By David Sedeño
The Texas Catholic
On Aug. 17, Bishop Kevin J. Farrell was appointed by Pope Francis to lead the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life at the Vatican.
When he departs for his new ministry in early October, he will leave behind, many Catholic faithful say, a diverse Diocese of Dallas that is more united, financially viable and charitable and poised for the future than the one he encountered when he first came here nearly 10 years ago.
In March 2007 when he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as the seventh bishop of Dallas, the diocese, in his own words was not only absent from the community, but was divided among itself, in the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the local church.
“When I first came here, let me tell you, there was a whole different atmosphere here with respect to the church, 10 years ago. I found myself in a position where even the Catholics were divided among themselves and were angry at the church,” the bishop said in an interview with Dallas County Commissioner Clay Jenkins that was published recently in the Viewpoints section of The Dallas Morning News.
“Certainly Christianity was never considered to be a religion that was just based inside of our temples, inside of our churches. No, we had to be a part of the community,” he said. “When I came here I found that really the church wasn’t a part of the community.
“We had connections with parishes, local churches and the people around them and the people that occupied them, but we didn’t influence anything in the city.”
Over the years, that has changed. His legacy, many say, will be as the one who united Catholics and helped them build for the future. And it began with him. As soon as he arrived, he began building bridges and personal relationships with his brother priests. He began by hiring a full-time communications director to help build relationships with media and the community; a full-time Safe Environment Director followed; he launched the first St. Andrew Dinner in August 2008 to allow young men thinking about a vocation to the priesthood an opportunity to talk with him and other priests about their ministry; Marian Dinners for women religious followed.
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 $184 million in expansion, renovation or new construction of churches, parish elementary and middle schools and high schools and other related facilities. Another $73 million in projects are ongoing. 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.
He has been known to challenge his priests and his professional lay leaders to double their efforts and goals: if 30 young men were entering the seminary in one particular fall, he would tell the vocations director to double it the following year; to youth leaders organizing youth conferences, he wanted at least double the number of attendees the following year; to pro-life advocates leading 3,000 marchers in downtown Dallas, he wanted 6,000 to 10,000 at the next rally.
“Bishop Farrell has been a true shepherd and humble, but a strong leader for the Diocese of Dallas,” said Father Anthony Lackland, pastor of All Saints Catholic Church in Dallas and a former assistant director of the Vocations Office. “Not only through his words of encouragement, but through his examples of charity and love has he shown me how to live the priesthood; to live this calling to serve Christ in the poor and needy, with humility, simplicity and genuine concern and care for others.”
Over the years, his presence and influence with city and county officials and ecumenical leaders helped build bridges within the community and beyond.
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.”
Dallas Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates said that over the past several years Bishop Farrell has shown not only the church, but the community what it means to be charitable.
“I love being Catholic and proud of being Catholic and under Bishop Farrell’s leadership, I think our church in the last few years has had such a great civic presence,” she said. “It has been heart-warming watching him step up and leading and being an advocate for the poor or stepping in and helping people in need, as he did with those impacted by the Ebola crisis, or stepping up at the prayer service in July after the horrible shootings of the police.
“His representation as a civic leader, as well as the shepherd of our church, makes us very proud,” she said.
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. More than 50 percent of the current Catholic population is Hispanic. The majority of the work needed to care for and minister to all Catholics in the 74 parishes has been led by countless people in the Pastoral Center and in parishes and schools and Catholic entities through the nine-county diocese.
“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 in a letter to the Pastoral Center staff on Aug. 17. “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 a news conference announcing his new appointment 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.
Matt Kramer, president and chief executive officer of The Catholic Foundation, said that the work that Bishop Farrell has done in Dallas has prepared him for his global responsibilities.
“He’s the total package,” said Kramer, whose 60-year-old Catholic philanthropic organization has donated more than $94 million over the past 25 years to organizations Catholic and non-Catholic across the diocese. “Bishop Farrell has the pastoral ministry and he has the business acumen. He came into the diocese knowing that he needed fixing things more often than not
“He’s done a wonderful job of being a convener of people and bringing the diocese together, of hiring professional people to help him and bringing in the laity,” he said.
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 1973 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.
As part of the diocese’s 125th year anniversary, he launched “Our Faith…Our Future,” a now-successful capital campaign that has exceeded $130 million in pledges 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 and sells out its allotment of teams each year, has raised more than $2.7 million to provide tuition assistance for Catholic school students in grades K-8.
During several of the past Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons, he has helped Catholic organizations in serving meals to the needy and has donned a Santa Claus hat, posed for photos and passed out gifts to families 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.”
Over the years, he has used his blog or social media to speak out on gun control, immigration, religious liberty and end to death penalty.
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 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.
This year, during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, he has spoken about love, mercy and charity.
At a news conference on Sept. 10 prior to his final public Mass at the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he told reporters that he would tell his successor that he should listen to the people. And he said that he would tell the Catholic faithful to love and care for one another as Jesus had taught and that he would pray for the sheep he has left behind.
“For me, it is difficult to leave a place that I have loved so much,” he said. “Nothing, I can assure you has cost me as much as leaving Dallas has.”