Word came to me late on Saturday on the “mother of all ecclesial blogs” of the death of John Cardinal Foley, a man whom I admired as a churchman, professional, and media-saavy representative in Rome. If any reader has ever heard of him, it is likely in connection with his annual voice-0ver of Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with the Holy Father celebrating. There was much more to this grand man, however, than that annual ninety minutes of international exposure on NBC and other media outlets worldwide who carried the Mass. Born and raised in Philadelphia and ever proud of that fact, Cardinal Foley was tapped early on in his priesthood by the late John Cardinal Krol, Philadelphia’s archbishop at the time, for further studies in journalism. Following the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Krol realized that if the Church was indeed to engage the modern world, it would likely have to do that in and through the media. Father Foley was sent to Columbia where he received a doctorate degree in journalism. Returning to his diocese, he became editor of the archdiocesan newspaper as well as teaching theology courses at St. Charles Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania.
When Cardinal Krol followed the first post conciliar president of the episcopal conference of the United States, John Cardinal Dearden of Detroit (both Krol and Dearden were priests of the Cleveland diocese before being raised to the episcopacy), Krol listened intently to the arguments raised in the Fall meeting of the US bishops by the recently deceased Archbishop Phillip Hannan, then an auxiliary in Washington, DC, that if the Church was truly to engage the modern world, then it made sense that the annual meetings should be open to the press and to appropriate observers making working behind closed doors a thing of the past in the United States. As one might expect there was considerable opposition to the Hannan proposal but Cardinal Krol turned to his journalism pro, Father John Foley, who persuaded him that there was a far more to be gained from openness in the modern era than secrecy and the body of bishops soon agreed to open their meetings.
With the election of the Polish pope, John Paul II, in 1978, Krol was consulted about a new head for a recently established post-conciliar “council” within the curia entitled, “The Pontifical Council for Social Communications.” Its first leader, a close Polish friend of the new Pope, then Archbishop Andrzej Deskur had suffered a stroke. Krol recommended his young editor to the Holy Father who agreed that by both background and disposition, John Foley could be the man. Think the early eighties and the Holy See and the press. Those who think the relationship is strained now should have been around in those days. Foley arrived with the title of “Archbishop” but was treated very badly by a few well placed people in the curia. Deskur had as his responsibilities as President of the Council for Social Communications the following offices and functions: (the Press Office of the Holy See – quickly removed from any connection with Archbishop Foley’s office; Vatican Television which while still embryonic Foley found to be full of potential, also removed from Archbishop Foley’s purview; Vatican Radio and to a lesser extent, Osservatore Romano, the six times a week newspaper of the Holy See, removed from Archbishop Foley’s responsibilites). It soon left him with little more than a voice crying in the wilderness of the Holy See at times but he never once complained or asked to be reassigned to the United States, he soldiered on making progress where he could and accepting in the words of Francis of Assisi, “those things which I cannot change.”
When the US media would arrive en masse or separately at the Vatican, they would always begin with Archbishop Foley. He and his faithful assistant, Marjorie Weeks, would do what they could to gain access and arrange for location shooting. Sometimes the Archbishop would even have to fight for that but he did, endearing him to all who knew of the challenges which he faced often in attempting to make the message of the Church in the modern world accessible, intelligible and timely. A great friend of the President whom I served for two of my six years as General Secretary, Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, we often would share a table with the Archbishop and even though I would sometimes attempt to “bait” him into expressing what must have been his professional crosses carried, I never would receive more than a message conveyed not by words, but by his eyebrows. The curia for the most part had an intense dislike of the media and did not understand it unless they could control it. They were always uneasy with Archbishop Foley’s inherent trust that truth served the church better than evasion, and proactive nine times out of ten would trump reactive. How sweet it was when Pope Benedict XVI finally recognized the “gem” long in the service of the Holy See and made the long-serving President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications a Cardinal. Lots of hearts were overjoyed with that news and I, for one, will always be grateful to his Holiness for that courageous message delivered five years ago.
So now Cardinal Foley has no more commentary to give, no more deadlines to meet, no more people to welcome to the threshold of the successor of St. Peter. A great man of the Church known to too few Americans has gone home to rest in eternal life. I have lovely and lasting memories of a man much like my friend, the late Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus who taught me how to carry the cross of Christ at times in the service of the Church we love. Rest in peace, Your Eminence. I won’t forget you.