Dal America The Jesuit Review | 2 Maggio 2017
“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.
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!”
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.
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.’
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.”
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.”