Convinced that nothing is coincidence and everything is Providence, Archbishop John Foley set out at an early age to influence society with the Gospel through his interest in communications and eventually his call to priesthood.
Now the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, he spoke with Legion of Christ Father Raymond Cleaveland about the media, the Church's approach to communications and his own vocation in this second of a two-part interview.
What led to your vocation? Tell me a bit about your family life.
I am an only child. My parents were both wonderful people of great moral integrity. When I was young, we would always have interesting discussions at the dinner table about politics, history or whatever I was studying at the moment. It would take us an hour and a half to eat dinner every night. Then, my mother would wash the dishes and my father and I would dry the dishes, and we would all sing — almost every night; and whenever we were in the car, we would sing as well.
I can remember the very moment of my vocation. I had gone back to our parish church after our family Christmas dinner in 1952, my senior year in high school. I knelt in front of the crib and I said, “Lord, you have given me everything I have: my life, my family, my faith; you have given us your Son to save us; and I would like to give it all back to you.” I thought I was giving God something, and he was really giving me something: my vocation.
Have you always had an interest in communications? Was there a specific experience that piqued your interest in communications? Tell me about it.
I am convinced that nothing is coincidence and everything is providence. My parents gave me a book when I was in seventh grade called You Can Change the World. The book said that we should choose activities that will make a difference in the world, mentioning politics, education and communications. Communications sounded interesting so I started to write radio plays on the lives of the saints because I thought people needed role models. I was in eighth grade when I was writing those plays.
When I got into high school, I was put in contact with a woman at the local CBS station who helped me with the plays. And she put me in touch with the owner of a local radio station, WJMJ in Philadelphia, who put them on the air. Later I became an announcer on that station.
Sunday mornings I would do that during high school. When I got to college, I became active in television as well. RCA owned a local TV station and we had a weekly program called “Debate,” and I had some programs on other stations from time to time, in addition to continuing the radio hour. And I was active in student publications as well.
All of this before you were a seminarian?
Yes. But when I entered the seminary I thought to myself, “well, I guess this communications thing is over, except for the Sunday homily.” One summer I got a call from the editor of the Catholic newspaper who knew me from my radio work. “Are you the same John Foley?” he asked.
“I am,” I replied.
“Well, how would you like to work here during the summer?” he offered.
So I started working at the newspaper as a seminarian, mainly doing the Catholic directory for the 10-county archdiocese. Then I did feature articles. Later, the editor of the paper got me involved in more radio work for the Philadelphia Catholic Hour.
What did you do for the Philadelphia Catholic Hour?
Well, I was on it as a guest. Then I became the director and the producer for seven years. I had to write the scripts, get the guest speakers — it's amazing thinking about it in retrospect. We had zero budget, so I would buy my own records, time all of the background music myself — I did everything. And the time was donated by the radio station, so we had very little overhead. Nowadays they have entire departments that do what I did. And I had to do it all during the only free time I had, which was on Sunday afternoons.
Obviously all of this pastoral experience prepared you to meet this challenge as president of the communications council; did you have any other experiences that honed your communications skills?
Later on, I was appointed editor of the local Catholic newspaper, and then I became one of the two news secretaries for the bishops' meetings. I did that for 15 years. Then in 1979 I was the English-language press secretary for the papal voyage of Pope John Paul II to Ireland and the United States.
Can you relate an example or two from your own experience about the Holy Father's personal interest in the media or his ability to use the media as a pulpit for proclaiming the Gospel?
Well, of course, he was active in theater, and when he invites us to lunch once or twice a year to talk about the work of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, he always asks what we are doing about theater. Theater is very local. We are in contact with the archdiocese of the cities that are the centers of theater: traditionally London and New York.
The Holy Father is certainly aware of the importance of the media, and he has opened his life as much as possible to the media. And I said to him on one occasion, “Holy Father, sometimes your symbolic gestures — kissing the ground or taking a baby with AIDS in your arms — are more effective than discourses.”
He replied, “Yes, I don't plan to do those things; they are spontaneous for the most part, but I do realize the importance of symbols. The word symbol comes the Greek word ‘symbolein,’ meaning to bring together, which is the opposite of the Greek word ‘diabolein,’ meaning to divide or separate — that is where our world ‘diabolic’ comes from — so symbols,” he concluded, “should always be a source of unity.” And that's what the media does: It is an expression of unity.