Farrell’s new job

Rocco Palmo notes the new appointment of Bishop Kevin Farrell a the new prefect of the Dicastary for Laity, Family and Life. He opens, “Now the ranking US prelate in the Roman Curia – where his brother, Brian, has long served as bishop-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity – even as the move short-circuits the long-held wish for the nation’s sixth-largest city to be elevated as seat of a third metropolitan province in Texas, the Vatican statement announcing the move conspicuously did not include Farrell’s elevation to the rank of archbishop, which has always been customary practice for appointments of this kind. While the pick of the Dublin-born ex-Legionary of Christ might come as a surprise in some quarters, the threads explaining it can be gleaned on several fronts”.

Rocco points out that “First, and most crucially, while no one would see the low-key yet driven (and, quietly, quite funny) Irishman as some kind of wild-haired progressive, he has been notably unstinting in his affection for and loyalty to the reigning Pope; among other examples, Farrell used his homily at February’s ordination of his latest auxiliary, Greg Kelly, to lay out Francis’ vision of being a bishop in depth. Secondly, by every account Farrell has succeeded at the high-wire challenge that marked the first stage of his tenure in the Metroplex – unifying a roiled Dallas church after the divisive tenure of his predecessor, Bishop Charles Grahmann, when the diocese’s staggering growth (a more than sixfold increase of Catholics since 1990) was coupled with an eruption of abuse scandals. In addition, with Hispanic fluency steeped in Mexico from his days in the Legion, the bishop has has successfully navigated the Latin and Anglo realities of the mammoth diocese, whose 67 parishes are effectively teeming at the seams, and the replacement of parish churches with significantly larger new buildings has been a common occurrence. (He would open new parishes, he’s often said, if only he had the priests – or, as one pastor memorably put the crunch, “We’re forbidden to die.”)”

Perhaps most importantly Rocco makes the point that Farrell “enjoys close ties and clear goodwill among four prominent figures in Francis’ orbit: having served as vicar-general and auxiliary of Washington under Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl until his southern transfer, the sister of the ever-influential head of Francis’ “Gang of 9,” Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, lives in Dallas, while the work that brought him to DC to begin with saw him succeed then-Bishop Sean O’Malley as director of the capital’s Centro Catolico Hispano, which the Capuchin founded a decade earlier as Latinos began to arrive in the city en masse, only leaving the role on his appointment to the Virgin Islands. Lastly, having been a key figure in the USCCB boiler room over his 14 years on the bench – leading various elements of the conference’s temporalities and serving as its executive-level treasurer – while Farrell is an administrative whiz and knows the church’s tendency to be obsessed with process, he doesn’t exactly revel in it and understands its place as an element of the greater good. Beyond the sheer challenge of setting up a new ministry that will combine two pontifical councils – and likely bring its share of tough decisions – the organizational element is critical as the combined dicastery will oversee the preparations for the global church’s two largest regular events: World Youth Day and the World Meeting of Families, the latter’s next edition to be held in 2018 in the new prefect’s native Dublin”.

Rocco goes on to mention “On top of all this, having become adept at social media with his own blog and Twitter feed, even if the Pope’s pick isn’t the type who’d be knocking over people to get to a camera, Farrell’s always played well in the spotlight. That public role will likewise be of high import given his new post’s natural role of serving as the church’s lead spokesman on family issues, and in particular at the helm of the dicastery most pointedly tasked with the ongoing implementation of Amoris Laetitia, as a palpable amount of head-banging over the Pope’s Post-Synodal Exhortation continues four months since its release. In tandem with today’s appointment, Francis published a motu proprio formally establishing the new Dicastery and suppressing the respective Pontifical Councils for Laity and the Family, merging the duo alongside the Pontifical Academy for Life into Farrell’s office. In the text, the Pope writes of his desire that the church “offer sustenance and help” to laity and families, “that they might be active witnesses of the Gospel in our time” and might “make manifest the love of the merciful Lord toward all humanity.” On a related note, given the vivid debate among canonists over which rank the consolidated office should hold as it exercises some jurisdiction – which, in the strict sense, is the mark of a Curial congregation – only today has the generic, unusual designation of “Dicastery” emerged for the new organ, which presages a further breakdown of the traditional ranking of the offices as Francis’ overhaul of the Holy See’s governing structures continues apace”.

Rocco ends, “for now, as some fireworks are bound to ensue in the top rank with the appointment for a now-vacant Dallas church – where Farrell was already laying the groundwork to receive another auxiliary – it bears recalling that, with the new Prefect to be aided by three Secretaries for each of the new office’s areas of competence, the legislation establishing the Dicastery provides that (in a first for a top Curial organ) the lead deputies need not be clergy, but may likewise be named from among religious or the laity”.

