Faith Matters

'Laity are the most important people in the Church - not the clergy or bishops'

Ahead of the World Meeting of Families, Fr Chris Hayden, editor of Intercom magazine, spoke to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the Dublin-born head of the Vatican department set up by Pope Francis to promote the roles of lay people and the family in the Church, as well as the protection and support of human life. In the first of a two-part interview, Cardinal Farrell talks about how laity are the most important people in the Church, why priests have no credibility in marriage preparation and what Pope Francis is doing to promote the role of women

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican department which promotes the role of the laity, family and life, pictured in Dublin last year at a conference to prepare for the World Meeting of Families

Q: We are sitting here in the offices of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life in the Vatican, and I would like to begin with the word 'laity'.

There is a democratising tendency in contemporary culture, present also within the Church, which is suspicious of the term 'laity', seeing it as indicating a lesser position than that occupied by clergy.

One often hears reference, instead, to 'ordained and non-ordained ministries'. What is your view of this tendency?

Cardinal Farrell: In all questions related to language, it depends on customs.

The important thing is that what has happened historically is that the laity have played a second-class role within the Church. Unfortunately, in some countries, they still do.

The idea of Laity, Family and Life is to give prominence to laity: they are the most important people in the Church - not the clergy, not the bishops.

Pope Francis directly told me that he is tired of all these congregations taking the first role in everything.

He said that he wants a department in the Vatican, for lay people, that is equivalent to all of the other congregations, for bishops, clergy, religious and so on.

There are countries where the laity run the Church. In my own experience as Bishop of Dallas, we had one priest in a parish where 10,000 people would attend Mass at the weekend

And by lay people, he does not mean people who belong to ecclesial movements, rather to the regular people who go to church. The Church does not want to clericalise the laity.

If you go back into Irish history, there was basically a clerical Church.

I'm slow to give an opinion on Ireland, because I haven't lived there in 50 years, but reading the history, it's clear that it was a clerical Church.

There are countries where the laity run the Church. In my own experience as Bishop of Dallas, we had one priest in a parish where 10,000 people would attend Mass at the weekend.

We have parishes that have a $20 million annual budget. No priest is going to be able to run a parish of that magnitude without competent lay people.

The basis of all human life is the family, but in some countries the Church is so clerical.

I recently travelled to a country to speak about Amoris Laetitia - Pope Francis's post-synodal apostolic exhortation addressing the pastoral care of families - and they organised a meeting of about six or seven hundred people. Eighty per cent of them were priests.

My theme is that priests are not the best people to train others for marriage. They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day... they don't have that experience.

So, yes, there is still that element within the Church, in countries where it is extremely clerical.

Priests are not the best people to train others for marriage. They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience

That happens even where I spent most of my life as a priest, in the north-eastern part of the United States.

But once you go away from there, clericalism is dead, not because we've done anything to kill it, but out of sheer numbers.

In Dallas, we have a million and a half Catholics and 75 priests, with a 45-50 per cent rate of attendance.

Those 75 priests are not going to be interested in organising marriage meetings. So I would strongly defend Laity, Family and Life as an important element of the mission and pastoral life of the church.

We have to worry about the 99 per cent, about the baptised, and not worry about the other things we have been obsessed with.

Q: I have occasionally wondered, in this time of preparation for the World Meeting of Families, if there isn't a slight temptation to idealise the family.

Is there a risk of being too literal in speaking of the Church as a family, given that for many people, family life is broken, and they can have painful baggage and unfinished business from their own experience of family?

Can we perhaps be too 'celebratory', and overlook the real brokenness that needs to be ministered to?

Cardinal Farrell: I think that we are extremely conscious of the brokenness of the family.

That's why Pope Francis chose to have two synods. From the moment he was elected he spoke about a synod on the family.

Why? Because he saw what was happening to the family.

And as the family goes, that's the way our culture and our society are going to go, because it's all tied to the basic unit of the family, and what we experience there is what we're going to project into life and into the community.

Yes, there is an awful lot of brokenness in families, but instead of focusing always on the negative - and I would say that 80 per cent of our work is with brokenness - I would hope that we will plant a seed of bringing people back to true values and the value of family life.

There is no family life when mother and father have to work sometimes two or three jobs each; there is no time for children... That's a reality the family has to struggle with and live with

Sometimes we become very isolated in our own small world, and that's natural. But different parts of the world have different values associated with the family.

The struggle arises when we have so many broken families and related difficulties that are projected on the family, without necessarily being born of the family.

One major crisis in the family is the economic situation. There is no family life when mother and father have to work sometimes two or three jobs each; there is no time for children; there are no neighbourhoods any more.

I remember growing up in Dublin in the 1950s. It was the neighbourhood; it was all the kids on the street; everybody knew everybody.

I think in today's economic environment that's almost impossible. That's a reality the family has to struggle with and live with.

Q: Many priests and parents struggle to promote the Christian vision of family and sexuality in a culture that fundamentally opposes - or at least misunderstands - that vision. How do we best navigate this cultural storm?

Cardinal Farrell: I think we have to do our best to project the goodness of creation and the goodness of God in creating man and woman, and see the value of this.

I also understand that today many families struggle with the problem of sexuality and fail to experience its true meaning.

I don't mean fail to know, I mean fail to experience the true reality and the true meaning of sexuality, over against what is blasted to us, what the world wants us to think.

A question I often ask is: "What do we think? Why do we allow ourselves to be controlled?"

There are many people who don't understand sexuality, many people who have confused sexuality, many people who are born with homosexual tendencies, but when we speak about marriage we speak about something that comes from nature. This is a Christian anthropology.

