Bishop Farrell heads to Rome: What it means

by Michael Sean Winters

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The news from Rome this morning is exhilarating: Pope Francis' decision to name Bishop Kevin Farrell to head the new dicastery on family, marriage and the laity is not just good news per se because Bishop Farrell is one of the ablest administrators in the church who also happens to possess the "smell of the sheep," it shows again that Pope Francis has a very clear idea of what is going on in the church in the United States, and who among the hierarchs are supportive of his vision. Like the choice two years ago of Archbishop Blase Cupich to lead the Archdiocese of Chicago, Pope Francis has selected the person whom I would have put at the top of my terna if I were permitted a terna. And, it should be noted, Bishop Farrell is one of the funniest bishops on the planet.

The appointment came simultaneously with the motu proprio erecting the new dicastery. The motu proprio opens with the words "La Chiesa, madre premurosa," or "the Church, like a diligent mother." You could also translate "premurosa" as "hard working," a nice, if subtle, rebuke to those who complain about Pope Francis not taking a vacation.

"On two occasions this summer Pope Francis has issued a motu proprio -- 'As a Loving Mother' in June on protecting children and now today 'A Diligent Mother,' which created this important new office. By referring to the church as a mother who is both loving and diligent, he reminds us of those qualities in our own mothers, he inspires us all to renew the church, unafraid of the hard work it involves -- work we see women doing every day -- and always doing it with love," said Archbishop Cupich in an email to me this morning.

"I welcome the news that Pope Francis has established a new department for Laity, Family and Life and has appointed Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas as the Prefect. Bishop Farrell is uniquely qualified for this task and has my enthusiastic support." 

The new dicastery will be charged with helping the universal church inculturate the deliberations of the two recent synods and Amoris Laetitia which issued from those deliberations.

"At a time when our Holy Father is calling the attention of the whole Church to the role of the laity and the importance of a robust, pastoral activity and support of family and married life through the establishment of this new dicastery to focus and coordinate this work, the leadership that Bishop Farrell brings will be a blessing for all of us," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl in a statement issued this morning. "How appropriate that so soon after the publication of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia with its widespread and wholehearted reception in the church, we would now have a new Vatican office to further that important ministry. We rejoice to know that this challenge has been entrusted to the very competent Bishop Farrell."

I would note the cardinal's words about the "widespread and wholehearted reception" of Amoris Laetitia. Here is his response (and the Holy Father's response, as Wuerl is one of the Holy Father's principal advisors) to those who have been complaining that Amoris Laetitia is confusing or even heretical. Anyone who thinks they can casually speak ill of the text, or of anything from the pope, should know that Farrell does not suffer fools gladly and is not the kind of person to take guff.

In addition to running the new dicastery, Bishop Farrell has two other jobs in Rome that are worth noting. First, he will be appointed to serve on other dicasteries where his influence will be felt. I would anticipate that his experience dealing with clergy sex abuse in Dallas will be especially important, as he can ably assist Cardinal Sean O'Malley in the implementation of universal norms of episcopal accountability. Second, Farrell will serve as a point person for U.S. bishops in their dealings with the hierarchy and for the pope in getting good information about the church in the U.S. I can scarcely think of anyone better suited to be a filter for such information. Farrell enjoys the respect of his colleagues, as demonstrated by his repeated election to leadership posts in the bishops' conference, but he is also in no ways a "culture warrior." Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was his mentor in the episcopacy, and McCarrick was no bomb thrower. And, despite what the fevered conservatives think, McCarrick and Farrell are not liberal in the sense that NCR readers would use the term. They do not throw leftie bombs either.

Team Francis, those bishops who have greeted this pontificate with enthusiasm, could scarcely contain their excitement at the news of the appointment. "Bishop Kevin Farrell is an excellent choice to be the prefect of the new dicastery," said Cardinal O'Malley in an email to me this morning. "He has the administrative talent, the linguistic ability, and most important, the pastoral vision of Pope Francis. It also puts an American in the Roman curia which is very important for communication between our bishops' conference and the members of the Holy Father's curia. We all pledge our prayers and support for Bishop Farrell as he begins this crucial ministry at the service of the Holy Father and universal church."

As I noted in my short, early morning post when I first got the news, Farrell took over the Centro Hispanico here in Washington after its founder, Sean O'Malley, was made a bishop. The center was, and is, a one-stop, all-purpose social services center for the Latino community here in the nation's capital. They make no distinction between documented and undocumented. They help people who are vulnerable and poor. They represent the Catholic church at its best. This is how Farrell acquired the smell of the sheep. He is, like Cardinal O'Malley, an honorary Latino, and if you have never heard Spanish spoken with a heavy Irish brogue before, you are in for a treat. Farrell moved as easily among the poor migrants there as he did among the affluent and influential diplomats who peopled his parish in Northwest.

The other day, I noted that we would soon see the differences of opinion about Amoris Laetitia come to a head on account of the expectation the relevant USCCB committee would have some kind of report in September, and that the chairman of that committee, Archbishop Charles Chaput, had issued guidelines for his own archdiocese that, in my estimation, fell short of the mark and stood in clear contradiction to what we have heard from Cardinal Christoph Schonborn and read in the pages of Civilta Cattolica. Now, this appointment adds an additional sign that the Holy Father wants to move in a clear direction, and it is not the direction that naysayers would propose.

So, congratulations to Bishop Farrell and, even more, to Pope Francis who gains an extraordinary assistant who will also make him laugh! Sad day for Dallas but now another large diocese is open for Pope Francis to appoint a bishop who will carry out his vision stateside. It is a great day.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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