A few years ago I was at an awards dinner in New York City. From across the room I happened to see John Cardinal Foley, the longtime head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Foley had just been named a cardinal (after many years of being, according to Vatican sources, "passed over") so I made a mental note to offer my congratulations. The newly named cardinal had also been an occasional correspondent with me over the last few years, and his always welcome letters included chatty reminiscences about his time as a student at St. Joseph's Prep in our mutual hometown of Philadelphia, and his affectionate memories of various Jesuits he knew, but who he may not have seen in some time. "Please greet..." he would write, and list his Jesuit friends. (When named a bishop, the onetime Jesuit novice chose Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam as his episcopal motto.) His first note came after reading one of my books; he was both gracious and generous and it started a correspondence that I very much enjoyed. And over the years I never met anyone who didn't say, upon hearing his name, "What a nice guy!" So that evening I definitely wanted to meet the man of whom so many were fond.
But I was engaged in a long conversation at the time, and didn't want to be rude and simply end it. Just a few seconds later, though, there was a tap on my shoulder. "Father," said the smiling cardinal, "I've been wanting to meet you for a long time." That was Cardinal Foley in a nutshell. Where other higher-ups might wait for someone to come to them, John Foley thought nothing of tapping someone on the shoulder to say hello.
Foley was perhaps best known as the English-language commentator for the pope's Christmas Eve Mass, when he would put to use the communications skills he had honed over many years at the Vatican, not to mention at the Columbia School of Journalism. A story in CNS today included a brief precis of his long career:
Born in the Philadelphia suburb of Darby on Nov. 11, 1935, he was ordained a priest in Philadelphia when he was 26.
The graduate of the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York said his media experience dated back to the seventh grade, when he started writing radio plays on the lives of saints. Not only were his plays aired but, at age 14, he was asked to be an announcer for Sunday morning programming for what was then WJMJ in Philadelphia.
Between stints as assistant editor of Philadelphia's archdiocesan paper, The Catholic Standard & Times, in the 1960s, he completed his graduate studies in philosophy in Rome, where he also worked as a news reporter. His beat included covering the Second Vatican Council from 1963 to 1965.
In 1970, he was appointed editor of the archdiocesan paper, a position he held until Pope John Paul II named him an archbishop and appointed him head of the social communications council in 1984.
He also had a puckish sense of humor. The Philadelphia Inquirer told this chestnut this morning:
[Foley] soon caught the eye of Archbishop John Krol, who sent him to Rome for advanced studies. While there, he reported on the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council for the archdiocesan newspaper, and he continued to write for it upon his return.
In 1968, Krol, then a cardinal, made him editor of the Catholic Standard and Times. At Krol's encouragement, Cardinal Foley later earned a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he was elected class president. Though very different in temperament, the two men got along well. During a 1975 trip to Egypt, Krol asked Cardinal Foley whether he should take a camel ride.
"If I were you, Eminence, I would not," Cardinal Foley replied.
When Krol, wearing an Arabic head scarf, ignored the advice and got on the camel, Cardinal Foley snapped a picture. Krol was teased after it appeared in newspapers, and he demanded to know why Cardinal Foley had taken the photo "when you told me not to do it."
"As your priest, I gave you my best advice," Cardinal Foley replied. "As a journalist, I took your picture."
His legacy was perhaps best summed up by John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter, as the "nicest guy in the Vatican." While some might scoff at a prelate who had earned that distinction (and others opined that this was one reason it took him so long to get his red hat: i.e., he didn't "ambition" for recognition) it pointed to an important aspect of Cardinal Foley's life, and an overlooked requirement of the Christian life: he was kind. Not just educated, or hardworking, or zealous, or efficient, or clever, but kind. The Holy Father noted today that Catholics should take note of John Cardinal Foley as an example of the need to use social media to spread the Gospel. We could also take note of a man's simple Christian charity and kindness.
May he rest in peace with the Lord whose message he carried to so many, through the media and through his heart.
James Martin, SJ
UPDATE: Another tribute to Cardinal Foley came from Canada's Salt + Light network: