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Gerard O’ConnellJuly 07, 2017
Young people talk during a conference in Rome April 6. The conference was in preparation for next year's Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment and World Youth Day in 2019. (CNS photo/courtesy Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life)Young people talk during a conference in Rome April 6. The conference was in preparation for next year's Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment and World Youth Day in 2019. (CNS photo/courtesy Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life)

“This is a moment in the life of the church where we can really try to implement what the Second Vatican Council already spoke about, which is the role of the laity in the church,” Cardinal Kevin Farrell said in an exclusive interview with America in his office in Rome.

The implementation “has been slowed down at times for various reasons,” the prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life said. “There was some misunderstanding and confusion around this. In the past, we have spent so much time fighting among ourselves. I think we have lost an awful lot of ground and an awful lot of time by infighting, but I think now is the right time.” As head of this Vatican department since Aug. 17, 2016, Cardinal Farrell is now in a position to bring lay people into positions of leadership in the church.

“The laity have a vocation to fulfill in the church, and I am a firm believer that the future of the church depends on them. I have always felt the need to promote laity within the church and within its organization,” he said.

The former bishop of Dallas said we are in a “kairos” moment for the laity in the church—and Pope Francis agrees.

Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, answers questions at a Vatican news conference on the 2018 World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Dublin. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)
Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, answers questions at a Vatican news conference on the 2018 World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Dublin. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan) 

Pope Francis phoned him in Dallas in May 2016 to ask if he would take the job. “The first time he phoned, we talked in Spanish; somehow, he knew I spoke Spanish, and it was very pleasant,” the cardinal recalled. “It was 9 o’clock in the morning, and I will never forget it. He told me what he was thinking, and I told him that I thought he was making a mistake—I was too old and couldn’t find myself working in Rome. But, he said, ‘Look, I want you to think about this, I want you to discern about this, and I’ll call you back in a few days.’ He called back three days later, and I had my list of five reasons why I shouldn’t come to Rome. Then he said to me, ‘Well, maybe we can sit down and talk.’ So, I came to Rome, and I met with him at Santa Marta. We talked for an hour, an hour-and-a-half. So, here I am!”

The former bishop of Dallas said we are in a “kairos” moment for the laity in the church—and Pope Francis agrees.

The Irish-born American cardinal has no regrets over accepting the pope’s nomination. “I find it different,” he said of his new role. “My whole life, I have worked in a different environment, with a different way of doing things. It is much more stressful back home in many ways, and things have to happen so quickly in the United States. A news story has a lifespan of about three minutes. Here it goes on and on and on. I find that [a] change of culture, [a] change of ways of doing things. Obviously, there’s a change, but I changed from Washington, D.C., to Dallas, Tex., and that was a huge cultural change.”

Cardinal Farrell has had several private meetings with Francis since coming to Rome. “Every time I meet him at ceremonies or events, he always comes over and asks me how things are going,” he said. “He is very interested in knowing how things are going.”

The dicastery’s new statute calls for qualified laypeople to hold most of the key posts. The prefect is to be a cardinal, but the secretary (the number two role) could be a lay person. But, the cardinal said, “The person who runs the laity office has to understand all about movements within the church and canon law.”

The dicastery’s new statute calls for qualified laypeople to hold most of the key posts.

On May 31, Francis appointed a 46-year-old Brazilian priest, the Rev. Alexandre Awi Mello, national director of the Schoenstatt movement in Brazil, as secretary. He served as the pope’s translator during World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro.

One section of the dicastery deals with the family, and the cardinal said he “would like to have a man or woman who is married and has a family to head that office because they would have more credibility and, moreover, you have to have a person in charge who understands life and the family, morality and everything else. But you need qualified people; you cannot just put somebody in there and tell them: ‘This is your job. You have to learn now.’”

On May 2, the pope appointed Marta Rodriguez from Spain, a consecrated woman from Regnum Christi (the lay group of the Legionaries of Christ) and the director of the Institute for Higher Women’s Studies at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, as director of the office for women’s issues.

“It has been a struggle to find competent lay people to fill those positions,” Cardinal Farrell said, and this is particularly true since he wants to internationalize the dicastery. But he has now identified suitable persons and hopes to fill the key positions by mid-September. This is especially important since there are two major international events on the horizon that require substantial input from his dicastery: the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Aug. 22-26, 2018, and World Youth Day in Panama, Jan. 22-27, 2019.

'Sometimes in the past, we [Vatican officials] were too willing to...tell the bishops what to do in a given situation.'

The department now led by Cardinal Farrell was created from the merger of three different councils (the laity, the family and life). “[They] have done wonderful work over many years,” he said. “But now there has to be a change of mentality and ability to adapt to the reality of the pastoral life of the church today. Things move much faster in the world today than they did in the past, and I think we need to catch up a little on that. A change of culture is necessary, regarding what we do and how we do it.”

