– For a good while now, you've known that the founding head of the new Vatican super-office for Laity, Family and Life would be an American
... and indeed it is – at Roman Noon this Wednesday, the Pope named Bishop Kevin Farrell
, the 68 year-old head of Dallas' 1.3 million-member fold since 2007, as the first Prefect of the combined entity, formally designated a "Dicastery," which officially launches on September 1st.
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.
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.")
Third, he 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.
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.
Lastly 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.
In a statement
posted on his blog – after plugging Amoris
right off the bat – Farrell hinted at a rapid appointment of his successor in Dallas, adding that, as sole auxiliary, Kelly will be apostolic administrator during the vacancy... and, quite possibly, his top choice for the permanent nod:
I am extremely humbled that our Holy Father Pope Francis has selected me to lead this newly formed dicastery. I look forward to being part of the important work of the universal Church in the promotion of the laity and the apostolate of the laity and for the pastoral care of the family in accordance with the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, the Joy of Love, and the support of human life.
While I am grateful for the Holy Father’s confidence in me, I meet this news with mixed emotions.
Dallas has been my home for 10 years and, from the beginning, I quickly grew to love the beautiful people and culture here. The strong faith, kindness and generosity of the people in the Diocese of Dallas surpassed all of my expectations. My brother priests were among the first to welcome me and I am extremely grateful for their collaboration, friendship, wise counsel and prayers. A bishop can get nothing of significance done in a diocese without the hard work and cooperation of the pastors, priests, diocesan staff and people. Together, I believe we have accomplished many goals, and put others in motion, that will continue to build up the Catholic Church in North Texas.
I cannot express enough my gratitude for all that the priests, staff and people have done and continue to do for me and the Diocese of Dallas. I know our Holy Father is working, as we speak, to find the right man to serve as the new chief shepherd. I am confident that, upon my departure, Bishop Greg Kelly will handle the needs of the diocese in the interim. Please pray for him. I also ask that you please pray for me as I begin this next unexpected chapter of my priesthood. May God continue to bless the Diocese of Dallas.