His Eminence John Patrick Cardinal Foley died early this morning in Philadelphia after a long battle with leukemia. He turned 76 one month ago. Known as the Vatican’s “Voice of Christmas” in his role as English-language commentator for the Pope’s Midnight Mass — the world’s most watched religious broadcast — for 26 years, Cardinal Foley retired to his native Philadelphia earlier this year when he knew that his health was deteriorating quickly. He never fully recovered from his 2006 surgery for kidney cancer.
After 23 years as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, in June 2007 Pope Benedict named then Archbishop Foley the first non-European to serve as Grand Master of the ancient Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, thus paving the way for his long-awaited elevation to the College of Cardinals five months later. One of the happiest celebrations I ever experienced in Rome was the consistory of November 2007 during which John Foley was elevated to the College of Cardinals.
A long friendship
Cardinal John Foley has been a very good friend since I first met him in 1999 when I was named to head World Youth Day 2002 in Canada. His characteristic kindness, warmth, humanity, encouragement and thoughtfulness have been his hallmarks over the past twelve years of a wonderful friendship. As then-Archbishop and president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, he led me through the labyrinth of Vatican communications departments. He opened countless doors in the Vatican during those first rounds of meetings in 2000 as we prepared for World Youth Day 2002. He stressed the importance and necessity of patience with Rome, reminding me several times that humor would save us all as we deal with the Vatican and our own humanity! He always brought out the best in people and never once did I hear him speak badly of anyone, even those who were not very kind to him. While some may have questioned the mission and effectiveness of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications under Foley’s long, beretta-less tenure as its president, they often missed the most important aspect of Foley’s leadership of that Pontifical Council: presenting to the outside world a Church with a human face –- especially to journalists and the “secular” media. For many throughout the world, the human faces and voices of the Vatican those memorable years were and remain those of Blessed John Paul II and John Patrick Foley.
Cardinal Foley was notorious for sending thank you notes or encouraging messages. I have received many messages from him these past twelve years. In fact the first message I received when I was appointed consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in 2009 was from none other than the President emeritus of the Council: John Foley. The last one arrived just a few weeks ago, thanking us at Salt + Light Television in Canada for our recent set of documentaries which he had viewed in Philadelphia. His words were always simple and heartfelt, and he signed his letters with the characteristic “John.”
After Cardinal Foley’s memorable visit to our Salt + Light Broadcast Centre in Toronto during the 2008 International Catholic Media Convention, I received not one, but two messages of thanks! The second one told me that he forgot to thank my secretary and the young adults working with me, for their kindness to him in Toronto. I had sent two of our staff to meet him at the airport when he arrived in Toronto in 2008. When they were delayed in arriving at the hotel, I presumed a serious flight delay. I was wrong. On their way to the downtown Toronto hotel, the Cardinal took the two young producers out for hot chocolate and regaled them with Foley stories.
Our final visit took place during last June’s International Catholic Media Convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the gala banquet at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History commemorating the centennial of the Catholic Press Association, I had the privilege of sitting at table with Cardinals Foley and Donald Wuerl of Washington, along with two Monsignor friends and colleagues — Owen Campion of Our Sunday Visitor and Paul Tighe from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican.
It was a grand evening but not without deep emotion and profound gratitude tinged with sadness. It was a tribute and farewell to a wonderful prince of the Church. Cardinal Foley was first addressed by outgoing CPA president Penny Weigert and then introduced by a deeply moved former CPA president Bob Zyskowski and personal friend of the Cardinal. The man known as “the voice of Christmas” for 25 years took the floor, this time sitting in a chair, and kept us laughing, smiling, and riveted to his every scripted and non-scripted word. In typical Foley fashion, he made fun of himself and sprinkled his serious media talk with good humor and personal anecdotes. He thanked Bob for canonizing him when he was still alive! He showed off his bright Cardinal robes, telling us: “these were the gifts you folks gave me when I got the red hat three years ago!” He didn’t focus on his own personal, obvious diminishment and struggle with aggressive leukemia, but praised the outstanding work of the Catholic News Service (CNS) and invited us to look around the room to see the power of good that is present in so many Catholic journalists and communicators.
Though no one would dare utter the words, that night was not a simple “arrivederci” but an “Addio.” Cardinal Foley was preparing to take leave of us and return to the house of the Father. There were few dry eyes in the cavernous room in Pittsburgh. The following morning, prior to his return to Villa St. Joseph, the Cardinal invited Msgr. Owen Campion and me to celebrate mass with him in his hotel room. It was a simple, moving, intimate celebration which I will never forget. If ever I experienced the meaning of “communications”, it was during that mass.
The word ‘cardinal’ is derived from two early Latin terms, cardo and cardinis. For over three hundred years, the English translation has rendered these two words as “hinge,” to signify that important device that serves as a juncture for two opposing forces and that affords harmony as a result. As a hinge permits a door to hang easily upon a framed portal, so too the cardinals, it was believed, facilitated an easy relationship between the theological and governmental roles of the hierarchy of the Church. The color red of the Cardinal’s robes symbolizes the blood shed by martyrs and witnesses for the faith. Giving public, clear witness to the faith lies at the heart of the Cardinal’s mission.
In Cardinal Foley, we experienced and loved a man who was an authentic witness for the faith; a hinge and a door; one who gave public, clear witness in season and out of season, in good times and in bad. And the characteristic quality of this good shepherd was joy. He returned to God today, December 11, Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. Though we may experience sorrow and loss here below, I am certain that there was great rejoicing in heaven as this joyful, faithful witness was welcomed home to communications central.
I appeal to another great orator of the English language, William Shakespeare, borrowing from Romeo and Juliet, Act III scene 2:
“…when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
and find in act V scene 2 of Hamlet the words to express my sentiments and the sentiments of many, dare I say millions, at this moment of sadness and gratitude:
“Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
May Cardinal Foley rest in peace, intercede for us and teach us the meaning of rejoicing in the Lord.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
Consultor, Pontifical Council for Social Communications
Credit: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec