Dallas bishop to oversee new Vatican office for laity, family and life
By David Sedeño
The Texas Catholic
Pope Francis appointed Dallas Bishop Kevin J. Farrell on Aug. 17 to lead a new Vatican office for the laity, family and life, in a continuation of his quest to overhaul the Vatican Curia for more efficiency and transparency and to highlight the growing and important role of the laity among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
On Sept. 1, the new Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life will merge the current Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family, which will cease operating as separate units; the Pontifical Academy for Life will remain as a separate unit but will report to the new dicastery.
Bishop Farrell is scheduled to travel to Rome in the coming days to open the office and meet with his new staff. He will celebrate his 69th birthday on Sept. 2. He will return to Dallas for a few days in September before relocating permanently to Rome a few weeks later. He will be the highest-ranking U.S. prelate serving at the Vatican.
Upon Bishop Farrell’s departure, Auxiliary Bishop Gregory Kelly will lead the diocese until Pope Francis appoints a successor in the coming months.
The new office that Bishop Farrell will head will include a secretary and three lay undersecretaries, along with others from across the world, and will be responsible for the “promotion of life and the apostolate of the lay faithful, for the pastoral care of the family and its mission according to God’s plan and for the protection and support of human life.”
In a letter to priests of the diocese and the staff of the Pastoral Center and at a news conference later in the day on Aug. 17, Bishop Farrell thanked the Holy Father for his confidence in him to lead the new office, but said he also welcomed the appointment with mixed emotions.
Bishop Farrell became the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Dallas when he was appointed on March 6, 2007, by Pope Benedict XVI and was installed at the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in downtown Dallas on May 1, 2007.
When he became the chief shepherd of the Diocese, there were approximately 947,000 Catholics, compared to the current 1.3 million, thanks in part to the arrival of immigrants from across the United States and abroad.
“Dallas has been my home for 10 years and, from the beginning, I quickly grew to love the beautiful people and the culture here,” he said in the letter. “The strong faith, kindness and generosity of the people in the Diocese of Dallas surpassed all of my expectations.
“A bishop can get nothing of significance done in a diocese without the hard work and cooperation of pastors, priests, his senior staff and diocesan employees,” he said. “Together, I believe we have accomplished many goals and put others in motion that have improved and enhanced service and ministry to the good people we serve.”
Bishop Farrell said at the news conference that the importance of the vocation of marriage and the family is at the core for the future of not only the Catholic Church, but of society. He also addressed the acrimony brought on by violence, saying that people must understand commonalities beyond their differences.
“We need to build bridges, not walls,” he said.
As part of the life issue, he reiterated that the Texas bishops have sent Texas Gov. Greg Abbott a letter requesting clemency for Jeff Wood, who was scheduled for execution on Aug. 24 for his capital murder conviction in the shooting death of a store clerk in Kerrville, Texas, in 1996. Wood, who was not in the store at the time of the shooting and claimed he did not know a passenger in his truck was going to rob and kill the attendant, also is said to have an IQ of about 80, which supporters said should have disqualified him from standing trial, based on his mental competency.
“We have sympathy for the family of the victims,” Bishop Farrell said, “but killing someone doesn’t solve the problem, especially when that person was not even there.”
Over the past several years, the bishop has used his spoken out on gun control, immigration, religious liberty, the death penalty. This year, during the Year of Mercy, he has spoken about love, mercy and charity.
During his tenure, the diocese has made inroads in nearly all sectors of the life of the church, including the increase of vocations to the priesthood; steady Catholic schools enrollment during tough economic times; and more than $1 billion in expansion, renovation or new construction of churches, parish elementary and middle schools and high schools and other related facilities. He approved the consolidation of four elementary schools into two academies for more efficiency and accountability, acting on a recommendation from an ad hoc committee of local Catholic leaders charged with forging a new vision for Catholic education.
“His accomplishments and influence are well known throughout the Dallas community at large,” said Matt Kramer, president and CEO of The Catholic Foundation, an independent non-profit organization that over the past 25 years has provided $94 million in grants to religious, charitable and educational organizations through its hundreds of charitable trusts and funds.
“It’s no surprise that he would be tapped for this role at the Vatican; it is well-deserved,” Kramer said. “While his departure will be a loss for more than one million local Catholics, we look forward to seeing the global impact he makes through this new ministry.”
Every January since his arrival, Bishop Farrell has concelebrated Mass with other bishops and priests during the annual March for Life events and rally that commemorate the 1972 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing abortion. In English and in Spanish, he has urged thousands of ecumenical faithful gathered in front of the Earle Cabell Federal Building, where the Roe v. Wade case was first argued, to never give up the fight for the protection of life from conception to natural death.
