A Red Hat for Rome’s Media Man

The Register’s former Rome correspondent says there was a good reason Cardinal John Foley was not given a red hat for so long.

VATICAN CITY — Most reports about Archbishop John Foley’s elevation to the College of Cardinals have included a reference to the fact that the American bishop had been waiting, or had been kept waiting, or some other variant of the same, for more than two decades for the honor. I am not so sure.

From 1984 until 2007, Foley served as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications — the Vatican’s media office. It would be unwise to make the head of the media office a cardinal, as it would mean that during the death of the pope and subsequent conclave, the Vatican’s main media man would be otherwise occupied — just at the busiest possible moment.

So when Archbishop Foley relinquished that job this past summer, it was not surprising that he was soon named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI. Yet the fact that he managed to handle for more than two decades the “when-will-the-red-hat-come” talk with such great good humor and humility speaks well of him.

Archbishop Foley never conducted himself as a bridesmaid wanting to be the bride; he was happy to be invited to the wedding feast.

Year after year, Archbishop Foley would make himself available around Rome to do what bishops do — celebrate Mass on important feast days for the local American communities, administer confirmation, institute seminarians as lectors and acolytes. Each year he would come to the Pontifical North American College to celebrate the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass before heading to St. Peter’s for his television commentary on the papal Midnight Mass. He conducted himself always as a priest and bishop utterly delighted to be exercising his office.

Favorite Stories

Everyone who knows Archbishop Foley seems to have a dozen favorite stories, which is fair enough, as he seems to have favorite stories pertinent to any occasion. Here are three that reveal the gentle and holy character of the man.

Not long after arriving in Rome as a seminarian, I took up responsibilities as the Register’s Rome correspondent. I had little contact with Archbishop Foley, but he paid close attention, and wrote me a letter, saying kind things about my work as a prelude to some fatherly advice. While journalism can be a noble service and a means of evangelization, he wrote, it is important to remember that the priesthood is the primary identity.

More important was his own example over the years to me, as a man who loved being a priest and thought journalism was enormous fun. Many learned from him that that Catholic journalism could be a great adventure, and I learned that to be a priest journalist is to be twice blessed.

Another time, Archbishop Foley came to offer Mass for a group of seminarians in a cramped Roman shrine. While he was distributing holy Communion, another priest present rudely cut through the line of people waiting, and nearly bumped the ciborium.

In the sacristy after Mass, the same priest bowed low in greeting Archbishop Foley, making a most ostentatious obeisance as he took his leave. Archbishop Foley, turning to us seminarians, said simply, “Would that he would show the Blessed Sacrament as much reverence as he does an archbishop!”

He taught us his own great reverence for the Eucharist, telling us that when distributing holy Communion, he says a short, silent prayer for each person coming forward before he gives them the Host. I try to do the same.

Over the years, I would see him more often, and he was kind enough to come to the dinner after my ordination as a deacon. Asked to offer a toast, he stepped forward with his water glass. When I offered him wine, he explained that he didn’t drink. “Are you planning to offer a dry toast?” I inquired. “Dry toast!” he chortled, enjoying the pun I had not intended to make. He is a famous punster, and the moment captured Archbishop Foley — one who delights in seeing the delightful in everyday, ordinary moments.

He went on to say that in his 40 years as a priest he had never had an unhappy day: “Difficult days, to be sure. But never an unhappy day in the priesthood. I wish you the same.”

He was happy because he knew that no matter what difficulties might exist, to be a priest, to offer the Mass, to administer the sacraments, to preach the Gospel, to be about the Lord’s work – all of this was such a blessing and a privilege that it would be ungrateful to be unhappy.

As a journalist too, he knew that it was always a privilege to tell important stories, and that it was service to the Gospel to tell the truth. His advice to ecclesiastics and journalists alike always began with the same point: “Never, never, never tell a lie.”

An honest man, a happy priest, a spiritual father, a professional journalist, and now a cardinal.

The last is least important, but a worthy recognition of the rest.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

served as the Register’s

Rome correspondent from 1999-2003.

He writes from Kingston, Ontario.

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