He thought the phone call was a practical joke. Kevin Farrell, a former bishop of Dallas, was in his office one morning, a couple of months ago, when his secretary summoned him in a state of evident excitement.
“She walked in and said, ‘The pope is on the phone.’ And I said, ‘Like hell he is.’ But she kept saying to me, ‘It is him. He spoke to me in Spanish’ – my secretary is Mexican-American. ‘I recognised his voice. It is him.’ I kept saying to her, ‘No, that is one of my bishop friends, just messing.”
But Pope Francis was calling, to invite the Irishman to become a cardinal. The ceremony is at the Vatican today.
“I tried to convince him that he had the wrong person, but he told me to think about it for a few days and that he would call me back. I thought, Maybe he won’t call back – but he did, three days later. I don’t know how he got my name. I asked him, but he didn’t answer the question.”
It’s not hard to understand why the pope’s appointing him. Farrell brings a wealth of pastoral experience to his Vatican posting. As someone who has never worked in the Holy See, he has been summoned by Pope Francis to oversee the creation of a new dicastery, or department, with responsibility for laity, family and life. The new dicastery, which the pope announced at last year’s synod of bishops on the family – is part of his ongoing reform of the Curia, the administrative arm of the Holy See.
As he talks, in marble-lined surroundings at the current pontifical council for the laity, in Piazza Calisto in Rome, Farrell is the first to admit that his new task might not earn him too many friends. Essentially, his brief is to create the new dicastery by shaking up the councils for the laity and the family and merging them into one unit.
In the Curia’s notoriously fiefdom-conscious world such a shake-up is sure to be met with resistance. “You know, I am nearly 70 years of age . . . so what the heck?” he replies with a big grin.
Among the many events Farrell will be organising in the coming years is the World Meeting of Families in his native city of Dublin in August 2018. Farrell will be returning to a city that he left 50 years ago, as a 19-year-old. Since then the cardinal from Drimnagh has spent almost all his adult life in the United States, with 27 years in Washington, DC, and, most recently, nine years in Texas. Along the way he has studied at the University of Salamanca, in Spain, the Pontifical Gregorian University, in Rome, and the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana.
Ordained a priest in 1978, Farrell also joined the Legionaries of Christ, the controversial Mexican-based lay congregation. For a time after his ordination he served as chaplain at the University of Monterrey, in Mexico, and as general administrator for the seminaries and schools run by the Legionaries in Italy, Spain and Ireland.
In 1981 he left the Legionaries. Had he misgivings about the movement’s infamous founder, Marcial Maciel, who was later exposed as a serial paedophile and someone who had children by at least two women?
“I never knew anything back then. I worked in Monterrey, and maybe I would have met Maciel once or twice, but I never suspected anything . . . I left the Legionaries because I had intellectual differences with them.”
Farrell is not the first member of his family to serve the Holy See. His elder brother Brian, the 72-year-old secretary of the pontifical council for the promotion of Christian unity, and also a member of the Legionaries of Christ, has served in the Vatican since 1981.
As for the pope’s 2018 visit to Dublin, Kevin Farrell says that the pope will “touch a chord” with the Irish. “I have seen it happen in the USA. The Francis effect exists. Our faith is not just about preaching dogma. It is about living a reality.”
Until his mother died, in 1999, Farrell used to return to Ireland twice a year, to visit her. Since then he has been a less regular visitor. Two other brothers and their families live in Ireland, and he has some understanding of changing, modern Ireland.
“The anti-clerical, secularist climate in Ireland, the country where people voted for same-sex marriage in a referendum, does not shock me, because in the States that was what I lived with every day . . . an aggressive secularisation.”
What message will the pope have for Ireland when and if he comes to Dublin? “The God of Francis is a merciful God, but I realise that, in Ireland, it was not always taught that way – hell was always just around the corner – but that was a particular historical context.
“’The God of Francis is a God of love, a God of mercy and a God of forgiveness. Remember the parable of the prodigal son . . . Too many of us can be judgmental.”