Cardinal John P. Foley, 76, a former editor of The Catholic Standard and Times who went on to become president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican and grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, died peacefully Sunday morning, Dec. 11 at Villa St. Joseph, Darby.
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Cardinal John Foley,” said Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles J. Chaput.
“Cardinal Foley was a man of great apostolic energy. Anyone who met him was immediately aware of his intense love for the Church and his zeal for communication of the Gospel. By the sheer force of his personality, he drew people to the faith and to himself. I am pleased that he was able to come home during the final months of his life. No matter where he lived or how he served the Church over the years, he always considered Philadelphia his home.”
Born at Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital in Darby, the only child of the late John Edward and Regina (Vogt) Foley on Nov. 11, 1935, he was educated at Holy Spirit School in Sharon Hill and St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and St. Joseph’s College (now University) in Philadelphia, where he was elected student president and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history.
During his high school years he actively considered studying for the priesthood, but also dated. Bob Sims remembers John would date his sister, Lorie Sims (Carroll), and later joked, “The Red Arrow Line saved my vocation.” John didn’t have a car, Bob Sims remembers, and he would pick his sister up at their home in Havertown and take her by the Red Arrow trolley to Upper Darby for the movies. What girl, the Cardinal laughed, really wanted a fellow who didn’t have a car?
At any rate, he ultimately decided on religious life which he would have done with or without a car, but he and Bob Sims remained lifelong friends.
“We talked regularly, we traveled together. Every Christmas when he was in Rome we would have a second Christmas dinner on Dec. 26 for Archbishop Foley and his priest friends with my family,” Sims said. “He was just a magnet for people. He had a great smile and everywhere he went he recruited for the Church. He was a priest seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
His first choice after high school graduation in 1953 was entering the Society of Jesus, the order that taught him in high school and college. He entered a Jesuit novitiate but transferred to St. Joseph’s College after a semester and upon graduation from college in 1957, he entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary to study for the Philadelphia priesthood.
Nevertheless, his solid training from the Jesuits in high school and college clearly left an indelible impression, so much so that years later, when he was named bishop and archbishop he adopted as his episcopal motto the Jesuit motto, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” (For the greater glory of God).
This was so ingrained in him that even later while studying for his master’s degree at Columbia University he would write AMDG on top of his papers, something that puzzled his professors. He explained what it meant and they left it so.
Msgr. Francis Carbine, a St. Charles classmate, was probably Cardinal Foley’s last visitor on Dec. 10. “We prayed the Hail Holy Queen and I gave him my blessing,” Msgr. Carbine said.
What he will remember about the Cardinal is “his lifelong innocence and his dedication to God’s work. When he was in Rome every day at noon he would gather his staff for the recitation of the Angelus.”
Recently Cardinal Foley, knowing his life was nearing its end, remarked to Msgr. Carbine, “I’ve been all over the world to every continent except Antarctica, and I will go out at St. Joseph’s Villa just yards away from Fitzgerald Mercy where my life began.”
Just two days before his death Cardinal Foley rededicated a small chapel at the Villa which has been restored through funds donated by him in memory of his parents, Msgr. Carbine said. In the same way he paid for the refurbishing of a sacristy at St. Charles Seminary, also in memory of his parents.
“He never lost the common touch, he was a generous friend,” Msgr. Carbine said.
Msgr. Philip Cribben was another seminary classmate of Cardinal Foley and lifelong friend. “He never took himself seriously, he was genuinely humble, even recently in the face of death,” Msgr. Cribben said. “He was a brilliant man and a man of great faith.”
Msgr. Cribben recalls about a year after he was named Archbishop and was home on vacation the two took their mothers to dinner. Mrs. Cribben kept addressing the then-archbishop as “Your Excellency.”
Finally, Archbishop Foley asked, “What’s your son’s name?” “Philip,” she replied. “Mine is John,” he said.
In his varied career Cardinal Foley attended many social functions, and although he might hold a glass, he never drank alcohol.
This traces back to a promise he made before ordination, his friends confirmed. He did not disapprove of priests drinking alcoholic beverages, but he made a vow not to do so himself in reparation for those who consumed too much.
He was ordained to the priesthood on May 19, 1962 by then-Archbishop John Krol at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, and would later say, “I never had an unhappy day in the priesthood.”
His earliest assignments were briefly to Sacred Heart Parish in Havertown and St. John the Evangelist Parish in Philadelphia. He also studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (the Angelicum) in Rome where he earned his licentiate and doctorate in philosophy. He taught for a year at Cardinal Dougherty High School, and from 1967 to 1984 he served on the adjunct faculty of St. Charles Seminary teaching ethics and metaphysics.
