Archbishop Anthony Fisher, of Sydney, Australia, was struck down with Guillain Barré Syndrome, an immune-related condition, last Christmas. Symptoms include varying degrees of muscle weakness. The Archbishop, who also experienced temporary paralysis from the neck down, is now on the long road to recovery. Patrick Langrell, the Archbishop’s public policy and engagement advisor, conducted this interview.
Archbishop Anthony, you’ve just recently been discharged from hospital, but hospitals, health care, and the healing professions aren’t things you’re unfamiliar with; in fact you’ve contributed a lifetime of work to these issues and bioethics more generally. How has your understanding of these issues and their importance been deepened or changed by your recent experience?
I’m presently working on another book of essays in bioethics and a few people have remarked to me that they think there will be some differences as a result of my recent sickness. Because now I’ll be talking about health and sickness, and health care and ethics—the ethos of that—from the inside, having been a patient, having been in hospital for four and a half months. It will be interesting to see—and others might be better than me at judging—what’s changed. I do think I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the importance of the body in our life. On its vulnerability, its fragility, and the reliance we inevitably must have on others when we are frail or sick. How do we view that relationship? Is it humiliating to be dependent on others? Or is dependence actually part of what human relationships are about? What does that mean for the character of a sick person? I asked people to pray for patience, courage, and hope for me, so those were three virtues I perhaps sensed I would really need to develop while I was sick. I hope I have done a better job cultivating them during my sickness. And I’ve been given some supernatural help with that, too. . .
I think people often respond glibly to suffering, people of faith say things like “This is giving you a share in the suffering of Christ,” or “It will pass,” and “Keep up a happy disposition.” But there are many things people say, which they hope will help, partly reflecting that they feel helpless themselves—that they don’t know what to say. They probably don’t help very much at the time, apart from that they communicate through those words—underneath those words—that they are helpless like you are, and that they fear for you and they care about you. I hope that at the end of this my answers won’t be quite as formulaic as they might have been before. I’ll have a bit more to say, I think, about suffering and health, and the body, than perhaps the simplistic answers I once might have given.
Many people experience suffering of different forms throughout their lives. One of those can be a significant health crisis, which can often lead, as you mentioned, to feelings of vulnerability, over-dependence on others, even the sense in some cases of being reduced to or returning to childhood, that is, in terms of what we’re capable of doing. These are generally feelings we try hard to avoid, or at least try hard to keep people who are suffering from feeling: What did you learn about these experiences in your recent illness?
I think there’s no doubt that for the person who’s used to being very independent and very able, it is humiliating when other people have to wipe your bottom for you, or help you shower, or feed you very basic things. In that respect you’re quite right to say it’s like going back to being a baby, except a baby isn’t conscious of that being in any way humiliating; a baby thinks that’s exactly what the world is there for—to provide him with food, and warmth, and hygiene. Whereas for an adult that seems demeaning, and can be demoralising. In recent years, I’ve been interested in a number of writers in moral philosophy and moral theology who have been insisting on vulnerability and interdependence being at the very heart of what it is to be human, to be a human person, and to be a person in community, and in relationships. On this view, for people like [Alasdair] MacIntyre and [Stanley] Hauerwas, it shouldn’t be humiliating because we should actually expect this in life, for ourselves, for people we love, for a significant number of people at any particular time in our community. And that’s not just babies and the very elderly, but lots of people in between. We will be dependent. In fact, we’re all dependent all the time on others to feed us; not literally to put the food on a spoon and then into our mouth, but to get the food to us, to grow it, to prepare it, to process it, and all the rest. We are much more dependent than we actually realise or reflect upon day-to-day, but it becomes more obvious to us when things we’re used to being independent—or relatively independent—about, we suddenly can’t do for ourselves anymore. Then we realize “Oh, I need others, I can’t do this on my own.”
I think with MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and some others this presents a very different starting point from the view of the human person as the totally autonomous agent who can do everything for him or herself, who really doesn’t need others much at all, or only relates to others on the basis of a choice to do so because there’s some mutual advantage in working with another person. Much of human life just is not like that. We experience situations where we don’t have much in the way of choices. Or they’re very limited because we’re not as powerful as that idealised model of the human agent presumes. Or the options in front of us are few and difficult. I’ve had to reflect upon that and quite a lot of other things that have come with my sickness. I’ve reflected for instance that in terms of our philosophical and theological anthropology as Catholics, we are very strong on the unity of the human person—my body is me. We don’t think, like some dualists do, of the body as just a machine, or clothing for some inner self, the “real me.” We don’t think that way as Catholics . . . most of the time, at least, we don’t think that way. But I’ve had the experience of wanting to lift up my hand, or lift up a glass, and finding that I can’t. And there have been times when I’ve been willing my body to do something which it should be able to do, and it doesn’t. It’s made me feel, at times, quite some sympathy for these more dualist philosophies, or even strands within the Christian tradition. Look at the Neo-Platonists and Augustine, and his influence on Bonaventure, and then his influence on Pope Benedict. Even within the Catholic tradition not everyone has always held to the Thomist view—the more Aristotelian view—that we are a perfectly united whole, and that whatever a body says or does, the spirit says or does, and vice versa. Those are just a few examples of re-thinks that have come for me and I think I’ll be reflecting on this for many years to come.
