Sometimes when new Vatican appointments are announced, it’s a bit opaque who actually called the shot. That’s definitely not the situation, however, with Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, named last week to be the first-ever head of a new Vatican department devoted to laity, family and life.
In his case, it’s abundantly clear who pulled the trigger: Pope Francis himself.
“One day in May, my secretary walked into my office, because I didn’t answer the phone, and she said the pope is on the telephone,” Farrell recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure … probably one of my bishop or priest friends just calling up imitating the pope’.”
In fact, it really was Francis, who proceeded to lay out for Farrell what he wants him to do in his new Vatican role, which he likely will take up in early October.
“The Holy Father would like to see lay people much more involved in the administration of the Church in Rome,” Farrell said of those exchanges with the pontiff, which continued when he visited him in June in Rome.
“In general, in the Roman Curia, he would like to see lay people in more prominent positions,” Farrell said.
Farrell also said that Francis wants him to open up channels of communication and consultation with Catholic laity.
“I hear from all these consultative bodies I have here in the Vatican, but I’d like to hear from the lay people too!” he quoted the pope as saying.
Farrell spoke Monday on “The Crux of the Matter,” a radio show based on Crux’s reporting carried by the Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129, every Monday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. The following are excerpts from that interview.
Did you get any heads-up you were under consideration?
No, I had absolutely no idea. I go to Rome regularly, I have a brother who lives there [Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity], and he’s spent his whole life there. I would go, I would complain to him about the bureaucracy in the Vatican, and nobody ever suggested this, or even talked to me about it.
How did you learn this was going to happen?
One day in May, my secretary walked into my office, because I didn’t answer the phone, and she said the pope is on the telephone. I said, ‘Yeah, sure … probably one of my bishop or priest friends just calling up imitating the pope.’ It actually was the pope himself. I got onto the phone, and he talked to me … I didn’t know why he was calling, and I was tongue-tied at that moment. I just didn’t know what to say.
He launched into telling me how he would like me to go to Rome and head up this new dicastery that he was setting up. He said, ‘Some people have told me that you’re the perfect person for this job, and I’d like you to do it.’
I responded with five reasons why I would not be the right person, and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you think about it for a few days, and we’ll speak again?’
What was your best argument as to why you weren’t the right guy?
First of all, I’ve never worked in Rome. I don’t know a lot about it … I’ve kind of always stayed clear of all the workings of the Vatican. I don’t write books on the family, or on Amoris Laetitia and things like that. [That’s the pope’s recent document on the family drawing conclusions from his two Synods of Bishops on the family.]
I just didn’t seem to be the right person, and I couldn’t see myself in that position.
I also told him I was too old for the job [Farrell is 68], so he needed somebody younger, and I tried to convince him of that. I told him there are some wonderful bishops in the United States if he needed an American, who could do the job much better than I could.
Obviously, he wasn’t buying it?
He didn’t buy it. Eventually I went over there to speak to him, at the beginning of June. We talked for almost two hours, and he discussed many things, his intentions, what he would like to have done. As you know, he’s very persuasive! So, I ended up taking the job.
Did you speak in Spanish?
Yes, any time I’ve spoken to him, which have not been that many, it’s always been in Spanish.
After that I didn’t hear anything for a while, and then the pope called me up and told me he was making the announcement on Aug. 17.
Can you share anything about the vision the pope laid out, or what he wants you to do?
First of all, on an overall basis, the Holy Father would like to see lay people much more involved in the administration of the Church in Rome. That’s one point he commented on to me several times. He said, ‘Even the [Pontifical] Council for the Laity had lay people working right after the Second Vatican Council, who held the important positions there.’
One thinks of Rosemary Goldie, an Australian lay woman who worked in the council for the laity beginning in 1967.
That’s right. Then, all of a sudden, it became clericalized. The pope wants to change that, in all the departments. He spoke to me about how in general, in the Roman Curia, he would like to see lay people in more prominent positions. He wanted to make sure I was going to do that, so it’s written into the statutes.
When it comes to the family, what he wants, and I do too, is to see Amoris Laetitia be the guiding force of that dicastery. It’s amazing that this is a document that’s the fruit of two synods, and they weren’t the same bishops each time. This is the conclusion, so that has to guide the pastoral work of the Church in the future.
We’ve talked about laity and family. How do you see the “life” component of the job?
I think there are many threats to life today. I will enjoy, and I will make an effort, to promote respect for human life and the dignity of all human life all across the globe in the Catholic Church.
I’m not very familiar with what each of these departments do at the moment, so obviously there will be a learning curve. I have to understand exactly what they do, and to continue the good work they do. The emphasis is what needs to be done for the future. I can’t speak to what I’m going to do until I get there and find out what has already been done. Like I said, I’m not very knowledgeable about the inner workings of many of these departments.
Has your brother given you any insight?
Yes, I have some insights [from him].
Basically, I would like to have the laity more involved. I would also like that we adapt to the reality of today’s world, and that our communications be such that all people, people of all levels, can understand what we are saying and what we are trying to do.
Also, you have to keep in mind that this dicastery is the one that puts on World Youth Day every three years, and also the World Meeting of Families, which was held most recently here in the United States in Philadelphia.
In all this, I intend to consult the laity. That’s what the Holy Father stressed to me, and that’s what I intend to do. At one point he actually said to me, and I thought this was interesting, ‘I hear from all these consultative bodies I have here in the Vatican, but I’d like to hear from the lay people too! I have bishops and priests telling me what the lay people think, but I’d like to hear it from the people.’
Any ideas for creative new ways of making that happen?
I do, I have some thoughts, but I would rather wait to see exactly what goes on in these departments and who are the members of these consultative bodies that are presently in existence and which will cease to exist on Sept. 1.
Totally out of curiosity, are you going to stay with your brother until you figure out where you’re going to live?
They’re supposed to tell me sometime around the beginning of September where I could possibly live. Until then, yes, I’ll live with my brother, who lives in the Sant’Ufficio. [The building that houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the “Holy Office.”] I’ll be in his apartment, I hope only for a short period of time!
We all get it, nobody wants to share a room for very long with their sibling. Different question: Normally when a new dicastery head is named, they’re also appointed an archbishop and given a titular see. Do you know why that didn’t happen in your case?
I have no idea whatsoever. It never crossed my mind, I’ve never thought about it … nobody’s ever explained it to me, nor would I ask or, for that matter, am I very interested in it.
Final question: Do you think of yourself as Irish, American, Irish-American, or all of the above? [Farrell was born in Dublin and grew up in Ireland, but has spent the last 31 years in the United States, 14 as an American bishop.]
I think of myself as an American who was born in Ireland!