He led a successful $125 million campaign to support five pillars of the local church: parishes, Catholic Charities, Holy Trinity Seminary, the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Catholic schools. The Bishop Farrell Golf Invitational, which began in 2011 sells out its allotment of teams each year, has raised more than $2.7 million to provide tuition assistance for Catholic schools students in grades K-8.
In December 2014, he donned a Santa Claus hat, posed for photos and passed out gifts to needy families who had registered through Catholic Charities of Dallas, Inc. He also has delivered the invocation at the annual Catholic Charities of Dallas Gala that has raised millions of dollars to help the needy across the diocese.
“He is a humble servant and a strong advocate for the thousands of people who need hope and help in life—from children in poverty to immigrants who need a voice to families desperate for education and safe assistance,” said Dave Woodyard, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities. “We wish him all the best and feel blessed to have had his counsel and partnership.”
In the fall of 2014, Dallas city and county leaders asked Bishop Farrell if the diocese could house a family that needed to be quarantined because of their exposure to an Ebola patient, who later died. For more than a month, four people who were members of a Baptist church were housed in a bungalow in the Catholic Formation and Conference Center in southern Dallas.
At a news conference at the end of the quarantine, Bishop Farrell said that he thought about the request for a minute before saying, “yes” and added, “We help people because we’re Catholic, not because they are Catholic.”
In the past year, as gun violence and mass killings raged across the world, Bishop Farrell dedicated blogs that addressed the easy access of guns by terrorists, criminals and mentally unstable people and abhorred Texas’ new legislation of Open Carry that allows the open carrying of guns. He was among several religious leaders asked by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to deliver a prayer at on July 8 in Thanks-Giving Square in downtown Dallas, the day after five Dallas-area police officers were gunned down as they were protecting people protesting fatal shootings by officers in other parts of the country.
“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 the cardinal, who worked alongside Bishop Farrell in the Washington Archdiocese when both were auxiliary bishops.
Bishop Farrell was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Sept. 2, 1947, and was ordained to the priesthood in Rome as a member of the Legionaries of Christ on Dec. 24, 1978. He was later incardinated as a diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where he served in several parishes. He also served the archdiocese as the director of the Spanish Catholic Center, the assistant executive director and interim director of Catholic Charities and the archdiocesan secretary of finance, and vicar general and moderator of the Curia. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington on Feb. 11, 2002.
He serves as the chancellor of the University of Dallas in Irving, and on the board of trustees of the Papal Foundation, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, The Catholic University of America, St. Luke Institute in Washington, D.C. He currently serves on the executive committee and as the treasurer of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In announcing the new office earlier this year, the Vatican said that the section for the lay faithful “will inspire and encourage the promotion of the vocation and mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world, as individuals, married or unmarried, or as members of associations, movements and communities.”
The Vatican said the new office will also “promote studies to contribute to the doctrinal examination of themes and issues regarding the lay faithful. It will encourage the active and responsible presence of the laity in the advisory organs of governance present in the Church at universal and particular levels; it will evaluate the initiatives of Episcopal Conferences that make requests to the Holy See, in accordance with the needs of the particular Churches, for the institution of new ministries and ecclesiastical offices,” among other duties.
The section for the family will “promote family pastoral ministry, protect its dignity and well-being based on the sacrament of marriage, and will promote its rights and responsibility in the Church and in civil society, so that the family institution may be increasingly able to perform its functions in both ecclesial and social contexts.” The Vatican also said that this section will monitor the “activity of the Catholic institutes, associations, movements and organizations, both national and international, which aim to serve the good of the family.”
This unit also will offer guidelines for courses preparing couples for marriage and for pastoral programs to support families in the education of young people in faith and in ecclesial and civil life, with special attention to the poor and the marginalized. It will encourage openness of families to adoption and fostering of children and care for the elderly.
The life section of the new office will support and coordinate activities to encourage responsible procreation and the protection of human life from conception to natural end. It will promote and encourage organizations and associations helping women and families to welcome and protect the gift of life, especially in the case of difficult pregnancies, and “to prevent recourse to abortion.” It will also support programs and initiatives intended to help women who have terminated a pregnancy. “On the basis of Catholic moral doctrine and the teaching of the Church,” the Vatican said, “it will study and promote formation on the main issues of biomedicine and of the law regarding human life and the ideologies developing in relation to human life and gender identity.
In Rome, Bishop Farrell will join his brother, Bishop Brian Farrell, L.C., who serves as the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It will be the first time that the two brothers will be serving in the same city as priests.
When asked at the news conference if maybe his brother had put in a good word for him with the pope, Bishop Farrell said, “I doubt it.”