The Bishops Farrell: An Answer to an Irish Mother’s Prayers

Bishop Brian Farrell calls the Vatican home, while younger brother Kevin shepherds the Diocese of Dallas.

Bishop Kevin Farrell (l) and Bishop Brian Farrell concelebrate Mass in Dublin, in June 2012, while attending an international Eucharistic council.
Bishop Kevin Farrell (l) and Bishop Brian Farrell concelebrate Mass in Dublin, in June 2012, while attending an international Eucharistic council. (photo: Pat Conway photo)

WASHINGTON — Bishop Kevin Farrell remembers what his Irish mother would do when her four boys got especially rambunctious at home in 1950s Dublin: “She’d bow her head before the Sacred Heart, and say, ‘All for you, O sweet Jesus and holy mother the Church.’”

And by the Church’s measure, Mrs. Farrell’s prayers were fulfilled: Her two oldest sons, Brian and Kevin, were ordained as priests, in 1969 and 1978 respectively.

Today, they are literally brother bishops, serving the Church in very different ways, in different parts of the world: Bishop Brian Farrell, 71, is the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity based in Rome, while Bishop Kevin Farrell, 67, has served as chief shepherd of the Diocese of Dallas since 2007.

“I’m younger, but I became bishop first, 12 months earlier,” said Bishop Kevin, grinning at his brother, who was in Washington in December for the Urbi et Orbi Foundation’s annual dinner at the Vatican’s nunciature, adding, “And we still have a little sibling rivalry.”

Rivalry, maybe a bit, but certainly devotion: The bishop from Texas flew to Washington just to spend the evening with his brother from the Curia. Speaking to the Register, they cited faithful parents, a mother who attended Mass every day, close relations with a community of hardworking priests and altar service as boys as elements that led them to service in the Church.

“My mother, all her life, prayed that God might call one of her sons to the priesthood. She had a deep, personal relationship with God. She talked about God with ease and love,” recalled Bishop Brian.

“I think that helped Kevin and me give weight to the idea of the priesthood. I think my father was surprised, but happy, when we took this road,” the Vatican official added.


Dallas: Catholic Boomtown

The Catholic community in Dallas is one of the fastest growing in the nation.

In 1990, there were about 200,000 Catholics in the city; 25 years later, there are almost 1.3 million.

According to Bishop Farrell, this tremendous growth is a product of three factors: Hispanic immigration, the arrival of Catholics from other regions of the United States and conversions. Approximately 3,000 new Catholics joined the Church last year at Easter, and the same number will be added this year.

“We try to stress the importance of welcoming fallen-away Catholics back into the Church again. One of our goals is to bring many, many people back,” the Dallas bishop explained.

And what does a flowering community need? Priests and larger churches.

“When I arrived in 2007, we had 18 or 19 students in the seminary. Today, we have 74 students studying for the priesthood at Holy Trinity here in Dallas. Cultivating vocations was, and continues to be, my No. 1 priority,” Bishop Farrell told the Register.

He added, “We also have a missionary seminary in Dallas, a Redemptoris Mater Seminary, with 22 seminarians, all but two from outside the U.S., associated with the Neocatechumenal Way.”

“My No. 2 priority is doing a much better job teaching the Catholic faith to our people here in Dallas,” the bishop said. He considers one of the crises facing the Church to be how Catholics transmit the faith from one generation to another.

He explained, “I set about to make sure all our religious educators were certified to teach the Catholic faith to adults and children. It’s an ongoing process. I also enlisted the University of Dallas, one of the most renowned Catholic universities in the United States, to partner with the diocese for a ministry conference.”

Dallas now has one of the largest annual ministries conference, second only to one in Los Angeles. More than 6,000 people attended the conference last year.

Another crisis is small churches: “We have 10 parishes with more than 7,000 people going to Mass on a Sunday. They were built for that time, when you only had 200 or 300 people coming to church. So some of our parishes have 14 Masses on a Sunday.”

He continued, “What we have to do here is to build bigger churches in our diocese.

“We just finished one in Frisco, in north Dallas, a church that seats 1,500 people. It is already filled to capacity.”

If Bishop Farrell seems to emphasize the metrics of Dallas’ spiritual health, there is a reason: Besides having degrees in philosophy and theology from Rome, he has an MBA from the University of Notre Dame. And in addition to shepherding his Dallas flock, Bishop Farrell is treasurer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Budget and Finance.


On the Road for Unity

Across the Atlantic, Bishop Brian Farrell’s field is the world.