In recognition for his service there, St. Charles Seminary has created the John Cardinal Foley Chair in Homiletics and Social Communications.
From early childhood, the future cardinal had an affinity for the media. He, along with friends, produced a little newspaper when he was in fifth grade, and as a young teen he wrote religious-themed plays. As a matter of fact, his first byline in The Catholic Standard and Times was a sports story written just before he entered the seminary.
In the 1960s he served as assistant editor of The Catholic Standard and Times, and while in Rome he was the Vatican correspondent. This period coincided with Vatican Council II, and while he was there he reported on the council. Afterward, he was directed to enroll at Columbia University where he received his master’s degree in journalism.
From 1966 until 1974 he was co-producer and co-host of Philadelphia Catholic Hour on radio station WFIL.
In 1970 Father Foley was appointed editor of The Catholic Standard and Times, a position he would hold for the next 14 years, a period that covered some of the most important events in the history of the Philadelphia Church, including the Forty-First International Eucharistic Congress, held in 1976, the canonization of St. John Neumann in 1977 and the visit to Philadelphia of Pope John Paul II in 1978.
A close collaborator with Cardinal Krol, he accompanied him on several trips abroad, including twice to Poland.
A trip to the Middle East with the Cardinal led to a humorous anecdote which Cardinal Foley would tell afterward. As so often happens in that region, Cardinal Krol was offered a ride on a camel.
“Should I?” he asked by then-Msgr. Foley.
“I don’t think you should,” Msgr. Foley advised.
When Cardinal Krol did it anyway, Msgr. Foley took a photograph which he then ran in The Catholic Standard and Times. It was picked up and widely circulated by the secular press.
“Why did you run the picture when you told me I shouldn’t do it?” the Cardinal asked.
“I advised you not to do it as your priest. I ran the picture as your editor,” Msgr. Foley replied.
“He was my father in the Catholic press,” said Joseph Kirk Ryan, editor of the Dialog newspaper of the Wilmington (Del.) Diocese. “He gave me my first job in the Catholic press, and I’m grateful for that. He wasn’t afraid to set high standards.”
Ryan, who is currently writing an authorized biography of Cardinal Foley, visited him most Saturdays these past few months. On Ryan’s last visit, Cardinal Foley gave him his blessing as he was leaving, something he usually did not do.
In one of their conversations Cardinal Foley told Ryan he’d had a great life, and our duty in life was to love God and serve Him and that’s what he tried to do.
“His life was a prayer, his work was a prayer, and certainly his sense of humor never left him,” Ryan said.
Not long after he was named editor, Msgr. Foley hired Ed Zaloga for the advertising department, and he would eventually rise to business manager for the paper.
“He was a great mentor, always encouraging,” Zaloga said. “He was a wonderful boss, always concerned about doing the right thing. He was loyal to his staff and they were loyal to him and would do anything for him.”
Another good friend he acquired while at The Catholic Standard and Times was businessman John Mullen.
“When you met him, he was so likeable; you would ask yourself, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to be his friend?’” Mullen said. “He was a good man and we were fortunate to share his life. One thing about him, he was very devoted to his mother and took her to Rome with him. My wife says you can always judge a man’s character by how he treats his mother.”
Cardinal Foley’s death was not unexpected, and he knew it was coming but Mullen noted, “He said, ‘I had a wonderful life and God has been very good to me.’ He died very peacefully and he’s left a lot of friends. I’ll always remember his wit, but his jokes were about himself, never someone else.”
Msgr. Foley’s talents did not go unnoticed in Rome. On April 9, 1984 it was announced that Pope John Paul II had named him an Archbishop and appointed him head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications, a position he would hold for more than 23 years.
His episcopal ordination took place at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on May 8, 1984 with Cardinal John Krol as the principal consecrator and Bishops Martin Lohmuller and Thomas Welsh as co-consecrators.
His genial disposition made him a perfect choice to be the head of the office charged with utilizing the various forms of media for spreading the Gospel.
“Jesus told us to teach all nations. There is no better way of doing this than through the communications media,” he told The Catholic Standard and Times.
In America he was best known and loved as the English language commentator for the Pope’s Midnight Mass at Christmas as well as at other major papal liturgies.
This annual liturgy, he discovered, was important to many Catholics as a means of deepening their faith and “it is consoling to receive letters saying that some people have become Catholics after hearing the Holy Father’s liturgies,” he told The Catholic Standard and Times.
