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Gerard O’ConnellJune 22, 2022
Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, attends a news conference at the Vatican in this May 10, 2022, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“I believe I could be the last cleric in charge of this dicastery,” Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, told America on June 20 in an hour-long interview. He spoke about Pope Francis and the speculation about him resigning, as well as the World Meeting of Families this week, and the major changes he has brought about in this important Vatican office since the pope made him prefect in 2016.

The Irish-born American cardinal and former bishop of Dallas, Tex., is considered a big hitter in the Vatican because of the many important responsibilities that Pope Francis has entrusted to him in recent years. In the interview, we discussed the significance of these roles, which include overseeing investments and approving “reserved legal and financial matters” in the Vatican City State, along with the crucially important one of camerlengo (chamberlain), a key role in the interregnum in the Vatican when the pope resigns or dies.

Speculation about Francis Resigning

Since there has been much speculation in the media and blogosphere that Pope Francis, with obvious mobility problems, could resign, perhaps as soon as August, I asked Cardinal Farrell, the camerlengo, if he expected Francis to resign. He responded:

I will very honestly answer the question by saying that up to this moment I have never given any thought to Pope Francis not being there. Never! I have never given any thought to his resigning, and I have never given any thought to his dying. That’s not in my nature. I agreed to come and work for Francis, and I hope he’s around when I depart. That’s why, when he told me he wished to make me camerlengo, I jokingly said to him, “I will accept this job Your Holiness, but on one condition, that you preach at my funeral!”

Cardinal Farrell dismissed the speculation as “wishful thinking” on the part of those who oppose the pope, or as the result of misinformation. He believes it may have been sparked by the fact that the pope is in a wheelchair and by his announcement that at the end of August he would hold a consistory, followed by a two-day meeting of cardinals. News that the pope would visit the Italian city of Aquila and the church there which is home to the tomb of Celestine V, who resigned from the papacy in 1294, further fueled speculation about his retirement. Cardinal Farrell recalled, however, that Francis told the Italian bishops recently that “the pope governs the church with the head, not with the legs.” He also pointed to the example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, though in a wheelchair, was elected president of the United States four times and governed for some 14 years.

Changes in the Dicastery

Cardinal Farrell took charge of the newly established Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, which resulted from the merger of three former pontifical councils (laity, family, and life), on Sept. 1, 2016, and since then has introduced some significant changes.

He began by bringing in qualified lay people. “Today the dicastery has a staff of 37, and all except four are lay people,” he said. The four exceptions are the cardinal, the secretary, the head of the youth office and a theologian. Two women are undersecretaries, in charge of the dicastery’s departments: Dr. Gabriella Gambino, a married woman and mother of five children who was formerly in charge of bio-ethical research at Rome’s Lateran University, runs the department of family and life; Dr. Linda Ghisoni, a married woman and mother of two who is a theologian and expert in canon law, runs the department for the lay faithful. The cardinal recalled that he had to overcome internal resistance to get the two women appointed because neither had worked in the Vatican before. He said he succeeded thanks to the pope’s backing.

The cardinal believes that employing more lay people in the dicastery is only a first step.“Predicate Evangelium,” the new constitution for the Roman Curia promulgated by Pope Francis on March 19, opens the possibility for lay people to be prefects or secretaries of Vatican dicasteries. Commenting on this, Cardinal Farrell remarked, “I believe I could be the last cleric in charge of this dicastery.”

“I believe I could be the last cleric in charge of this dicastery,” Cardinal Farrell said.

Another of the cardinal’s recent reforms has been imposing term limits on the leadership of lay movements. “There are 109 international lay ecclesial movements under the jurisdiction of this dicastery today, and the vast majority of them arose after the Second Vatican Council,” the cardinal said. These movements include the Focolare, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, and Sant’ Egidio, groups that flourished especially during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But, the cardinal recalled, problems emerged, too, particularly related to the question of leadership. Up to now, a person could head of a movement for 20 or more years without limit. After reviewing the situation, and with the backing of Pope Francis, his office introduced term limits of two five-year terms on the leadership of all the movements, a decision that has been met with some resistance.

“The pope would like to see term limits everywhere,” the cardinal stated. From his vantage point, he believes that “the future of the movements depends on their ability to change the heads of these movements so that we prepare younger people all the time to take leadership roles.” Up to now, he said, “what the church has not done in their regard is to prepare the younger generations for leadership roles; if you look at many of the movements, you will see that the governing bodies are in their 50s or 60s, and yet they have young people involved.” He said he didn’t wish to mention names.

The cardinal mentioned another change that his dicastery has introduced in relation to the approval or establishment of movements or associations of lay people by diocesan bishops. He recalled that when “many” of these movements started, “they did not learn from the experience of religious orders regarding the need for formation, the need for structures and so on. Many were just based on the dynamic personality of the founder, but the founder didn’t have the common sense to make sure that all the means necessary to prepare the future generations of leaders within the organizations were in place.” For this reason, he said, the dicastery now asks bishops “to consult the relevant Vatican department before giving final approval to new associations or movements.”

