Pope Francis named Cardinal Kevin Farrell to the post of Camerlengo of Holy Roman Church on Thursday. With the appointment, Pope Francis has filled a post that had been vacant since the death of Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran in July of last year.
A 71-year-old native of Ireland and naturalized US citizen, Farrell served as Bishop of Dallas before becoming Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life in 2016, a position he retains as he comes into the Camerlengo’s office.
The position of Camerlengo was once one of great power. It remains one of a very few curial offices, the terms of which do not cease immediately upon the vacancy of the See of Rome. These days, however, the position is mostly — though not entirely — symbolic.
There are some duties still attached to the office of Camerlengo, including the direction of Papal funeral arrangements if the vacancy of the See of Rome is due to the decease of the former Pope. The Camerlengo is also charged with the protection and administration of the rights and property of the Holy See during the interregnum, though his powers are minimal: he cannot make policy, but only makes sure the bureaucratic gears continue to turn until the new Pope is elected.
The Camerlengo is the president and linchpin of the “Particular Congregation” that has a revolving membership and manages day-to-day affairs. In consultation with the senior members of each of the Cardinalatial orders: Bishops, Priests, Deacons — which are orders of rank within the College of Cardinals, rather than an indication of degree of Holy Orders — the Camerlengo also establishes the date on which the meetings ahead of the Conclave — the General Congregations — are to begin.
The decision to name Cardinal Farrell to the post of Camerlengo has already raised a few eyebrows.
Cardinal Farrell went through formation and was ordained to the priesthood as a member of the Legionaries of Christ, founded by the notorious Fr Marcial Maciel, who used the priestly society to create and maintain both a respectable façade and a source of income for his perverse proclivities. Maciel allegedly abused scores of victims, including minors, seminarians, and his own illegitimate children, which he had with at least two different women, whom he seduced under assumed names and false pretenses.
Though rumors of Maciel’s moral turpitude swirled for decades, and had certainly reached the Vatican by the late 1990s, Pope St. John Paul II never disciplined the priest, who enjoyed his favor for many years. Maciel was finally asked to step down as the head of the Legion in January of 2005, just months before John Paul II died.
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI prohibited Maciel from exercising any public ministry and ordered him to a life of prayer and penance. In 2009, Benedict authorized a special investigation of the Legion, called an Apostolic Visitation. Maciel’s forced retirement and penance had already led Vatican watchers to wonder whether the Legion might be suppressed. Benedict, however, decided against suppression.
Cardinal Farrell left the Legion before the mid-1980s. In 2016, Farrell told the Irish Times, “I left the Legionaries because I had intellectual differences with them.” Farrell also told the Irish Times he never knew anything about Maciel’s wickedness and duplicity. “I never knew anything back then,” he said. “I worked in Monterrey,” Farrell explained, “and maybe I would have met Maciel once or twice, but I never suspected anything.”
In 1984, then-Fr. Farrell joined the clergy of the Archdiocese of Washington. In 2001, not a year after Theodore McCarrick became Archbishop of Washington, then-Msgr. Farrell — who was already appointed Vicar General — was chosen to become an auxiliary bishop for the DC archdiocese. Farrell served as Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia until 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI made him Bishop of Dallas.
When the McCarrick scandal hit the papers in June of 2018, Cardinal Farrell faced media scrutiny because of his record of service under the former Archbishop of Washington. Farrell repeatedly said he never suspected anything was amiss with his former principal. “What Cardinal McCarrick was doing here, there and everywhere and all over the world, didn’t enter into my daily routine of running the archdiocese of Washington,” Farrell told the AP in July of last year.
During his time in Washington, DC, Cardinal Farrell lived with McCarrick and other clerics of the archdiocese in a residential facility near Dupont Circle, though he told the AP, “Never once did I even suspect,” McCarrick of anything untoward. “Now, people can say ‘Well you must be a right fool that you didn’t notice.’ I must be a right fool,” Farrell continued, “but I don’t think I am — and that’s why I feel angry.”
Pope Francis had shown great confidence in Cardinal Farrell’s abilities long before this most recent appointment.
In his position as Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, Farrell not only filled the top billet in one of the “super-dicasteries” of Francis’ signature curial reform, but spearheaded the Vatican-side organization efforts for the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin. Francis also made him a key figure in the organization of the 2018 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment. Farrell also took a lead role in World Youth Day celebrations, and got the nod to announce that Lisbon, Portugal, would be the venue for the next iteration of the event in 2022.
En route to Rome from Abu Dhabi earlier this month, Francis wondered aloud whether he’d be Pope next year. Asked about possible travel to other majority-Muslim countries, Francis replied, “[I]nvitations have arrived from other Muslim countries but there’s not time this year. We’ll see next year. [Whether] I or another Peter, someone will go.” It isn’t the first time he’s engaged in similar speculation. En route to Rome from Krakow after World Youth Day 2016, Francis told a reporter, “If I don’t go, Peter will be there [in Panama],” all the same.
With the appointment of a new Cardinal Camerlengo, whose office only activates during an interregnum, that speculation is likely to increase — even though the filling of a Vatican post is about as run-of-the-mill as one can get, and hardly a reliable indicator of the papal frame-of-mind. In any case, Pope Francis has chosen Cardinal Farrell to manage things after he’s gone.
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