Indeed, it's not only a Christian anthropology, it's a 'human' anthropology, not a fabricated anthropology.

I would say - I would always insist - that the Church has to be open to all people of all thoughts, but our mission is to bring them along. It's not to tell them, 'You are wrong and you had better change your mind or you are going to burn in hell'

I would say - I would always insist - that the Church has to be open to all people of all thoughts, but our mission is to bring them along.

It's not to tell them, "You are wrong and you had better change your mind or you are going to burn in hell."

Q: It's sharing the vision?

Cardinal Farrell: Yes, but it's to bring them along. Pope Francis uses the words "discernment" and "accompaniment".

That's what it means; it's the opposite to being dogmatic and it's the opposite to imposing a book of rules.

Bring them along; don't kick them out of the Church. They too have a role to play in society and in the Church.

Francis, unnoticed, has gradually been putting women into positions of power... Gradually, this will happen at all levels of the Church, if we follow his lead

Is theirs our vision? No - and we have our reasons. But not for this should we ever dare not to respect other people. We are trying to re-generate the vision that is founded in human nature.

Q: Pope Francis has re-affirmed the reservation of the priesthood to men.

He has also, in Evangelii Gaudium, cautioned that sacramental power not be too closely identified with power in general.

Then he speaks of the challenge to pastors and theologians "to recognise more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church's life".

What roles remain open to fuller development?

Cardinal Farrell: Study carefully what Francis has done quietly and behind the scenes - examples include, for the first time in the history of the Church, appointing women to be consultors at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which is, whether people like it or not, the 'powerhouse' of the Vatican.

For the first time in history he appointed a woman, Linda Ghisoni - who is also undersecretary, third in charge, here at Laity, Family and Life - along with two other women.

And Francis has done this consistently. Before I came here from the US, we had a long talk. Pope Francis has never lived in the US. He doesn't understand the US or the Church in the US.

We had a long talk about the role of women in the Church in the US, and Francis was surprised to find out that on the senior staff of my diocese, we had 15 people, only three of whom were men: the Chancellor of the diocese has been a woman for 20 years; the Vicar General is out and about and has nothing to do with administration or the care of the priests, because he has other things to do. The marriage tribunal were mostly women - all canon lawyers.

Members of staff at the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Included in the group are: first left, Linda Ghisoni, Dicastery undersecretary and consultor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; fifth from left, Gabriella Gambino, Dicastery undersecretary; and seventh from left, Elizabeth Hawkins, from Waterford.

So when I came here, the Pope said to me: "I don't want any priests as undersecretaries in Laity, Family and Life; I want lay people."

At that time, there were 11 priests here, with two lay people - who happened to be women, who happened to be secretaries.

He said: "I'll give you two years." And he himself told me the names of two people he said we should interview. I interviewed both of them; one didn't take the job, the other did.

So here, we appointed two undersecretaries, positions that were always held by priests who were at least 20 years in the Vatican.

These people had never worked in the Vatican, never been involved in it.

One of them, Gabriella Gambino, is a research doctor of bioethics at the University of Rome at Tor Vergata, which is anything but a moderate or right-leaning university, and she is the head of Family and Human Life.

The other person, Linda Ghisoni, is a very brilliant woman who taught Canon Law, but also has a doctorate in theology. She's married and has two teenage girls. The other woman is married and has five children.

The ordination of women is truly not a solution for the Church because if you just ordain women you will just isolate them if you don't change the structures

So Francis, unnoticed, has gradually been putting women into positions of power.

Where does all that lead to? Well, there is a danger recognised by many people, including non-Church people, regarding the role of women: do we want to turn them into clerics? We don't. They have to be people of the world who live in the world.

Neither of the two women I've mentioned, and none of the three women who were appointed to the Doctrine of the Faith, are consecrated members of lay communities. They are married women.

Gradually, this will happen at all levels of the Church, if we follow Pope Francis's lead.

And he is, effectively, the one who appoints at the level of undersecretary.

He also realises that the Roman Curia is overloaded with clerics, and it shouldn't be like that.

Administrative functions within the Church can be done by anybody. They have mainly been done by priests, but they can be done by lay people too.

That's not to avoid the issue of the ordination of women, but the ordination of women is truly not a solution for the Church because if you just ordain women you will just isolate them, if you continue the system, if you don't change the structures.

  • Cardinal Kevin Farrell is Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which was established by Pope Francis in 2016. He was appointed to the role by the Pope, who created him a Cardinal in November 2016. Cardinal Farrell was born in Dublin in September 1947. From there, he attended the Pontifical University of Salamanca in Spain. He then went to Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas. He entered the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1966 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1978. After ordination he served as chaplain to the University of Monterrey in Mexico. From 1983 he served as pastor in St Bartholomew's parish in Bethesda in Washington and in 1986 was appointed as director of its Spanish Catholic Centre. Pope John Paul II named him as auxiliary bishop of Washington in December 2001 and in March 2007 Benedict XVI appointed him as Bishop of Dallas.
  • The new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life has taken over the functions and powers of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family, both of which ceased to exist in 2016. It emerged as part of Pope Francis's reform of the Roman Curia, with a mission to advance "the life and 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" and to promote "ecclesial reflection on the identity and mission of women in the church and in society, promoting their participation".
  • Intercom magazine, edited by Fr Chris Hayden, is a Catholic pastoral and liturgical resource of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference.

Intercom magazine

  • The World Meeting of Families is being held in Dublin between August 21 and 26. Pope Francis will attend the final two days of the event.
  • In next week's Faith matters, Cardinal Farrell talks about the challenge of living in a culture hostile to Christian belief.

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