Under his leadership the Social Communications Council issued separate documents promoting ethical standards in advertising, communications and on the Internet. Another council document denounced pornography.
On a lighter note, under Archbishop Foley, value-centered and thought-provoking films were given recognition in 1995 when the “Vatican List” of 45 films was released, celebrating achievements in cinema over the years. Included were such favorites as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Schindler’s List,” “Stagecoach,” and even “The Lavender Hill Mob.”
One of his major accomplishments was obtaining for the Vatican the top level Internet domain name .va instead of being simply an appendage on .it (Italy). The Vatican, as a sovereign state, was entitled to the domain name but for Cardinal Foley, most important was the fact that one could be sure anything published under the .va domain was authentic material from the Vatican and the Holy See.
Throughout his years in Rome Archbishop Foley remained loyal to The Catholic Standard and Times which he always referred to as “our favorite newspaper.”
John Knebels, who has been writing sports for The Catholic Standard and Times since 1982, remembers Cardinal Foley’s kindness not only as editor but in the years since.
When Knebels’ father died in November 2000 the Standard published his death notice. A month later he received a letter from Archbishop Foley offering condolence, words of counsel and promises of prayers. He also added, “I always read your stuff faithfully.”
As an instance of Cardinal Foley’s famous humor Knebels recalls when the Cardinal visited Cardinal Dougherty High School to celebrate a 50th anniversary Mass. When he received thunderous applause, he quipped, “You know, it’s really wonderful to be canonized without having to go through the inconvenience of dying first.”
Archbishop Foley’s international journalistic reputation was recognized well before he went to Rome. Msgr. Owen Campion first knew him through editorship of the Tennessee Catholic and also as president of the Catholic Press Association and as Vatican advisor to the International Catholic Press Union. The two remained good friends until the end, and actually talked on the phone the Tuesday before the Cardinal died.
“He was a person of highest character and integrity, absolutely a thoroughly committed Christian and a holy man. He understood what journalism was in the highest sense. We have never had anybody like him in Church communications,” Msgr. Campion said.
He recalls at one point in his illness, Cardinal Foley asked him to pray for him.
Msgr. Campion said he would, but added if the Cardinal needed prayers the rest of us certainly need more prayers.
In June 2007 Archbishop Foley was appointed grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem by Pope Benedict XVI, which was a prelude to his being elevated to Cardinal at the next consistory, held on Nov. 24 of that year.
At that time he was named Cardinal Deacon of the Church of San Sebastiano al Palatino in Rome. The Equestrian Order, which is more than 900 years old with members around the world, is dedicated to supporting the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and responding to the needs of Catholics in the Holy Land.
During his years as grand master, Msgr. Hans Brouwers served as his assistant.
“We’ve been friends since my seminary days, 37 years ago,” Msgr. Brouwers said. “When he was named grand master he asked me to join him. He invigorated the order; he was so friendly; he got the energy level back.”
Under Cardinal Foley’s leadership income generated by the Knights increased more than $1 million every year and was $13 million in his last year, representing 82 percent of the income for the Patriarchate at a crucial time when so many Christians are fleeing the Holy Land.
Cardinal Foley, Msgr. Brouwers said, “showed a friendly, engaging face of the Church. He showed the Church on a person-to-person level.”
As grand master, Cardinal Foley was tireless in supporting its goals and in speaking out for the dwindling Christian minority in the Middle East.
Beset by various health issues, Cardinal Foley resigned his offices in February of this year and returned to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia with residence at Villa St. Joseph, the archdiocesan priests’ retirement home in Darby.
Mary Anne Sullivan, who served on committees with Msgr. Foley when he was editor of The Catholic Standard and Times and she was working with the Clergy Office, was the Cardinal’s secretary for his final six months at Villa St. Joseph.
“It was a privilege and a gift to assist him and walk with him during the final steps of his journey,” she said. “On the way I’ve learned and relearned the meaning of true humility, of lived faith and of priestly integrity. Cardinal Foley’s life has been a gift to the universal Church and to us in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, joyful and hopeful, up to his final hours communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Everything ends of course. Cardinal Foley’s homecoming to Philadelphia was just a prelude; now he has been called to his true home.
Donations in remembrance of Cardinal Foley may be made to the recently established John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communication at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
In a time to build, CatholicPhilly.com connects people and communities
As society emerges from the loss and separation of the pandemic, CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you join in our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community.
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103