Every pope in recent decades has strived to achieve greater Christian unity. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis each has considered ecumenism a central goal for the present time. As secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity for 12 years, the elder Bishop Farrell has worked for all three Holy Fathers. From 1981 to 2002, he worked for the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

Speaking with the Register on his current job’s primary areas of concern, he quickly moves from Ukraine and Russia (where relations between Catholics and Orthodox Christians are strained), to the Middle East (where small, ancient Christian groups seek life-or-death support from the Holy See) and Turkey (where the Holy Father’s visit last year underscored close ties between Catholics and Orthodox).

He explained he did not travel with the Holy Father to Turkey — because “Pope Francis has a new policy to reduce the number of people who accompany him” — but the visit between Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was especially successful for “reaffirming the fact we can only make progress on theological questions in the context of friendship.”

Although it is harder to describe its success as a set of “metric” accomplishments, ecumenical dialogue has undoubtedly accelerated in the last 12 years.

As Bishop Brian points out, “I think that the most noticeable thing is the growth of trust. Numbers aren’t so important in ecumenism. But if over 30 delegations from different Churches and Communions were present at Pope Francis’ inauguration, that says something about the ‘success’ of our ecumenical efforts.” Asked what accomplishment gives him most satisfaction, he said, “I think I am most proud of the fact that I have so many ecumenical friends, East and West, in so many parts of the world.”

“One of my personal priorities when I represent the pontifical council is to convince Catholics to see the huge variety in the Church. We of the Latin tradition should not forget that other traditions also go back to the early Church,” the bishop explained.

He added, “Without underestimating the Latin-Catholic way in which most of us live here in the West, we can be hugely enriched by the spirituality and theological insights of our Orthodox and Protestant partners.”

Reflecting on his brother’s mission, Bishop Kevin Farrell told the Register, “I’m very proud of the fact that he is doing this kind of work. It is an extremely difficult task.”

“We know there are many things we differ on,” as Christian faith groups, “but we also know there are many more things that unite us than divide us. And I think he has worked very hard for greater Christian unity,” the younger Bishop Farrell said.


Shared Missionary Goals

In an interview on Salt and Light TV, Bishop Brian Farrell explained he is a “frustrated missionary,” who joined the Legionaries of Christ intending to be a priest in Latin America. Instead, he wound up being recruited to work at the Vatican while studying in Rome.

He remains a member of the Legionaries and was assigned in 2010 the role of counselor to pontifical delegate Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, who was charged with reorganizing the order.

“The Legion of Christ had many problems, as you know,” observed Bishop Brian.

“The Church showed herself a wise and loving mother, and in a long process of discernment and purification, under the guidance of the Holy See, a new course was set out. Now, it is up to each Legionary to follow the path indicated,” he explained.  

The bishop added, “My personal experience is that the Legionaries are fully dedicated, enthusiastic — and, now, more mature and realistic — priests and seminarians. I think they have a great future.”

His younger brother also started out with the Legionaries of Christ.

“I was not interested in being a priest in Ireland,” the Dallas bishop told the Register. “I wanted to go out and save the world as a missionary in Latin America.” He spent seven years in Monterrey, Mexico. In 1984, he left the Legionaries as a result of “intellectual differences,” he told the Dallas News.

But as the bishop, who speaks fluent Spanish and writes a bilingual blog, observes now, “I’m still saving Latin America, when you consider: Forty-four percent of the Diocese of Dallas is Latino.”


Fundamental Vision

Despite the many differences in their assignments, the brothers Farrell share the same fundamental vision of Christian love.

The older brother explains, “God wants unity, and the Holy Spirit is guiding Christians along the path,” while the younger has had recent occasion to show unity in action when the Ebola virus tragically came to Dallas.

Thomas Duncan, the first victim of the Ebola virus to die on American soil, perished in Dallas soon after traveling from Ghana to be with his fiancée, Louise Troh, and her family.

City officials, looking for an appropriate place for this family to stay while quarantined, consulted Bishop Farrell, who offered a cabin on Catholic property, where the whole family, who are Baptist, could stay together in safety and privacy.

At a press conference regarding the high-profile situation, the Dallas bishop was asked why the Church got involved. He replied, “We help people because we are Catholic, not because they are Catholic.” He described praying with the Troh family and a Baptist minister.

And in an observation sure to make his older brother proud, Bishop Farrell said he wanted local churches to, together, help stop fear about the virus from spreading. “I hope the whole community can now come together. We’re all Christians. What would Jesus have done?”

Victor Gaetan is an international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.