Cardinal Foley, 'the Voice of Christmas,' dies
U.S. Cardinal John P. Foley, who died Dec. 11, pictured at the 2008 Catholic Media Convention Mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto. CNS photo

The death of Cardinal John Foley removes from the scene one of the Church’s most effective and best loved practitioners and promoters of communication during the past half-century. As a global television presence, editor, and president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, he worked to bring Christ’s message to millions through modern media. 

Cardinal Foley died Dec. 11 after a battle with leukemia at the age of 76 in the place he loved best — his hometown, Philadelphia. 

Viewers around the world knew him as English-language commentator for international telecasts of papal Christmas Midnight Masses and other Vatican ceremonies for 25 years. But his career also included parish priest, newspaper editor, official of the Roman Curia, and Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. 

Frequently honored, famous for good humor and a quick wit, he was above all a priest who took on each assignment convinced that this was how God wanted him to exercise his priestly ministry.

‘Happy priest’

The only child of John Edward and Regina Foley, he was born Nov. 11, 1935, in Fitzgerald-Mercy Hospital, next door to Villa St. Joseph, the residence for ill and retired priests where he would end his days. He studied at Holy Spirit School in nearby Sharon Hill, Pa., St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, and St. Joseph’s University, where he majored in history, excelled as a debater, was elected student body president, and graduated summa cum laude in 1957. 

After studies at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, he was ordained a priest on May 19, 1962, by Archbishop — later Cardinal — John Krol. “I have never had an unhappy day as a priest,” he often said. 

His first assignment was in a Philadelphia parish, but Cardinal Krol in 1963 named him assistant editor of the Catholic Standard and Times, the archdiocesan newspaper, then sent him to Rome for graduate studies. He received a doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, with a dissertation on natural law and the U.S. Supreme Court. In Rome he also covered the Second Vatican Council for his paper. 

From Rome, he went to New York to study at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where again he was elected student body president. He graduated in 1966 with a master’s degree in journalism. 

Back in Philadelphia, he served briefly as a parish priest and teacher at Cardinal Dougherty High School, then in 1967 returned to the Standard and Times while also teaching philosophy at the archdiocesan seminary. In 1970 he became editor of the newspaper. 

Cardinal Krol had a reputation as a no-nonsense boss, but Father Foley was not a yes-man editor. Some of his favorite anecdotes concerned incidents in which — respectfully but firmly — he stood up to the cardinal, often with humor. As an editor, he was a great believer in newspaper special supplements, and the cardinal once asked if he’d have a special supplement even for the Second Coming. “I said yes,” he recounted. “When he asked what advertising I would get, I said, ‘Going out of business sales.’” 

During these years, too, he was a briefing officer for general meetings of the U.S. bishops. In 1979 he was a press liaison for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland and America. 

On April 9, 1984, Pope John Paul named him president of the Vatican’s communications council and made him an archbishop. 

Despite its name, the communications council has little to do with the Vatican’s own communications. The president’s role was to promote communication by bishops’ conferences, dioceses, and Catholic organizations, and in that capacity he became a sought-after speaker and globe-trotting participant in countless meetings and events. 

Under his direction, the council produced a stream of documents — on advertising, the Internet, pornography and media violence, communication ethics, and other issues — giving the Church a voice in the contemporary media world. Among his proudest achievements was successfully negotiating for the Vatican to have its own Internet domain instead of “.org” or “.it” (Italy). Thanks to him, the address is 

‘Ghost of Christmas past’

For 25 years he narrated international telecasts from the Vatican, with the annual Christmas Eve Mass best known. After stepping down in 2009, he called himself “the Ghost of Christmas Past.” 

Cardinal Foley received honorary degrees from many colleges and universities and awards from numerous organizations and groups, Catholic and secular, including the St. Francis de Sales Award of the Catholic Press Association. 

In June 2007 Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to head the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, an international Catholic order of men and women with headquarters in Rome that supports the charitable, cultural and social works of the Church in the Holy Land. 

Cardinal Foley was diagnosed with leukemia and anemia in September 2009 and, unable any longer to handle the travel and other burdens of his job, submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict in February 2011. Then he came home. “When I was assigned to Rome,” he recalled, “I asked Cardinal Krol if I could come back here to retire and he said, ‘Yes, but don’t expect me to be here to greet you.’”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Read more: Remembering a great and humble churchman