear the Gospel afresh, to have our faith renewed. We all need evangelizing. Certainly our culture here in Australia has become very secular and rather too comfortable over the years. It needs to be re-evangelized, as John Paul II observed. We see that happening already in all the activities and preparations.

What will pilgrims take home from Sydney to help them be leaders in new evangelization?

We would hope that young people after the WYD this July will return home having deepened their faith, having learned more about it, having experienced the power of God in their lives through the liturgies and teachings at different gatherings. We hope they will return home also more confident that in a world with big challenges, a world that is not always supportive of young people and their idealism, that they have God working in them and through them and with them, and God plus one is a majority.

Each young person wherever they are in their life in the world at the moment need not feel alone, need not feel powerless to change things to make things better. We hope that they will go home with the sense that the Holy Spirit is there for them in the sacraments, in the teachings of the Church and in the Scriptures. Therefore, each one of them is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is ready to empower them to realise their ideals, to build in the world a civilisation of love and life, of justice and peace, a world that is a more truthful and honest one, a more virtuous place, one that encourages the best in us.

You said that you hope pilgrims come to Sydney prepared to give as well as receive. Elaborate on that.

What I meant when I invited youth to come here ready to give and not only receive is that pilgrims to WYD aren’t passive recipients of the experience. Pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela in Spain go to those places essentially on theirknees begging God for his grace, begging the saints for their assistance. We come with open hearts and hands ready to receive. For young pilgrims, they do precisely that when they come to WYD.

But John Paul in his vision for WYD, and Pope Benedict in what he has said since, challenges young people to come also as protagonists at WYD, to come as missionaries, to come with a sense that they are not just there to receive but to give. We hope that they come to WYD ready to testify to their faith to the other young people of the world and to the country they come to.

Here in Australia, as I mentioned, we have a very comfortable, affluent, peaceful society, but one that is sometimes a little smug in its secularism. It takes a great deal for granted; it needs to be challenged by the young people, their ideals for their faith, and their hope for the world.

We want young people who come to WYD to see themselves not just as pilgrims of old coming to seek favors from God, but also to see themselves as missionaries. The theme for this WYD has two parts. The first is that you come to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Part two is that you come to be witnesses to Christ to the very ends of the earth. That’s the challenge I put to the young Knights and other pilgrims from the U.S., Philippines, Europe and beyond.

Is there any specific area that you think this WYD should focus on?

Ultimately of course, it is for the Holy Father to decide, especially through his messages, what themes he wants to impress upon the young people and on the rest of the Church as it turns its eyes to the WYD here in July.

I think, however, that he has already indicated through his WYD message that he wants this experience to be a time when young people rediscover their relationship with the Holy Spirit. They are invited to learn more about who he is in their lives, what gifts he offers to them, and what fruits he hopes to see in their lives.

One very important part of the focus for this WYD will be the grace of the Holy Spirit in the mission of the Church. That grace is given to our young people. We want young people to get a sense that they are already called right now, even in their youthfulness, to be leaders in our world. They don’t have to wait until they are in their 40’s or 50’s to be given a lead; right now, wherever they are, whether at school, college, university or workplace, in their families and friendships, in their works of social service, in social justice, in clubs and societies and organizations like the Knights of Columbus.

They need to be ready right now to take the lead, to go on mission, to see every corner of their lives as a mission field. We don’t have to go to deepest darkest point in Africa to be missionaries. Right now, wherever we are in our world, there are people needing to hear more about Jesus Christ and his church, the great message of the Gospel and the great tradition of our Catholic faith. Right now young people are the ones who are called to give the lead and to serve in those places.

Why are many youth attracted to Catholic faith today, even when the culture they live in is antagonistic to its message?

It is a paradox that we have seen many times in history, especially when the Church and the Holy Spirit have been persecuted. It is precisely at those times and places that very often the Church seems to flower anew. We have a new bursting forth of the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of mystics and of teachers, of people engaging in works of charity and of mercy, of people living their faith very courageously and publicly, even at times when that is not supported well by the culture around them.

