ROME — For Pope Francis, two of his biggest concerns since the beginning of his papacy have been the family and laity, which makes his personally appointed prelate running a new Vatican department dedicated to those issues a big fish indeed on the Roman scene.

That’s Cardinal Kevin Farrell, now the prefect of the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Family, Laity and Life, and prior to that the bishop of Dallas, Texas, since 2007. Born in Dublin in 1947, Farrell is a naturalized American citizen and one of the most enthusiastic adoptive Americans you’ll ever meet.

Farrell spoke to Crux on Thursday – Thanksgiving Day in the States, but just another day in Rome – about his new assignment, Pope Francis, and how he’s trying to build a new Vatican department with essentially no blueprint or game plan.

The following are excerpts from that conversation.

It doesn’t happen very often that a brand new department of the Vatican is born and has to be built from the ground up, and of course you just got here. Where are you right now?

Where am I right now? Right now, I’ve spent six weeks here. I’ve listened to everybody, I’ve talked to everybody, I’ve interviewed all of the staff and tried to understand what it is they do.

What is your staff?

It’s the former Council for the Laity, and the former Council for the Family. In the life section, we don’t have a staff at the moment. We intend to set that up in the coming months, I would say. Right now, I know what goes on and what people do, and now the question is how am I going to put all this together?

In the new statute about this merger, there are specific ideas about what the dicastery for laity, family and life is supposed to do. For example, we have to care about the laity, but what does that mean? In the past, the Council for the Laity has been in charge, and we’ll continue to be in charge, of all the spiritual movements all over the world, an enormous amount of organizations.

You mean things like L’Arche, Sant’ Egidio, Communion and Liberation, Regnum Christi, the Focolare, and so on?

All of those, and that’s our responsibility. We have to make sure they stay on the right track, and to resolve any problems that arise. Yet as Pope Francis told me a long time ago when he called me up and asked me to come over here, maybe ten percent of the Catholic Church is involved in movements of some sort!

Which is probably an exaggerated number, right?

Absolutely! I would say that 99.5 percent [of Catholics] are not in movements. Therefore, we need to look at that issue.

On the subject of the movements, many church-watchers wonder if there’s a particular movement to which you feel closest.

Not really, no. In Dallas, I had the Neocatechumenate at the seminary, the Focolare, Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, Regnum Christi…I had them all. Obviously, I entered the Legion of Christ many years ago, but I also left them many years ago. I wouldn’t say that my spirituality is shaped in a special way by any of them particularly. I’m good friends with many of them…the Regnum Christi, for instance, lived two blocks away from me in Dallas, the women’s section, and I would go and visit them every so often.

What I can say is that I think I’m totally impartial, and I’m not on anyone’s side.

Let’s go back to your dicastery…that is what we’re calling it, right? A “dicastery?”

Yes, a “dicastery.” I think they’re all going to be called “dicasteries,” at least that’s what I hear, after the new governing document of the Curia comes out…whenever that happens!

There’s also the question of getting more and more lay people involved in the Church, and accepting their responsibility of being baptized Catholic Christians, and therefore they have responsibility within the Church.

In the United States, we’ve always had that. In my personal experience, both in Washington, D.C., in the chancery, and in Dallas, I saw it. In Dallas, there was only one other priest and myself who worked in the chancery out of 120 people. They’re involved…I mean, think about our parishes. If it weren’t for lay women, our parishes would be dead! We have that, but that’s not the way it is in most parts of the world.

The question is to convince conferences of bishops, and all the bishops who come here on their ad limina visits, that they need to get involved in this, that they need to get lay people into the Church, doing what lay people do in the Church.

By that, do you mean holding positions of responsibility in the Church?

Yes, I mean holding jobs in the Church. For instance, I mean running the educational system, or the financial system…the only thing that’s off the table at this moment is ordaining women to the priesthood! Everything else is open.

Does that include the Vatican?

Pope Francis told me expressly he would like to see more lay people over here. One of his concerns is that we have too many priests working in the Curia in positions that in principle don’t have to be held by clergy. Why are they not? For example, in my department, I have the council for the family, and for marriage, and for life and all of that.

Well, I think to myself sometimes, I have a lot of priests who work in marriage, and what do they know about marriage? What do they know about family life? Maybe some of them went into the seminary when they were 12 or 13 years old, and what would they know about family life? They know the principles, they know the theology, but the existential dimension is missing.

Does it depend to some extent on how much time they’ve spent in the confessional?

That’s not an existential experience, that’s a vicarious one. It’s important to make these distinctions, not that I would ever have used that vocabulary in Texas!

