Washington, D.C. Auxiliary Bishop Michael William Fisher has been appointed by Pope Francis as the fifteenth bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo in an announcement from the Vatican Tuesday.
Fisher was introduced to Buffalo news media during a Tuesday morning online conference (audio may be found below). His installation will take place Jan. 15 at St. Joseph's Cathedral in downtown Buffalo.
"I wish to offer to our Holy Father, Pope Francis, my deepest appreciation and gratitude for the confidence he has placed in me and appointing me the 15th Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo," he said. "I offer him my faithfulness, support and continued prayers, as he shepherds the people of God.
Fisher will be the permanent replacement for Bishop Richard Malone, who was allowed to retire nearly a year ago to the day, after much criticism for his handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal in Western New York. Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany has led Buffalo on an interim basis as its apostolic administrator since Malone's departure.
Fisher, acknowledging the Diocese of Buffalo's clergy sex abuse scandal and task of restoring trust among parishioners and the public, asked for patience. He says he may make mistakes along the way, as he settles in and gets to work, but added that he prays he may recognize when errors are committed."
“I hope you will give me the opportunity," the bishop said. "Certainly trust needs to be seen in our actions, in how we carry out our ministry. I am committed, certainly, to transparency, and working with all of the people of the Diocese to help move forward.”
The Movement to Restore Trust, a group of prominent lay Catholics "committed to rebuilding the Church in Buffalo," was among those reacting with welcome. Canisius College president John Hurley, a member of the MRT, spoke of the importance of having a permanent leader in place, a year after it was placed in Scharfenberger's hands.
"I think given the problems and the challenges facing Bishop Fisher as he takes over here, I think it's absolutely essential that we have a permanent bishop,” he said. “And I say that with great respect for the work that Bishop Scharfenberger has done in his time in splitting his responsibilities between two diocese. But we need to we need permanence here and we need, we need the resolution of a lot of issues and pretty quickly.”
The MRT issued a written statement shortly after the Diocese of Buffalo's announcement and news conference: "Bishop Fisher steps into a very challenging situation as the Diocese of Buffalo seeks to complete its reorganization in federal bankruptcy court in a manner that will provide some measure of justice to the victims of clergy sexual abuse over many decades. He must lead a process that is both legal and pastoral and create a Church that is focused on healing and reconciliation. Bishop Fisher’s job is complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic that has kept the faithful from their parishes and has exacerbated the financial challenges the diocese faces.
"From its founding in October 2019, the MRT has been devoted to rebuilding the Church of Buffalo and helping the Church and the faithful recover from the devastating effects of the clergy sex abuse scandal. We are committed to being a part of the revitalization of parish life in the diocese. We seek to preserve the Church’s essential ministries in our community, ministries aimed at serving the poor and the marginalized among us. The pandemic has curtailed our public work over the past several months, but MRT members have been playing significant roles in the Diocesan Renewal Task Force which has been tasked to reimagine the organization of parishes and schools and the life of the Church.
"The MRT congratulates and welcomes Bishop Fisher to Buffalo and pledges to work with him in bringing these goals to fruition. We are greatly encouraged that Bishop Fisher considers himself first and foremost a pastor. May God bless him, and the Holy Spirit guide him in his pastoral responsibilities to the Diocese of Buffalo."
Father Paul Seil, pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park and Chaplain for the Buffalo Fire Department, said Fisher needs the public's patience though adds that patience is hard to come by in a fast social media world. He also told WBFO that historically, incoming bishops have tended to gravitate toward more influential local Catholics. His hope is that Fisher will listen to the people that, Seil suggests, haven't been heard.
"That's where we really need a genuine bishop, a real shepherd," he said. "I'm really hopeful that Bishop Fisher will be that person to lead the Diocese of Buffalo. A new Bishop, the first thing he should do is to go on down to St. Luke's Mission of Mercy or the Response to Love Center, and hear the real stories from Amy Betros (St. Luke's co-director) or from Sister Johnice (Response to Love Center director) and see, you know, what's really going on in the streets and in the parishes."
Fisher stated during his introductory news conference that in his heart and at his core, he's a parish priest.
"Since my ordination, all I wanted to do was to be a pastor," he said. "I love everything about being a pastor, celebrating the sacraments, baptizing babies, and celebrating marriages, worshiping, serving and being a part of a parish family. That is what motivates me and excites me when I rise in the morning and go to bed at night. This is what again, you get in your new bishop."
Buffalo's next bishop comes from a diocese also reeling from scandal. The groundbreaking "McCarrick Report" — released just last month — is more than 400 pages detailing the Vatican's failings, as it allowed now-disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to rise up in the church hierarchy and ultimately be appointed Archbishop of Washington, despite repeated warnings from church officials about decades of sexual misconduct.
But from that same diocese comes the recent historic elevation of Wilton Gregory to Cardinal, the first African-American to rise to that rank within the Roman Catholic Church.
"What a great gift the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has given to the church in the United States and the local church in the Archdiocese of Washington," Fisher said. "There's been a great privilege and blessing to serve as one of his auxiliary bishops. I offer him my continued prayer and support. I can't tell you how excited I am, and in accepting this new assignment that the Holy Father has offered me with the opportunity to become part of a new family."
He also has one other request, call him "Bishop Mike."
"The term 'Father Mike' was always endearing to me and I love it. And 'Bishop Mike,' I think, will be wonderful for you to hopefully refer to me as."
Read the Diocese of Buffalo's complete announcement here: