Remembering Cardinal Foley: Be instruments of God’s love, truth, and grace
By Thaddeus Jones
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Cardinal John Patrick Foley who headed the Pontifical Council for Social Communications for 23 years. Saint Pope John Paul II called him to Rome in 1984 to take over leadership of the communication department. He held that position until 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, making him a Cardinal later that year. After reaching the age limit for retirement, in 2011 he returned to his native Philadelphia in the United States where he died on 11 December after a battle with leukaemia. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, gave the homily at his funeral at Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. There Cardinal Foley’s tomb lies in the Cathedral crypt.
Cardinal Foley is fondly remembered by those whom he met during his time of service at the Holy See. Many recall his great kindness as a caring priest, his deep spirituality, his integrity, his humour, but especially his competence as a professional journalist. Journalists working for Catholic and secular media knew him as their friend, someone who understood their work, appreciated their challenges, and tried to meet their deadlines when asked for interviews or comments.
One of the lasting legacies of Cardinal Foley’s ministry and pastoral work in communications is the enthusiasm he had during his encounters with journalists of all types during his travels or in Rome for meetings and conferences. He was a great advocate for Church outreach through the media, recognizing back then its critical importance in ways that are a given today. He inspired thousands with his encouragement, passion, and respect for their work, calling them always to the highest standards of journalism.
His final meeting with journalists, just six months before he died, took place in the US city of Pittsburgh at the 2011 annual Catholic Media Convention. He was too weak at that point to stand and gave his address seated, but with humour and candour, lacing his prepared text with inspirational stories that made people smile. In his talk, almost as if it were his last testament, he encouraged those present to consider their work as sacred, a very important calling to truth and respect, saying, "You all have a special bond with the people to whom you communicate. You owe them respect. You should treat them with dignity. You should challenge them to goodness. You have a great opportunity to influence the lives of others. They look up to you. They look to you for information, for formation, for inspiration. Please never fail to give them these types of encouragement … this sacred bond which should exist between you and your listeners and your viewers.” He concluded, “Thank you for all that you have done for the Church and our Catholic people. May you continue to be instruments of God's love, of God's truth, and of God's grace in a world that surely needs them all. Thank you, God bless you.”
During that gathering, Cardinal Foley paid tribute in a special way to Catholic News Service (CNS) founded by the US bishops in 1920, headquartered at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC. CNS Rome bureau chief Cindy Wooden knew Cardinal Foley for over two decades and recalls the influence and inspiration Cardinal Foley had on journalists like herself.
“Cardinal Foley was kind, honest, told jokes that would make you groan, but he was always a priest. He was always concerned with people before anything else. So, if you went to see him for an interview, first, he asked about you and your family and what was going on in your life.” It was that humanity that Cardinal Foley showed, his respect for each person he met that everyone remembers. At the same time, he was serious about journalism as a calling that required professionalism, honesty, and commitment. “He embraced journalism as a noble profession”, Cindy Wooden continues. “one meant to inform people, even if the news was bad. The story was never about him or his opinion, or his preferences. It was about the truth and about the people involved. So that respect that he would show to anybody who showed up to talk to him, that concern that came through in the stories he wrote and the kind of journalism he advocated as well.”
The world today is marked by even deeper divisions and polarization, reflected in today’s media. “I think Cardinal Foley’s vision of what journalism is and what specifically Catholic journalism should be is something that...professional communicators always have to keep going back to, asking themselves, why they are writing the story they are writing, who does it help, who does it inform, what kind of community does it build”, Wooden reflects. Too often today negative or sensational coverage of events can dominate. “Bad news is still news, and the Cardinal knew that, but he was never vindictive. And he took no delight in the bad news stories. And I think if we reflected a little more carefully once in a while, we would be on much more solid ground.”