I would like to have lay people involved in marriage, and in family life, and I know that’s what Pope Francis wants.

I suppose one face-value reaction might be, if the pope is really interested in promoting laity, then why does a cardinal have to be in charge of this new dicastery?

I would say that in the future, that could change. At the moment, I guess I’m there just to bring all of this together and to give it a new direction. But, when you read the statutes of this new dicastery, it says that the secretary can be a lay person or can be a bishop, and that the under-secretaries in charge of the various sections must be lay people. It says that the prefect will be a cardinal at this moment, but it leaves it open for the future.

Have you identified a secretary, meaning your number two official, yet?


Often heads of dicasteries aren’t involved in choosing their secretaries. Is that how it’s working in this case?

Not necessarily. Pope Francis asked me to look around and to find a good secretary, and to let him know when I’ve found one.

Do you have a profile of the kind of person you’re looking for?

I would like somebody who’s very dynamic, interested in the work of lay people in the Church and in family and human life. That’s a long and complex set of qualities! Such people don’t just drop by. It’s a challenge to find them, and it’s a challenge to find qualified lay people too.

In your mind, would you prefer your secretary to be a lay person or a cleric?

At the moment, for the first year, to be quite honest with you I’d be inclined to have somebody who is knowledgeable as the secretary and who also has some experience in dealing with the Curia. I would like to have somebody with whom I wouldn’t have to worry about administration.

In your mind, that means a cleric for the short term?

For the short term, yes.

Does that also mean an Italian?

Not necessarily, no, just somebody who has some experience here.

Probably not a native English-speaker?

No, I want somebody from another culture. Part of my job is to internationalize a little bit this new dicastery, because right now it’s 90 percent Italian in one department and in another it’s a mixture.

What are your priorities for year one?

I’m faced with World Youth Day…I’m going to Panama in these days, either this week or the week after. It will be held in Panama City. I also have the World Meeting of Families again, which is in 2018 in Dublin, Ireland, and which will be another challenge, so there are things that are ongoing and which are a challenge.

Obviously, I’d like to get the administrative part out of the way. I’d like to build up a team, and I think I need to do that before I can venture into anything else. Once I have that team, I would expect us to be a little more creative than we are at the moment.

Meaning what?

Meaning, doing things differently than we’ve done them in the past. Social media, for example, has almost been non-existent. We have a web site, but it’s next to morbid or dead. We do have  a Twitter account, but I don’t even know how it works…

Do you have the password? If you wanted to tweet something out today from the dicastery, could you?

No, I couldn’t! I’ll get that one of these days.

Do you feel that you’ve been given the resources you need to pull this off?

Yes, I’ve been given the one resource I really need, which is the pope!

How involved is Pope Francis? Could you call him and say, hey, I need to see you?

I could call him and ask him for an appointment, yes.

Directly? You wouldn’t have to go through the Secretariat of State?

No. He’s very interested in this.

Also, we have a problem of location…we are physically in two different parts of the Piazza San Calisto.

When you’re done, how big do you think your staff will be?

About 75 people, which for the Curia is big.

Once you have all that taken care of, are there one or two things that represent immediate priorities?

There are a couple of things I would like to get done very quickly. I would like to get a lot of the conferences…we’re coming up on the ad limina visits, and I would like to use that opportunity to get them involved in promoting  the laity in the dioceses and in  the parishes, and in promoting Amoris Laetitia.

What does that mean?

Making people rethink the way we do things, and the way we do marital preparation, the way we educate our children. The way we do it, a six week course before they get married, is crazy. The way I see it, it should begin in high school.

So for you, the scope of Amoris Laetitia goes way beyond the divorced and remarried?

That’s the least of these questions!

I understand the question, I lived in the United States. But the reality of the world we live in is that the Church is in the situation it’s in because of a lack of Christian education, in other words, Catholic teaching. Do people understand what we believe and why we believe it? I would like to get people from all over the world to come together and develop programs.

Around the principles of Amoris Laetitia?

Yes, about human love and the basics of marriage understood in the Catholic sense.

In other words, you want to promote everything about Amoris Laetitia that isn’t footnote 351?

Yes! I want to avoid the footnote by doing good marriage preparation for people.

So if we do this right, we never get to footnote 351?

Yes, exactly, we shouldn’t get to it.

Much more needs to be done by the conferences of bishops…instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s a wonderful document, and let every bishop do what he wants to do,’ it’s got to become a priority issue. It would be as if it never happened.

You weren’t 100 percent satisfied with the set of priorities the U.S. bishops just adopted?

Not 100 percent. I would have preferred a little stronger sense [of adherence to Amoris Laetitia]…