Remembering a great and humble American churchman

With the passing of Cardinal John Patrick Foley, the Church has lost one of its finest sons and leaders (see obituary, Page 5). 

My wife and I were blessed to get to know Cardinal (then-Archbishop) Foley in Rome, while he was head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and we were youngish newlywed expatriates beginning to get involved in Church media. 

Early on, we invited him to dinner — and were shocked when he accepted. At the time we were living in an apartment building behind Vatican City State (with a view of the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica!) that had been slapped together in the housing boom after World War II. The floors may have been marble, but the walls were so thin we could hear our neighbor’s conversations as if they were in the same room. 

Archbishop Foley arrived precisely on time, bearing a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine. (The terrific and economical wine he brought, Centine by Castello Banfi, was one we hadn’t seen before but has since become a staple when we entertain.) We remember it as a delightful, relaxed and fun evening. Archbishop Foley did not act like a senior Vatican official with a business travel schedule that probably rivaled that of George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air.” He was simply a priest who was a great conversationalist but was attentive to what was going on around him, and who enjoyed making jokes and puns that prompted simultaneous smiles and groans. 

At the Vatican, he stuck out like a sore thumb. He must have struck some of his Italian colleagues as so “American” — fresh-scrubbed face, ever-present smile, direct manner and newscaster’s deliberate way of speaking. He saw, undoubtedly with pain, the political intrigue especially among certain Italians in the Vatican apparatus, but never played the game. Because of that, doing his job — promoting a transparent, people-centered way of communication, not just for the world but also for the Church — must have been an incredibly difficult up-hill slog. Yet he always seemed buoyant.  

Imagine how different the past decade might have been for the Church, both in the United States and at the Vatican, if more Church leaders had heeded his repeated push for greater candor about clerical failings. 

“We have to be honest. We cannot deny what happened,” he once said, in a quote in his Catholic News Service obituary. Catholic journalists sometimes have “encountered the situation of those who did not want others to learn about what they did ... because it was bad news.” 

“We know, as journalists, that the more some people try to cover up bad news, the more likely it is to be known,” he said. 

Time has proven him right. And one can only hope that his words and example of open, friendly communication inspire many other Catholics to imitate him. 

Requiescat in pace, Cardinal Foley.