According to the Archbishop of Sydney, this week’s visit to Rome brought home the fact that the pontiff has called on his collaborators in the Roman Curia to help the bishops from around the world when they come to the Vatican, instead of “lecturing” them.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher and around 40 Australian bishops have spent the week in meetings with Pope Francis and the heads of different Vatican offices for what’s known as the ad limina visit.

The pilgrimage to the Eternal City comes at a very difficult time for the Australian Church, as the country awaits a ruling in Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his December 2018 conviction on charges of “historic sexual offenses.”

This is the third time Fisher has been to Rome for this episcopal pilgrimage, having participated in one with each of the last three popes. This means he’s in a unique position to gage their usefulness, and he says this year’s has improved over previous experiences.

Yet, at the end of the day, “by far the best thing for us was the actual meeting with the pope,” Fisher told Crux on Thursday.

“Things are hard in the Church in Australia at this moment, but [the meeting with the pope] gave us certain encouragement,” the archbishop said. “I left thinking: Peter was told to be a rock for our faith, for the Church, and to confirm, encourage the brethren, and he really did that for us.”

Fisher spoke with Crux about the visit to Rome, the current situation of the Church in Australia, and about how the clerical sexual abuse crisis has pulled the hierarchy and the laity further apart, but also in many ways pushed them closer together. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: First things first … how are you dealing with Rome’s heat wave?

Fisher: Even for an Australian, it is stinking hot! I don’t know about the rights or wrongs of climate change, but the August weather in Rome seems to have come in June. I don’t know what it’s going to be like in August!

You’re in Rome to talk with Pope Francis and the various Vatican offices about the situation of the Catholic Church in Australia, to get some advice, maybe give some too. If you had to sum up the situation of the Church in Australia, how would you describe it?

There’s no doubt that the Church in Australia at the moment is in very challenging times. There’s enormous disillusionment, disappointment, even anger with the Church, even amongst many of the faithful, let alone the broader public, because of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. Times are also challenging due to the continuing march of secularization that is quite rapid in Australia at the moment. On all sorts of levels, we’re in really hard times: There are threats to the religious liberty of the Church. We had euthanasia begin in one of our states. There’s also threats to cut the funding of our Catholic schools. There’s a lot going on, much of which is very challenging indeed.

But there are also many signs of hope. When I get back from the ad liminaI’m going to be ordaining 7 priests, which is the most we’ve ordained in one year for I think the past 20 years.

It’s not all doom and gloom, but it’s challenging, of that there’s no doubt.

Did you get any good advice during your many meetings that justify the trip to Rome?

By far the best thing for us was the actual meeting with the pope. I was a bit skeptical because in the past we’ve met the pope one to one or in very small groups, but Pope Francis wants to meet with all the bishops who are on ad limina together, and that’s almost 40 of us, so I thought we wouldn’t get much in terms of a discussion.

We had a wonderful two and a half hours with Pope Francis. He was very frank, charming, charitable, and direct with us. He was ready to say when he thought we were wrong about something or give us other opinions, he asked that we be very free in speaking with him, and he was with us. He was in some ways modeling being a bishop for us.

As an example: It was very hot, even in the papal apartments, because the air conditioning wasn’t working - this is Rome after all. We were all getting a glass of water when we could. And he goes to where the water is, pours a glass and gives it to his translator. It was just a little thing, but we all noticed. It was very human, it’s what people who have any interest or concern for others would do automatically, but it was lovely to see the pope do that. We all came away hugely impressed.

As I said, things are hard in the Church in Australia at this moment, but it gave us certain encouragement. I left thinking, “Peter was told to be a rock for our faith, for the Church, and to confirm, encourage the brethren, and he really did that for us.”

You just said Peter was called to be a rock. There’s a lot of “chatter” about: Do we like the pope or not, do we listen to what he says or not. Has your impression of him changed seeing that you might not be in tune with every idea that he has, but that he’s a Rock, and that as such, he’s there for you, Anthony Fisher too?

I think that having heard him so up close and personal, friendly, just speaking his mind to me… I sat right behind him the whole time, so I was able to see all his gestures, his body language … I will hear him differently now than before the ad limina, because I just feel I know him a bit better and what he’s about. It gives me more confidence, and I know that it’s in the nature of the culture of indignation, outrage in our culture now, people want fights, outrage. And that makes for good punch ups on TV. But that’s not what he’s about, and it’s not what we should be about. We should try to see the best in each other and each other’s words.

This is your third ad limina. You’ve been on one with John Paul II, one with Benedict XVI and now with Pope Francis. Have things really changed in the way they go?

Yes, significantly. And mostly for the better. I think that bishops who needed a one-on-one time with the pope because they might have a very difficult issue, they might really benefit talking to the Holy Father about it, but probably, for most of us, it would have been a series of platitudes. But in doing it all together, we got down to talking about some serious matters all together.

But it became clear to me that the curia had been given the message from the top that their job is to help us, not to lecture us. There are still certain people by virtue of their personalities or position that are inclined to lecture, and that’s understandable. But I found it that, in general, I found the curia this time interested in asking what our challenges are, what are our opportunities, reflecting them to us in situations from other parts of the world. I think it’s a more “adult to adult” talk than we would have had at any other time.

Having spoken with bishops from all over the world, sometimes there’s a communications problem, meaning, that when something is going on in the local Church, they don’t necessarily know who to speak with in Rome if they need a resolution from the Vatican. For instance, when there’s an allegation of clerical sexual abuse that just cannot wait, who’s the right person to know in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to get it dealt with. Did you get the contact information for these people?

I think that for some departments, such as the Dicastery for Family, Laity and Life, they gave us contact information for all of their staff, what do they do and what we can contact them for. That’s the most helpful thing they could hand us, and some of us said we wished all of them had done that.

It must be the case, even for the departments that are very understaffed or swamped in bureaucracy, just knowing their names when you need to reach out to them, can be very useful.

As you said, these are challenging times for the Church in Australia, with signs of hope. Similarly, this is the case for the Church in the States. For many, there’s a widening breach between the hierarchy and the laity. Do you see any signs of this distance shortening?

At every occasion there are opportunities for new bridges and for new gulfs. In some ways, what we’ve gone through in these challenging times has brought us together. There’s a sense of solidarity in our pain, our grief, our anger, at how we’ve been let down, that the ones who’ve persevered, we love them and support them for that, and we jointly agree about the ones who’ve let us down, disillusioned.

On other aspects, people are naturally disillusioned with the leadership of the Church due to so many failures, and the way we hear about it is drip, by drip, by drip. Using a surfing analogy, you get done over by a wave, and when you get up, another wave knocks you off your feet, and you don’t get a break. And I think a lot of us feel winded by that, and this will create new distances between people, because they feel let down by us or wonder if they can trust us.

I think that it has both brought us together and created new gulfs.

A lot of the time, there are members of the hierarchy who are trying to do things the right way, but they too get winded, knocked down by the waves, disappointed and hurt by the actions of other members of the Church’s leadership …

Absolutely. I have spoken with my brother bishops, with other priests, members of my religious community, about how all of us are feeling demoralized, angry… I leave my cathedral’s presbytery and I get sworn at, spit at, called a pedophile and violent things like that. For a time, I was feeling anxious about going outside, but talking about it has helped, the trying to share that this is hurting us all. If we pastors and our people can speak about these things together, share our grief, our anger about things that have gone wrong, but also about our love for the Lord and our commitment to end pedophilia, I think that, at the end of the day, we might be closer together.