Goodbye to a mentor and a friend
Many will remember him as the voice doing the “play-by-play” during the Pope’s Christmas Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica, something he did for 25 years up until two years ago.
Journalists around the world will remember him as the archbishop who got them a radio or television feed or a straight answer about what the church teaches and why.
Those of us in Catholic media will remember the Philadelphian who became a Cardinal of the Church for his hilarious stories, his love of puns, and his commitment to his faith, to the church and to truthful Catholic journalism.
I remember John Patrick Foley as a mentor who became a friend.
Cardinal Foley, who died today, Dec. 11, at the age of 76, was the editor of Philadelphia’s Catholic newspaper when he hired me, just a 22-year-old, to be his news and sports editor back in 1974.
Best of mentors
I’m trying to avoid saying he was a demanding boss, because that would put too dark a tone on the reality of who he was. What he was was a boss who set high expectations — for himself as well as others. He could never understand why anyone would ever give less than 100 percent when they could inform, form and inspire God’s people through the work we did.
Because he held those high standards, he could hold the reins loosely and let a young colt like me run. I tried out the latest in graphics. I cropped photos tight and used them big. I covered everything from high school football to the International Eucharistic Congress to the U.S. Supreme Court. When a tip about Catholic school teachers organizing a labor union got me into a sub rosa gathering at an apartment one night, then-Monsignor Foley not only published my full-page story but defended the story to archdiocesan officials because Catholics needed to know why their teachers felt they needed a union.
Along the way he taught me the importance of planning, the value of teamwork and collaboration, and the truism that Catholic media have nothing to fear from reporting bad news. His approach to Catholic news — one forged in part at Columbia’s School of Journalism and in part by his priesthood — was that Catholic media should tell every story, tell it honestly, and tell it with compassion. And he showed us all how to be Catholic, how to live out our faith every day in all we do, with everyone whose life touched ours.
When we worked for him in the mid-1970s we expected the monsignor to one day be named an auxiliary bishop. Instead he went right to archbishop; Pope John Paul II chose him to head the Vatican’s communication efforts. He became a cardinal in 2009.
I’d left Philadelphia in 1977, but through the years we’d see each other at Catholic Press Association conventions and correspond occasionally. He always helped me better understand the church and my faith. All his letters — every one — included “give my love to Barbara and the children,” never forgetting my wife and that he’d baptized two of our four.
When I think back I appreciate that he taught me the valuable lesson of having a reason for whatever I was doing. But even better, he showed me how to love the church, warts and all. The bureaucracy frustrated him and the politics drove him crazy, yet I don’t know how many times I heard him say, “I’ve never had an unhappy day as a priest.” It was a sentence he repeated last year when he came to the Twin Cities to help The Catholic Spirit celebrate its 100th anniversary.
He wowed ‘em in Minneapolis
I thought the cardinal would be a big-name draw for our centennial celebration, so about a year in advance I invited him to be our keynote speaker in January 2011. Needless to say he was a hit. He had several hundred people laughing aloud as he quipped with his host, Archbishop John Nienstedt, and told anecdotes from his years in the Catholic news ministry.
It was only after he left town that I was told he had leukemia but didn’t want me to know it.
Once he was diagnosed with that cancerous blood disease he had cleared his calendar for two events: the 2011 Catholic Media Convention in Pittsburgh and the 100th anniversary celebration of The Catholic Spirit in the Twin Cities. I can’t describe them, so you’ll have to imagine my feelings upon hearing that our friendship meant that much to him that he would honor his commitment to me knowing that he hadn’t long to live.
Thank God he made it to Pittsburgh last June. He was the keynote speaker there, too, and as we sat down for the centennial dinner I was asked to introduce the cardinal.
I wasn’t expecting that, but frankly it wasn’t difficult. I’d watched Foley through the years, and he was a master at self-effacing stories, at working an audience, at getting a message across clearly yet quickly.
The hard part, the lump-in-the-throat part, was finishing up the introduction by telling him — in front of several hundred people who work in Catholic media around North America — how much he meant to me. And how much I loved him.
Requiesat in pace, good and faithful servant.