Author of more than 40 books, founder of the Fatima Family Apostolate and creator of the quarterly magazine Immaculate Heart Messenger, he has taken more than 2,000 young people on pilgrimage retreats to Fatima. The South Dakotan spoke recently with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Drake: Where did you grow up? Tell me a little bit about your family.
Father Fox: I grew up as the youngest of eight children on a farm near Watertown, S.D. We had everything … pigs, sheep, milk cows and horses, but we raised primarily potatoes. My father died shortly after I was born, leaving my mother with the children. Not long after, the Depression years came. We grew up under very poor circumstances, but we were happy because we didn't know any better.
My mother said to me, when she was dying, that there were many times when she did not know what food she would put on the table for the next meal, but she always managed.
How did you come to be a priest? Was there a specific event that led to your vocation?
I do not remember ever not wanting to be a priest.
I can recall wanting to be a priest even before I started first grade. My mother put the thought in my mind. She mentioned it only two times in my life, but it stuck.
I remember when my mother would go into town to get groceries, and she would let me be alone for an hour in town. Every time, without exception, I would go the Catholic Church and genuflect and spend time before Jesus. Even then I could feel the Real Presence of Jesus in the tabernacle. That drew me to the priest-hood.
While every vocation comes from God, I believe that a sincere priestly vocation comes to us through Mary. Her “yes” gave us the High Priest, so she is the mother of vocations.
Archbishop William O'Brady ordained me in 1955, at the Cathedral of Sioux Falls.
How did you learn about the faith in rural South Dakota?
We didn't have a Catholic high school in Watertown, but our family did receive the National Catholic Register. Msgr. William Smith used to have beautiful articles explaining the faith. I would wait for it to arrive in the mail every Tuesday and I would read it cover to cover.
After high school, I was among more than 350 freshman to begin studies at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. In those days St. John's taught the traditional Catholic faith. All students were required to take a religious placement exam. Most of the other students had had four years of previous religious instruction at St. John's or other places; I had lacked formal religious education during my high-school years.
After the examination I was given a sheet of paper with the number 17 on it and was told to meet with my advisor. I still remember seeing that number and wondering how I could have done so poorly. “How could I have gotten only 17% correct?” I asked myself. The advisor, however, corrected my error. He said, “No, this is very good. You scored 17th from the top of all the students.”
I instantly responded, “That's because all four years of high school I read the National Catholic Register.”
You were asked by the Vatican to start the International Fatima Family Apostolate, weren't you?
In 1974, I made a pilgrimage to Fatima and I asked Our Lady, “What do you want of me?” Those were always the first words spoken by Lucia when Our Lady appeared to her. I had the overwhelming conviction that Our Lady wanted me to teach the fullness of the Catholic faith to young people wherever I could using the Fatima message as the vehicle in my instruction.
It wasn't long after that that I developed a Fatima youth apostolate that spread widely and quickly.
In 1976 I felt that I was being called to conduct youth retreats to Fatima for teen-agers and young adults. Over the past 25 years I have brought more than 2,000 young people to Fatima on pilgrimages. I estimate that, of those young people, about 200 are becoming, or are already, priests. More than 20 have become contemplative Carmelites, one of whom co-founded the first Carmelite monastery in South Dakota located across the street from my parish. Many others joined other religious communities.
Cardinal John Wright, who was the Prefect of the Pontifical Congregation for the Clergy, heard about my work and was reading articles I was writing in the National Catholic Register, and he began phoning and writing me.
He encouraged me to continue writing on catechetics and asked me to write a catechism for young people. That catechism is still in print under the title Jesus, Light of the World, and has been revised to incorporate features of the new universal Catechism.
In 1985, the Pontifical Council for the Laity wrote, encouraging me to form a Fatima apostolate independent of what I had been doing. This new apostolate became the Fatima Family Apostolate (FFA), dedicated to the sanctification of the family. Within two years its charter was endorsed by the Pontifical Council for the Family. After I spoke at the first International Fatima Pastoral Symposium at the request of the Bishop of Fatima, the FFA became known internationally.
Every diocese has a family-life committee. Why is a Fatima Family Apostolate needed?
Every diocese is doing good work as regards family life; however, they are dealing with the problems. The Fatima Family Apostolate exists to prevent family problems from arising. Fatima family prayer and study groups meet monthly and sometimes more often.
We provide all of the tools and the structure for what families can do during those meetings. Our “bible” on family life is Pope John Paul II's document Familiaris Consortio [the 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family], in which the Pope calls for families-to-families apostolates.
Good Catholic families, because of our secular society, often feel very alone. Getting Catholic families to meet at least monthly in support groups of five to six couples allows them to study, pray and share their problems with one another.
You became a priest at a time when there was an abundance of priests. Do you have any thoughts on our present vocations crisis?
One of the problems today is that the faith is not being lived and shared within the family. Families have gone down in size, and therefore families do not have the deep faith and generosity which produces vocations. I predict that many priests will come from home-schooling families. The answer is families-to-families apostolates. That is the future of the Church.