Explaining the change of culture that is required, the cardinal said: “We need to be, as Pope Francis says, a church that goes out, a missionary church. We need to listen to what’s going on, to assimilate what the bishops tell us and not have ready answers. Sometimes in the past, we [Vatican officials] were too willing to respond and to tell the bishops what to do in a given situation. Having been on the other side, I used to resent in a certain way that I came over [to Rome] and somebody would give us a speech and tell us what to do—even if they have never been down on the border in south Texas.

“Pope Francis wants us to listen to the people and to enter into dialogue,” Cardinal Farrell said. He has explained this to the staff in his department in preparation for the ad limina visits with bishops from around the world and said that “while there may be issues that we get from the reports that we may wish to comment on,” it is not the task of Vatican officials “to tell people what to do in given situations.” The ad limina “is an encounter with the bishops, a discussion with them and seeking to encourage them in their work to be a listening church.”

“Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis’ post-synod exhortation on the family, “is going to be the blueprint” for the World Meeting of Families, the cardinal said. Based on feedback he has received from bishops on at least eight ad limina visits, he believes the document is being well received. “Not even one has had anything negative to say about ‘Amoris Laetitia.’ It’s going down very well in the church,” he said.

Cardinal Farrell knows there are “some who disagree,” but commented, “there are going to be people who disagree with every document that we’ve ever published, as happened at Vatican II. When ‘Populorum Progressio’ was published, don’t tell me there wasn’t disagreement then. At that time, I was a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, and I remember it well. And even to this day they talk about ‘Humanae Vitae.’”

In the United States, he said, “the majority of bishops welcome it, but there are a couple who are afraid to open up to a church that is more welcoming, more merciful and so on. I think they would sometimes like things to be black and white, but human life isn’t always like that. We want ready answers, simple answers for every question, but they are not there.” For proper context, he recommended that people read chapters one through seven of “Amoris Laetitia” before they get to chapter eight, which addresses the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

Cardinal Farrell predicts the World Youth Day in Panama “will be fantastic because it’s in a unique location.” The venue also allows “the young people of Central America that wouldn’t have the possibility of ever going to a World Youth Day” a chance to attend. He expects it to be “a moment that will bring a certain sense of solidarity and fraternity among young people, as happened in Rio and Krakow, and that would be very good for Central America countries.” He hopes “one of the effects will be to bring peace, to bring fraternity among all Central American countries.”

Pope Francis “will be a great attraction, and we hope and pray every day that he will be there. He’s in great health now, and I look forward to him being there,” the cardinal said.

Pope Francis has made clear that “he wants to be close to the young people at this event,” Cardinal Farrell said. “Moreover, he has called the synod for the young people, he wants to hear from the young people, he wants to know what they think and what their concerns are. And he hopes that bishops’ conferences worldwide would find ways to get young people to respond to the questionnaire that the office of the synod has sent out.”

Since Cardinal Farrell has watched Francis up close, I concluded the interview by asking for his take on the first pope from the Americas. He responded: “He’s very thoughtful, deeply spiritual, caring and involved. He impresses me. I would say that few people in my life have really impressed me in the sense of being Christ-like, Christian. He’s top of the list in my book. People have their own ideas and their own concepts of people like Mother Teresa, but I can say that few people have ever impressed me in the Christian way as Pope Francis.

“He’s not a media person. He’s not a showman. But what he does, the way he picks up a child or the way he deals with sick—or with everybody, when he’s talking to you—you’re like the only person in the world that he has to worry about. That’s why he’s so popular, and that’s what attracts and that’s what brings people back to the church.”

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Mary McGinley
6 years 10 months ago

One would like to hope, and this is hopeful.

Henry George
6 years 10 months ago

It really does not matter who is appointed to positions of power in the Church is they are not held accountable for their actions and decisions.

I have seen too many people summarily dismissed or the causes/cases
ignored or so slowly resolved that the issue is no longer a viable one.

Start by making Seminaries and Houses of Formation accountable to the
people in formation in that every person is given their full rights as a member of the Church and not treated as if they were a spiritual slave.

Kevin Murphy
6 years 10 months ago

More Pope Francis hagiography from America and a cooperating Francis Cardinal. I love how he bad mouths those who don't accept Amoris Laetitia. There must be something wrong with them! It seems to Francis boosters that the Church has been waiting two thousand years for this one encyclical. I also love how he cites that familiar refrain of "things aren't always black and white." Well, in most cases they are, e.g. Jesus' teachings on divorce. No Pope or his followers can put aside this teaching. I, and many, many others will never accept Amoris, and will resist the effort to "discern" the Gospels' teaching to suit the times.

