Cardinal John P. Foley had the ability to make faith a reasonable and happy choice in these skeptical times. Well-named after his patron saint, John the Evangelist, Cardinal Foley, who died Dec. 11 at 76, drew people to God and the Church through his cheerful personality and his clear, succinct explanations of the Catholic faith.
He was familiar to millions of Catholics as the “voice of Christmas” during his 25 years as the commentator on NBC’s broadcast of the pope’s Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
He was a hero to hundreds of Catholic press professionals in the United States and Canada for his friendship and advice as a working member of the Catholic Press Association and for his championing of the Church and media during his 24 years in Rome as president of the Vatican’s social communications agency and three years leading the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an international lay institute supporting the work of the Church in the Holy Land.
He was also my “father” in the Catholic press. I had the good luck to be hired by him in 1977 when he was editor of The Catholic Standard & Times in Philadelphia. He was the model of what a Catholic journalist should be: accurate, fair and true to the mission of the Church.
He often said the “Good News” included bad news, too, noting the Gospel writers reported on Christ’s crucifixion as a criminal, His betrayal by Judas, His denial by Peter and His abandonment at the cross by all the Apostles, save John, His mother and other women disciples. But the Good News of Easter is at the heart of all Gospel and Church stories.
The future cardinal’s vision of Catholic journalism, along with my admiration for his writing and speaking skills, sparked my interest is staying in the Catholic press for the rest of my working life. Knowing the joy he took in his work as a priest and bishop and learning the Church’s views through his perspective also made me proud to be a Catholic.
He retired from his post in Rome last February. For much of his three years leading the Holy Sepulchre order, the cardinal was coping with leukemia and other ailments. Because he knew he was dying, he asked me to help him record his life’s story.
On most Saturdays since July, I had the honor to meet with him and listen to him discuss his Philadelphia Archdiocese roots, his vocation ‑ “I’ve never had an unhappy day as a priest” ‑ his varied experiences, ‑ “and that’s how I met Ginger Rogers” ‑ and his work with two popes ‑ “Pope John Paul II was a saint; he was a mystic.”
Every week we met, although he was growing weaker as time passed, he was still the same priest I met in 1977 ‑ brilliant, insightful, focused, funny and full of energy that could only have been spiritually based as his conditioned worsened.
Cardinal Foley was dying during the months we talked, but I was being inspired and lifted up by him. The sudden turn for the worse he took last Friday wasn’t unexpected. He was at peace about his death and ready. “We are made for heaven,” he said.
He proclaimed the Good News every day of his ministry. He proclaimed it the day after he died, too, when I received his Christmas card. He proclaims it now.
Joseph Kirk Ryan is editor/general manager of The Dialog, the newspaper of the Diocese of Wilmington.