To many people today suffering can seem pointless, useless, something to be avoided by any means, at any cost; but the sages and the saints have seen suffering a little differently haven’t they?
Yes, there’s no doubt that a great many of our great saints, starting with the king of saints, Jesus himself, have suffered, some of them physically, some more existentially. People who have been through a dark night of the soul, as we see in the great Carmelite saints; or who have gone through long periods of psychological or spiritual dryness, as we see in someone like soon-to-be-Saint Mother Teresa; or who’ve suffered in some other way, such as saints who’ve found themselves on the outer amongst their peers, amongst their own religious order, their families, and so they’ve experienced rejection—St. Alphonsus Liguori, for instance. And we could point to lots of others who’ve suffered in one way or another, and come out the other end of that suffering a greater, more beautiful, more whole person, rather than becoming bitter, angry with God, or the world, or their fellows. And I think as Christians we admire that, and we wish that for ourselves. It’s not that we wish suffering for ourselves, we’re not masochists as Christians, we don’t go . . . in general, we don’t deliberately go looking for pain—physical or emotional or psychological. But Christianity means that we meet suffering, when it does come, differently than someone without faith. We do know that Christ has gone there before us—and the great saints have accompanied him, and accompanied us in our suffering. And that Christ has a power to relieve that suffering, or to help us transcend it in some way: to bring some meaning, to bring some new inner beauty out in us, to make us like Mother Teresa, for example, who would say of that long dark period she had of doubt, of spiritual dryness in her prayer, and of loneliness in her vocation, that she came out the other end of that as someone the whole world could be inspired by, someone that even non-Christians could look at and say, “Wow. That is humanity at its best, at its greatest,” and believers can say that it’s humanity at its holiest.
I want some of that for myself. Probably like most people, I’d rather have it without too much pain, thank you very much, without too much disability, or too much existential, psychological, or emotional pain. I’d like the result, in terms of greater character, without the process required to get there. That’s how we all feel, and I’m not a masochist myself. I feel that whatever God is doing with me—and will do in the next decades if he’s willing to give me more time—that it might be done less painfully than it’s been the last five or six months. But one way or another I’m determined by his grace that those months won’t be wasted, that something good will have come from that, for my own character, for my mission, my apostolate for God and people. One little example of that might be this: A cheeky friend of mine said there’s nothing I could have done to unite the people of Sydney in prayer that would have been more effective than getting seriously sick. That had I issued prayer cards to the world, or a special programme on how to pray, or a pastoral letter telling people they must pray more, or preached a great homily on prayer—or anything else I could have done—it would have had very little effect compared with my getting seriously sick. And so he suggested I should aim to get seriously sick every two or three years as a strategy for getting the people of Sydney and beyond to pray more, and pray together. Well, that’s a joke (I hope), and I’m certainly not planning to get seriously sick on a regular basis, but it’s a very good example of how with the eyes of faith we can see fruits of sickness and suffering that others just mightn’t notice and might not be able to harvest. I have seen very dramatically the effect of my own sickness in uniting people in prayer for a good purpose, that is, my recovering my health, and my ability to be a pastor in Sydney. That’s something that’s been very precious to me. Knowing that so many people love me, support me, and join me in faith and turning to God for help has been hugely encouraging, and I think that’s been fruitful for me in my recovering more quickly. And I hope it has been fruitful for them too, that it’s made them more prayerful, and more aware of the needs of the sick.
When people fall ill, relationships often become very significant, particularly with nurses, with one’s own family, loved ones, close friends, and visitors. Do you have any observations on the ups and downs of this during sickness, both the possibility for deepening friendships and relationships, and also straining or testing them?
