VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis has named Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas to head a major new Vatican office for promoting the faith among families and lay people, a move that puts a respected pastor and seasoned administrator in a key post as the pontiff overhauls the scandal-plagued Roman Curia.
The promotion, announced Wednesday (Aug. 17), was also widely hailed for vaulting an Irish-born American who shares Francis’ approach to ministry into the top echelons of the Vatican.
“Here’s the bottom line on the Farrell appointment,” wrote John Allen, editor of the Catholic news site Crux. “Moderates can claim another big win, and Americans (as well as the Irish, of course) can feel like they’ve got a powerful new friend in Rome.”
“And, it should be noted, Bishop Farrell is one of the funniest bishops on the planet,” Michael Sean Winters added in a post at the National Catholic Reporter that compared Farrell’s surprising selection to that of Francis’ choice of Archbishop Blase Cupich to head the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Cupich also praised the choice in a statement, saying Farrell “is uniquely qualified for this task and has my enthusiastic support.”
In a related appointment on Wednesday, the pope named Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, an Italian whose pastoral instincts seem to align with Francis’, to lead the Vatican’s bioethics think tank and marriage institute.
“Combined, the appointments signal a more moderate direction for Vatican offices responsible for hot-button, culture war issues such as life and marriage,” wrote the Associated Press’ Nicole Winfield.
One critical task that Farrell will have on the docket in his new post, which he starts in September, will be implementing the pope’s controversial document, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” in which Francis synthesized the intense debates about church teachings and the modern family that took place across two major meetings of bishops from around the world.
The pontiff’s lengthy exhortation, as it is known, was viewed as enshrining a new, more welcoming approach to Catholics who do not fit the textbook ideal of the catechism — single parents and gays, for example, and divorced and remarried Catholics. That change in tone and policy was praised by many but has also prompted sharp criticisms from many conservatives, notably in the U.S. church.
Farrell, who will turn 69 on Sept. 2, was born in Dublin, and his older brother, Brian Farrell, is also a bishop and has been working in the Curia for the past 14 years. (This may be the first time, in the modern era at least, that two brothers who are bishops have been working in the Vatican.)
Both brothers were ordained as members of the Legionaries of Christ but, citing “differences of opinion,” the younger Farrell left before that order — founded by the late Mexican priest the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado — was engulfed in a financial and sexual abuse scandal.
Kevin Farrell then became a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, where he served in a number of posts before being named an auxiliary, or assistant bishop, in 2002.
In 2007, then-Pope Benedict XVI named Farrell to head the Diocese of Dallas, a growing Catholic flock in North Texas. Farrell was credited with steering the diocese toward a more moderate course after a series of scandals and controversies under the previous bishop.
Farrell was recently praised for his outreach and response after the deadly ambush of police officers in Dallas. Part of that was due to his active presence on social media.
Another factor that may explain Farrell’s appointment is his long-standing connection to the Washington Archdiocese and its current head, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who is seen as a key player in Francis’ recasting of the U.S. hierarchy.
In a statement, Wuerl praised Farrell’s “demonstrated pastoral skills and his recognized administrative abilities” and said he would be key to implementing “Amoris Laetitia.”
The new Vatican department will absorb the responsibilities of the current Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family and take effect from September.
(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS and David Gibson writes from New York)