We see that same paradox today in very secular cultures such as ours in Australia but in other parts of Western culture, too. Precisely at the time that many of the messages we get from the media, universities or other places are antagonistic to the Catholic faith, it is precisely in the face of this that many young people are forced to ask questions about what they really believe: What matters to me? Where does God fit in the bigger picture of my life?

Ironically, you can find young people more likely to embrace their faith as their own faith, their mission as their own mission, in a situation where many things around them are unsupportive and are antagonistic, when there are rivals to that sense of mission. Certainly if we look at what people call the “JP2 Generation” and now the “B16 Generation,” we see that a significant number seem more enthusiastic, excited and determined to live out their faith in the world than perhaps we saw at times when culture was more supportive. Now, young people really have to make a decision of whether they are going to be for or against Christ and the church, and many of them, I’m pleased to say through WYD, are making a decision for Christ and his Church.

Are the strengths of the Holy Spirit and opportunities of young people today particularly suited?

A point that Pope Benedict made in his WYD message for WYD, which was published last July to help prepare us for WYD, was that young people are often heard to say that the Church is irrelevant, old fashioned, and distant from their particular concerns, needs, interests and enthusiasm. In the face of that, the pope says the challenges are all the louder and clearer as young people themselves must be the ones who relate to their peers and present the faith to them. They know the language. They know the ideals, concerns and difficulties of young people best because they are young people. They are the very ones whom we need to see presenting the Gospel anew to a new generation.

The primary strength and opportunity of young people today in presenting the Church to the world and serving the Church and the world is that they themselves have exactly the gifts necessary to present the faith afresh to our world.

There are also additional strengths of the Holy Spirit and opportunities for young people at the moment. Many of them don’t have the same hang-ups about the Church and tradition that their parents had in the fall-out of the sexual revolution and the anti-authority, anti-government, anti-tradition elements of the 1960s-80s culture. In fact, many young people are searching precisely for those things that their parents abandoned.

They see that in a community they can rely on, they have the support they need. They want values that are not just passing values of the commercial world, but are enduring values that will make them truly happy and make for a better world. They are looking for reliable points on their compass.

That means many young people today bring an openness to the Church, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that perhaps the generation before was not so open to hearing because of their particular hang-ups and cultural influences. I see in many young people today a readiness and a hunger to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to hear the great hopes that the Church and Holy Spirit have for young people, the great opportunities there are for them to serve in the Church and in the world today. There is a hunger to hear that truth and a willingness to embrace it when presented as a challenge and opportunity for them.

Australia is far away for many Knights. What can they do to show their solidarity if they can’t attend?

If you can’t come, then look at how you can help others to come. How can you help your fellow young members of the Knights of Columbus, fellow college Knights or others of your generation to come? Can you help them by giving them encouragement, by helping with fundraising?

The Knights of Columbus will be very involved in this WYD presenting the Love and Life Site in conjunction with the Sisters of Life and the John Paul II Institutes from around the world. They will be offering a place to celebrate the great messages the Church has about life and love, about respect for life from beginning to end, and respect for our bodies and relationships.

If you can’t come, you still have many opportunities in your life now and in your life ahead to build a civilization of life and love — one that respects every human being, that particularly privileges early human life, the disabled and the elderly, and that gives protection to the family based on the marriage of man and woman committed to each other for life. These great ideals of our faith really are the way forward for our civilization.

This July above all, wherever you are, whatever your situation, whether you can come to WYD or not, what I plead with you to do, is to pray for WYD. Pray for the organizers, and pray for the Holy Father and bishops of the world who will be teaching and leading young people at WYD. I ask you especially to pray for…the young people of the world and the young pilgrims who come, that they come with open hearts and minds ready to receive a seed of the Gospel and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that they will live with Jesus Christ in generations ahead.