Yes. In terms of deepening of relationships, I think vulnerability—dependence—is an opportunity for some of us, some of the time, to discover in the people who care for us things we hadn’t previously appreciated, things which are demonstrated by way of affection, or willingness just to engage in the hard slog of caregiving. Things we mightn’t have experienced before, or that we now appreciate more, so that a friendship deepens with someone who was already a friend or colleague. Or maybe with a new person who we encounter because they are caring for us in one way or another while we are sick. You can quite quickly in that situation develop a friendship with someone . . . it might not be the kind of friendship that you expect to continue for life, it might be one that continues for the length of the caring relationship, but there’ll be an ongoing, permanent feeling of gratitude and great respect after that relationship ends, and in that sense friendships are always for life. I don’t think this always happens. I think sometimes almost the opposite can happen. The strain is too much for people, sometimes they just can’t cope with the demands of someone’s frailty, or the sick person is so demanding it just gets too hard and can become a breaking point in the relationship. It’s very sad, but we know how often for people with a degenerative neurological condition, or with a cancer or dementia or some other very demanding sickness, marriages break up, or previously good friends end up not seeing as much of each other. And I’m not judging anyone as selfish, or not sufficiently generous or giving in that situation. I just know that for some people this can create terrible confrontations, and they don’t, for whatever reason, have the internal resources to endure them. And that could be the patient, the sick person, or the friend, the relative, the would-be or should-be carer—they find they don’t have the internal resources to do this well over a very long period. So it can cut either way, just as I think, the journey of faith, sickness, can cut either way, people can come out the other end surer of God’s loving providence and deepened in their faith; or it can be the point where their faith evaporates, breaks down, and they can make no sense of how God could allow this to happen to them. So their friendship with God can be deepened or it can be strained, as I think their friendship with others can be deepened or strained by sickness and dependency. I’ve been very blessed to have a few people who have really invested themselves in me during the months I have been sick. Blessed to have a number of others who have cared for me, not by coming to visit me every day or every few days, but by taking up some of the roles I had and making me less anxious about the tasks I would have been doing were I not sick. And there have been people who have cared for me in the very obvious and immediate ways of being my doctors and nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. And in all those different ways I would say I’ve experienced new kinds of friendship, new depths of friendship.
St. John Paul II was famous for writing on suffering and also for showing his suffering to the world. You founded the JPII Centre in Melbourne a number of years ago, dedicated to marriage and life. How has your own illness affected the way you understand the teaching and witness of John Paul II?
It used to be said, and it’s still said in Vatican circles, that a pope is never sick until he is dead. And a lot of bishops—and a lot of civic leaders—would adopt that as something of an aphorism too: that you never show weakness in public because that will shake people’s confidence. People want in their leaders . . . they want them to be strong. You might think, for instance, of President Roosevelt, and the strategies that were used to hide his physical weakness because people feared it would lead to a loss of confidence in him that could be very bad for government and for national confidence particularly during wartime. So there are some very good reasons why people often try to hide their weakness. But John Paul II did show us that sometimes it is right for people to see the crucifixion; that sometimes the vulnerability of the human person, and their continuing to struggle in faith and hope and love, like every human being does at one time or another through suffering . . . that it’s good sometimes for people to see their leaders experience and go through that just as they do, and not sugar-coat it, not hide it or try various techniques that minimize it.
I think for John Paul it was especially dramatic because he had been so strong—an athlete of tremendous physical and emotional and spiritual strength. So there must have been a real humbling for him: being cast down so low by his Parkinson’s disease and by the other things he suffered that left him more and more incapacitated. I prayed to John Paul quite a lot in my own sickness, knowing firstly that, unlike him, I am expected to fully recover and return to full health, whereas he knew that he would gradually get worse and worse. And yet somehow he managed to maintain great hope and great dignity; to be more than ever an inspiration to people around the world in his very weakness, in his quite public sickness, which he didn’t hide from the world in those last years. And that was a great example to me, and it meant early on in my own sickness, when my doctors and staff said to me, “Do we tell people that you are sick?” I really had to weigh that up and talk to some of my closest confidantes. I had to think about what I should say about my sickness, if I should let people know what it was and how long it was likely to take to fully recover, and how in what ways it has left me, at least for a time, handicapped. Talking to my doctors, talking to some of my closest friends, and reflecting on the life of John Paul, I decided to be fairly open about those things. Others might take a different view of that with respect to their own situations and want to be more private. I’m not saying that is wrong. I do think John Paul, in his own life, in the wisdom of the decisions he made in his last years, did help me during my recent sickness.
The point of illness is to get healthy and the point of death is new life. What has your illness taught you about the value and worth and destiny of human life, both our shared life here now and our new life made possible by the Resurrection?