Chrissie Keffler
6 years 10 months ago

I am not a cafeteria Catholic (though certainly a cafeteria sinner), but I think you miss Cardinal Farrell's point. No one is putting aside Church teaching. "Things aren't always.....", said the Cardinal. "Most things are....," said you. I don't see the difference in his and your qualifiers. It never hurts to remember that "love covers a multitude of sin." I for one am counting on that. I am from Dallas and believe Cardinal Farrell is a good and faithful Catholic. We were blessed to have him here.

Vincent Gaglione
6 years 10 months ago

Some people here would have us believe that they are more Catholic than the Pope!

The only problem with resorting to Christ to make their arguments is the fact that Christ was never a Catholic. He was, however, a keen observer of the people with whom he interacted. He behaved towards all, except the self-righteous, with apparent affection and understanding, never condemning them. That lesson is seemingly lost on some of us.

Kevin Murphy
6 years 10 months ago

I did not condemn anyone. Also, it is ridiculous to state one can't cite Jesus's exact words to justify an opinion.

Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 10 months ago

I am very happy to hear that the Catholic Church is headed toward becoming more laity-led, that our voices and gifts will have prominent and participatory places at the table, and we will come to know in ourselves a Church that is more than a clerically commandeered display of piety, indulgences and privilege.

I also totally agree with Cardinal Farrell's assessment of Pope Francis. We who live in this sometimes confusing time of history, are very fortunate indeed. We are blessed with a living saint to lead us through the muddle and darkness. I can't watch Francis enough.

Michael Barberi
6 years 10 months ago

Bravo! A great choice for the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life. It is about time that the spirit of Vatican II will hopefully become a reality. I wish Cardinal Farrell God's speed in implementing the needed changes in our Church today.

The choice of Cardinal Farrell reflects Pope Francis vision for the Catholic Church. It is clear that Pope Francis wants to change the pyramid structure of the Church from an autocratic monarchy.... where all the power and decisions are vested in the Papacy and Vatican Offices (and are promulgated to the people who are expected to obey them).... to a Church of the People where the Bishops are given more authority and responsibility to make decisions and all the people of God (laity, theologians, clergy and hierarchy) have a true voice and participate in the governance of the Church. Giving the laity more authority and responsibility in the Church is only a first step. Hopefully, we will soon see women as ordained deacons. One day I hope that celibacy becomes voluntary and that married men will be able to become ordained priests. The pastor of the largest parish in the U.S., St. Matthews in Charlotte, called for such a change on the advent of his retirement this month.

As to others who disagree with such reforms or changes, it is clear that some people will never accept any change because they believe it violates Scripture. This is an unfortunate reality. However, rather than get into an argument about the interpretation of the NT and what Jesus said, I would rather stay on point which is to welcome the choice of Cardinal Farrell to this important Vatican position and wish him well.

don ttouchme
6 years 10 months ago

"As to others who disagree with such reforms or changes, it is clear that some people will never accept any change because they believe it violates Scripture. This is an unfortunate reality." So much for listening, eh? A lot of people disagree, and that is unfortunate. We will ignore them and forge ahead because we are so welcoming and considerate of all voices.

Michael Barberi
6 years 10 months ago


I listen to both sides of all arguments, especially issues in moral theology. However, that is not the issue I am talking about....as I did not want to get into protracted arguments over interpretation of Scripture. If you study both sides of moral issues, you can make up your own mind. I have strong opinions but I am open to new scholarship and do not have a closed mind. I applaud what Pope Francis is doing.

Henry George
6 years 10 months ago

As much as you and I may wish for change, I have seen too many "Pastoral Associates" and "Liturgy Directors" just assume all power in the parish and become more dictatorial than any priest I have ever met. I fear that factionalism will erupt in Parishes and Dioceses and there will be break away parishes.

Michael Barberi
6 years 9 months ago

I do not dispute that there may be some Liturgy Directors and Pastoral Associates in various parishes that may use a distorted view of themselves and their authority and responsibility. However, my comment was not directed to giving the laity more power and authority to make decisions in a vacuum. I was talking about the authority and responsibilities of all the People of God. For the past two pontificates bishops and priests, including theologians and the laity had no real power to make decisions nor did they have a true voice within our Church. Communiques from Conferences of Bishops and Bishops themselves had to be approved by the Vatican (e.g., the CDF, Pope and such). Everything was decided in Rome and dictated to the world. There was no processes and avenues of communications from the laity, priests, theologians and bishops to the Pope and Vatican Officials in any real effective sense. It has been and continues to be a one-way street or communications channel from the top to the bottom.

I agree that any major change in the pyramid structure of the Church that reflects Pope Francis's vision will by necessity be gradual and that means there will be bumps in the road that must be corrected. I think your fear of factionalism and the breaking away of parishes may be grounded in a misunderstanding of my comment. Nevertheless, if your viewpoint is based on your local experience, I would caution against a wide extrapolation.

Lisa Weber
6 years 10 months ago

I am glad that we are resuming the work of Vatican II. I so hope that women will be allowed to preach before very much more time goes by.

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