John Allen discusses the appointment also, “By naming Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas on Wednesday as the first head of the Vatican’s newly created mega-department for Laity, Family, and Life, Pope Francis has accomplished two things at once: He’s handed another major victory to pastoral moderates, and he’s also further disabused notions that he’s cool to Americans. (Farrell, 68, isn’t American by birth since he was born in Dublin and came of age in Ireland, but by now he’s spent almost half his life in the States, including the last 14 years as an American bishop.) Farrell joined the Legion of Christ but left fairly early on, before sexual abuse controversies broke out around the order’s controversial founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. He moved into the Archdiocese of Washington in 1984, where he served as a pastor and also took over a center for Hispanic ministry from then-Capuchin Father Sean P. O’Malley, who’s now the Cardinal of Boston”.

Allen goes on to mention, “Bishops who come to the Vatican from the outside often face a steep learning curve, but that’s not likely to be the case with Farrell, since his brother, Brian, is also a bishop and has been serving for the past 14 years in Rome as the number two official in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. I’ve known both Farrells for a good stretch, Kevin a bit better than Brian since I generally see him every year when I speak at Dallas’s annual ministry conference, and this past year Farrell presided over awarding me an honorary doctorate when I delivered the commencement address at the University of Dallas in May. By most measures Farrell profiles as a moderate, with a pastoral touch and a social justice orientation very much in keeping with the Pope Francis style”.

He writes that “when Farrell was named to Dallas in 2007, he took over an uneasy relationship with more conservative elements at the University of Dallas, which was on its way to earning a reputation as one of the bastions of a fairly agressive “new orthodoxy,” and did his best to steer it back to the center. In 2009, Farrell delivered a memorable commencement address in which he warned against “dogmatism, closed mindedness, judgmentalism, [and] suspicion of another’s motives.” He returned to the subject in 2011, when critics objected to a new ministry degree program they saw as insufficiently orthodox. On that occasion, Farrell took the unusual step of releasing a video in response. “Let me remind the Catholic people of the diocese that this is my responsibility,” he said. “And I’m the one who has to stand before God and say whether or not this is truly Catholic. That is my responsibility, and I do not take it lightly.” In not-so-subtle fashion, part of what he was saying boiled down to, “I’m the bishop and you’re not, so relax.” At various other points, Farrell has come under similar fire. When he recently supported Father Thomas Rosica, who operates the Salt and Light media platform and also assists the Vatican with English-language press relations, when Rosica denounced a “cesspool of hatred” in the Catholic blogosphere, some of the same blogs angry at Rosica went after Farrell”.

The piece adds “Others howled when Farrell publicly objected to a new Texas carry law on guns, and praised President Barack Obama for pursuing stronger gun control. Yet liberals too have also lodged complaints. In 2008, for instance, Farrell and Bishop Kevin Vann, then of Fort Worth, issued a joint pastoral letter on Catholics and politics, calling abortion “the defining moral issue not just of today but of the last 35 years.” It was widely seen as a warning to Catholics about supporting Barack Obama (or, at least, doing so uncritically), and led to protests outside the Dallas chancery. Farrell’s reputation for balance, therefore, isn’t about any hesitance to speak his mind, or timidity about drawing lines in the sand. It’s more about an instinctive aversion to ideological extremes, a sense that busting people’s chops generally isn’t the right immediate response to any new problem. On the issues that will loom largest in his new gig – abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and so on – the bottom line is that Farrell is robustly pro-life, but nobody’s idea of a cultural warrior”.

In his new position, Farrell will also be responsible for overseeing implementation of Francis’ recent treatise on the family, Amoris Laetitiae, which among other things seemed to open a cautious door for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion after a process of discernment.

Although Farrell hasn’t directly addressed the Communion issue, when the document appeared he was broadly supportive.

“Some feel Pope Francis does not go far enough in addressing the hopes of those in irregular marriages, others who feel it compromises traditional teaching,” he said. “In my opinion, it reflects the call of Jesus to his church to continue his healing and saving mission.”

Farrell also warmly praised comments on Amoris made by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, who was among the proponents of opening Communion to the divorced and remarried at the pope’s two Synods of Bishops on the family.

On the pastoral level, Farrell won high marks in July for his response to the sniper attacks on police that left five law enforcement officers dead, in retaliation for police shootings of African-Americans.

Farrell gets good reviews as an administrator and manager (he has an MBA from Notre Dame), and is seen as a strong leader. That’s a quality that will come in handy in the Vatican, where outsiders, especially those who aren’t part of the Italian clerical world, can easily get steamrolled if they aren’t careful.

Personally, Farrell is relaxed and accessible, with a sharp wit and a keen sense of humor, without any of the pretense one sometimes associates with senior Vatican mandarins.

As for the American angle, Francis had already gone a long way to assuaging doubts about a perceived coolness to Americans by naming Greg Burke, a veteran Time and Fox News correspondent, as his new chief spokesman effective Aug. 1.

Yet there was still no American prelate heading a major Vatican department, something of an anomaly in recent decades when the informal rule was there should be at least one.

By tapping Farrell, therefore, Francis has again shown his respect for the Church in the United States in arguably the most consequential way any pope can, since, in the small world of the Vatican, personnel is always policy.

Here’s the bottom line on the Farrell appointment: Moderates can claim another big win, and Americans (as well as the Irish, of course) can feel like they’ve got a powerful new friend in Rome.

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