I can jump to the new life in the Resurrection. I was struck down with my sickness on the night of Christmas and, because Easter was very early this year, most of the time I was sick was in Lent, in the Paschal time looking towards Easter—and going there through the Passion. So I just happened to be sick at a liturgical time that gave me immediately things to reflect on. Such as, that God, in becoming a human being, allowed Himself as creator of the universe, the all-powerful one, to have the fragility of a baby so that as a newborn He couldn’t do anything for Himself. He couldn’t even reach out to His mother as we normally see in religious art. A newborn baby in fact can’t even do that yet, they are just completely dependent on someone else to take care of them. And there He was, unable to use His own hands and feet, not yet speaking words, very vulnerable, very dependent. When I found myself totally paralysed from the neck down, and also affected from the neck up, I very much sensed I was there like the babe of Christmas was at that same time; as powerless as Him. And then in the weeks that followed, when I gradually recovered a little of my strength but was quite disabled for quite some time, we found ourselves almost straight after Christmas going into Lent, reflecting on God on the Cross, again with His hands and feet completely disabled, and in tremendous pain. As I went through my time of disability and pain, again I had a very strong sense that Christ had been there, was there with me, and that it would be exactly His hands and feet which He would be showing to us after the Resurrection, now glorified. That’s what He showed the Apostles first and foremost: “Have a look at my hands, have a look at my feet,” still with the tattoos of His ordinary human life, of the suffering He had been through, but now gloriously enjoying new life, eternal life, transfigured life. So I kept asking Him in my prayer to share at the Resurrection of His hands and His feet, and I keep asking Him that in my prayer, that the new life He experienced after the Cross—particularly in His extremities, those limbs that were nailed—that I might experience something of that Resurrection even now in this life.
Of course there are other parts of more ordinary life in which we can experience new life. I remember when a young physiotherapist said to me, “Let’s escape,” and he wrapped me up in a blanket, put me in a wheelchair, and we escaped from the hospital and went and got gelato at the local gelateria. Or when a friend of mine would appear suddenly with coffee and banana bread for me; or someone would bring pizza or curry into the hospital. Or when people brought me music, or downloaded entertainments or talking books . . . In one way or another I experienced little bits of new life, of the hope of a return to normal, and the ability to enjoy things in the meantime. And I think there are lots of possibilities for this even when people are going through really hard times. You see it in the stories of those who have been through quite horrible things—concentration camps, genocide, civil wars, the death or deaths of their nearest and dearest, as well as sickness and the things that it occasions . . . that often people can nonetheless find things to take joy in, that give them new life and new hope—little experiences of the cross, certainly, but also of the Resurrection.
You mentioned at the beginning those virtues that you found helpful in your own experience, virtues of patience, hope, and courage. What would you recommend for individuals who are suffering and those who are looking after those people who are suffering, so they can grow in those virtues?
Hmm. Well, the first thing I did was say to myself, “I can’t pull myself up by my own shoelaces.” In fact, I couldn’t tie my shoelaces at that stage at all, and nearly six months later I still can’t tie them. “I need God’s help if I’m going to have more patience, and more courage, and more hope.” So the first thing I said aloud was, “Everybody who loves me, everybody who cares for me, please pray for those things for me,” as I was praying for them myself. I think these are supernatural gifts, first and foremost, as all the virtues are great graces when we find them within ourselves and realise “I’m not the why of that,” or “I’m not the whole of the why of that.” I find in myself some reserves of character that I might never have guessed I had, or certainly didn’t do the work to get them. I think then, like all virtues, we also have to practise them, and so there were times when my emotions, my physical feelings, my spiritual feelings, might have inclined me to frustration, to anger, to impatience—to where I had to practise virtue and resign myself to the fact that I will be weak for quite some time, and it will not help me or anyone else to rage against that. A certain contemplative acceptance of our lot is proper, I think, to the Christian soul. It doesn’t mean, again, that we’re masochists, it doesn’t mean that we’re lazy and do nothing about improving our lot—I threw myself wholeheartedly into the physiotherapy, the four or five hours in the gym every day. So having a certain proper resignation to one’s lot is not the same as being lazy, or not doing your best to cooperate with grace, and with your own gifts and possibilities to make the situation better. But it does mean that in the meantime you can live, you can adopt a certain courageous, patient, hopeful acceptance of the situation, and learn some things, even gain some things—harvest some fruit from that period, so that it’s not just gritting your teeth and bearing it, but that actually there are some positives, some gains along the way.
Thank you Archbishop. I believe that, probably because of your illness, you had to cancel a trip to the US this year. I’m sure the Sisters of Life would have loved to see you. Is there any message you’d like to give them?
Yes, I do love my visits to the United States when I get to make them, and this year I had planned especially to join my fellow Dominicans in their celebrations of the eighth centenary of the Order by giving some talks in America, and then visiting some of my friends such as the Sisters of Life along the way. That didn’t get to happen this year, hopefully God will give me many more opportunities in the future. I love and admire the Sisters of Life for their great apostolate, and for the more contemplative side of their life, too, when they reflect on why human life is so beautiful, on why human dignity is to be always respected, and built up. And I really hope and pray that when I get to see them at last there will be more of them, that they’ll be more happy, more boisterous, more determined to serve the great gift of human life in the ways that they do at the moment, and will do in the future. God bless those wonderful Sisters.