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Cardinal John Foley, the 'Voice of Christmas' at the Vatican, Dies at 76 (3277)

Philadelphia native was well known for his narration of midnight Mass from St. Peter’s.

12/12/2011 Comments (6)
2010 CNA photo/Alan Holdren

Cardinal John Patrick Foley, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, speaks in the Vatican Press Office.

– 2010 CNA photo/Alan Holdren

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has paid tribute to Cardinal John Patrick Foley, who died today, recalling his “distinguished service” to the Holy See and commending his “noble soul” to God.

The American cardinal passed away in his sleep in the early hours of Dec. 11th at Villa St. Joseph, the archdiocesan home for retired priests in Darby, the Pennsylvania town where he was born. He was 76 and had been battling cancer for some time.

In a communiqué published by the Vatican Dec. 12, the Holy Father recalled “with gratitude the late cardinal’s years of priestly ministry in his beloved Archdiocese of Philadelphia, his distinguished service to the Holy See as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and most recently his labors on behalf of the Christian communities of the Holy Land.”

The Pope said he prayed that Cardinal Foley’s “lifelong commitment to the Church’s presence in the media will inspire others to take up this apostolate so essential to the proclamation of the Gospel and the progress of the New Evangelization.”

A popular, jovial priest, Cardinal Foley served more than 23 years as president of the Vatican’s communications council, a body whose main task is to support Catholic media in spreading the Gospel and to address morality and ethics in communications.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said in a statement that Cardinal Foley was a man of “great apostolic energy” who had an “intense love for the Church” and a “zeal for communicating the Gospel.” By the sheer force of his personality, said Archbishop Chaput, “he drew people to the faith and to himself,” adding that “his charisma and gentle spirit will be sorely missed throughout the universal Church.”

His successor at the pontifical council, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, highlighted the cardinal’s “clear and farsighted pastoral wisdom” concerning the Church and the media. He promoted a “vital” dialogue both within the Church and internationally, Archbishop Celli said, “by calling on all communicators to seek the highest and most noble standards of their profession.” 


‘Gifted Evangelizer’

Cardinal Foley returned to his native archdiocese in February, after serving four years as grand master of the Rome-based Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a papal order of knighthood that supports the Church in the Holy Land.

His successor as grand master, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, said the order “grew significantly in lieutenancies and numbers throughout the world, largely due to his devoted commitment to the Church in the Holy Land and his constant travel.” Archbishop O’Brien also paid tribute to the cardinal’s “professionalism and integrity” in Church communications, saying he was a “gifted evangelizer.”

An only child, Cardinal Foley was born on Nov. 11, 1935.  After attending St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, he earned a bachelor of arts summa cum laude from St. Joseph’s College (now St. Joseph’s University) in 1957, before entering Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. He was ordained in 1962.

Soon afterwards, Father Foley was sent to Rome for advanced studies. There, he reported on the Second Vatican Council for the Philadelphia archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Standard and Times. He was appointed the paper’s editor in 1968 and subsequently earned a master’s degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he was elected class president. In 1984, Blessed Pope John Paul II appointed the then-49-year-old monsignor as president of the newly formed communications pontifical council , much to the priest’s surprise.

Paying tribute to Cardinal Foley’s leadership, Archbishop Celli singled out the many documents he helped produce, most notably on Internet and advertising ethics. “They offer a precious contribution to the Church’s understanding of and engagement with the new forms of media,” he said, adding that those documents paved the way for Blessed John Paul II’s last apostolic letter, The Rapid Development.

Outside of the Vatican, Cardinal Foley became most famous thanks to his warm, grandfatherly tones, coupled with expertise, which would accompany broadcasts of major Vatican ceremonies, especially at Christmas. “He particularly enjoyed” this role, said Archbishop Celli. “It is no surprise that he became known as ‘the voice of Christmas.’”


‘Passion to Share the Gospel’

But he was also popular beyond the Church. His warm and down-to-earth personality disarmed many a media foe. “His was a friendly face to the many journalists who came to cover the Vatican,” said Archbishop Celli. “For many, he was the person they turned to in order to make sense of the Church and its structures. For all, he was a welcoming and generous guide.”

Part of his skill was always to focus on the positive. “It helps to be friendly and not go in and beat them [the media] over the head with complaints,” Cardinal Foley observed in a 2007 interview for Inside the Vatican. “You can give praise for positive things that are done.”

A skilled raconteur at dinner parties and receptions, he often made his companions double up with laughter. Yet his humor was always kind, tasteful and often self-deprecating. Beneath this, and in his heart, “was the richness of his faith and the depth of his spirituality,” said Archbishop Celli. “His love for Christ and his passion to share the good news of God’s infinite love for every person radiated from his being.”

In a 2007 Register interview, Cardinal Foley pointed to his parents as his greatest inspiration: “They were wonderful, wonderful people,” he said, “always looking how best to serve the Lord in the Church. They had all this moral formation and were idealistic.” He recalled that they encouraged him to work in communications and “were very patient and very supportive, always.”

Many stories are being recounted about the late cardinal, but Archbishop Celli chose to highlight one that summed up, for him, Cardinal Foley’s “profound faith and goodness.” As he said his final goodbyes earlier this year, the archbishop exuded a “great interior peace, which was absolutely tangible.”

“He was fully aware that his illness was terminal and that he was going home to die. Yet he offered up his sufferings and spoke eloquently of our common journey back to the Father,” Archbishop Celli recalled. “Once again, he gave a simple yet powerful witness to Christian faith and our belief in and commitment to living, dying and rising in Christ. He understood that our lives are in the hands of God, especially in times of illness or distress.”

“This witness was his parting beautiful gift to us,” said Archbishop Celli. “We thank the Lord for Cardinal Foley and for his great kindness, service and goodness.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

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