Promoting ‘Amoris Laetitia’

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the publication of “Amoris Laetitia,” at the pope’s request, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life has held various events to promote that apostolic exhortation as a magisterial teaching throughout the church. In recent weeks, the dicastery published guidelines to assist local churches in preparing people for marriage. It seeks to offer a response to a pastoral problem: a large percentage of marriages celebrated in the church, especially in nations of the developed world, break down within a decade—in some countries, at a rate of over 50 percent.

“There is a need for a deeper reflection on what it means to be married,” the cardinal said. He emphasized that programs in preparation for marriage should mainly be conducted by “couples who are married, well prepared, and have walked the walk,” rather than only by priests with idealistic concepts who have no experience of married life.

Programs for marriage preparation should mainly be conducted by “couples who are married, well prepared, and have walked the walk,” rather than only by priests, Cardinal Farrell said.

“Francis has called for this kind of preparation for marriage since he became pope, but we’re just getting to do it now in the dicastery,” the cardinal said. “We’re only publishing Part 1 now. Part 2, about the pastoral care of marriages in crisis, will be the second part of this initiative. It will deal with how we accompany couples who are in crisis, or couples who are separated but not legally divorced.” He predicts “it will take another year to finish.”

A new model for the World Meeting of Families

The interview took place on the eve of the 10th World Meeting of Families, which the dicastery has organized together with the Diocese of Rome. Started by John Paul II in 1994, this is the third W.M.F. to be held during Francis’ pontificate: the first was in Philadelphia in 2015 and attracted over one million people; the second was in Dublin in 2018. But there is a major difference between this one in Rome and previous W.M.F.s, Cardinal Farrell said. He recalled that whereas some 20,000 people registered and paid to participate in the theological-pastoral sessions that preceded the Philadelphia vigil and Mass and 35,000 did likewise at similar events at Dublin, only some 2,000 will participate in the Rome discussions.

Looking back at previous W.M.F.s, the cardinal said, “We have to ask ourselves, why are we bringing people from different parts of the world instead of having a national, decentralized gathering of families in the different countries?”

He said the dicastery has organized this year’s W.M.F. in a different way. “We have tried to gather together all the people that are responsible for family-life ministry in dioceses around the world.” This contrasts significantly with what happened in Philadelphia and Dublin where any couple could have gone to the theological-pastoral events in Philadelphia or Dublin if they had the money. “This time, however, we have reduced participation in these discussions to the people who are really the leaders,” he said.

He acknowledged that this is “a significant change” in the way the meetings are conducted and, he added, “the same is supposed to happen also in dioceses around the world...but it will take a little while until we have a system in place to ensure that happens.” He believes this is the way forward for the W.M.F. and “for the future development of the pastoral care of marriage and the family.”

Overseeing Vatican Investments

In addition to putting Cardinal Farrell in charge of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, Pope Francis has assigned him other important responsibilities that relate to overseeing Vatican finances both during Francis’ papacy and in the interregnum between popes.

According to the apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis” that governs the period when the See of Peter—that is, the position of the pope, the bishop of Rome—is vacant, “all” the heads of the Roman Curia dicasteries, including the secretary of state, “cease to exercise their office”; the only exceptions are the camerlengo and the major penitentiary (No. 14) and the almoner (alms giver). (”Predicate Evangelium” broke new ground [No.18] by adding the the almoner to the office holders who continue to function when the see is vacant.)

On Feb. 14, 2019, Francis appointed Cardinal Farrell as camerlengo. He will serve as acting head of the Vatican City State and administrator for the Holy See from the time the pope resigns or dies until a new pope is elected. His tasks will include “looking after and administering the goods and temporal rights of the Apostolic See during the time it is vacant,” as “Predicate Evangelium” decrees (No. 236). He will have the right and duty to request full accounting of the state of all Vatican finances (No. 237) and can consult with the College of Cardinals when serious matters arise.

Cardinal Farrell: “My expertise is getting people to do the job, people who are qualified to do the job.”

During the present pontificate, Francis has entrusted Cardinal Farrell with two other important roles. On Sept. 29, 2020, the pope appointed him to serve as president of the five-member Commission for Reserved Matters. According to “Predicate Evangelium” (Nos. 225-26), the commission is responsible for authorizing “any legal, economic, or financial act which for the greater good of the church or of persons must be covered by [pontifical] secret.” These reserved matters, including financial or legal transactions relating to security in the Vatican City State, are removed from the control and supervision of the regular competent bodies established by the pope.

Then, in May 2022, Pope Francis appointed the cardinal as president of the investment committee in the Vatican. The other four members of the committee are all professional lay people actively engaged in financial investment. The committee’s task is to guarantee “the ethical nature of the Holy See’s securities and investments according to the church’s social doctrine” and at the same time “their profitability,” taking into account their adequacy and risk.

In addition to all this, Pope Francis has appointed the cardinal to the board of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, which includes its property portfolio, and to the board of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State.

Notwithstanding these appointments and the experience he has had with financial affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and in the diocese of Dallas, the cardinal insists his appointment to these roles is not because he’s an expert in financial matters; rather, he says, “my expertise is getting people to do the job, people who are qualified to do the job.”

It is with good reason that Cardinal Farrell is considered a big hitter in the Vatican, not only in his dicastery but also with regards to Vatican finances. These responsibilities reveal the great trust Pope Francis has placed in an American cardinal who had never worked in the Vatican before the pope called him and who speaks with the pontiff in fluent Spanish.

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