Ailing Cardinal Foley retires

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DARBY, Pa. - Cardinal John P. Foley, 75, a former editor of The Catholic Standard & Times in Philadelphia and former director of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican, is retiring and resigning from his post as grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem in Rome.

In September 2009, he was diagnosed with leukemia and anemia. "It's been getting progressively worse and I get weaker," Cardinal Foley said. "I didn't have the energy to perform my duties."

He has returned to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia permanently, residing at Villa St. Joseph, a residence for retired, infirm and convalescent priests in Darby.

"I didn't think it fair for the church to have somebody in a position who couldn't really fulfill the position," he said of his post as grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, a fraternal organization dedicated to supporting the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and responding to the needs of Catholics in the Holy Land. The cardinal said he felt privileged by his association with the organization.

He was appointed to the position in June 2007 after having served as director of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications for 23 years.

The cardinal said he has also battled thrombosis, or clotting of the blood, in his legs, particularly on long flights. He suffered such an affliction just recently, on his flight to Philadelphia from Rome.

Cardinal Foley submitted a letter of resignation to the Vatican's Secretary of State Feb. 8, met with Pope Benedict XVI Feb. 10 and returned to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Feb. 12.

He said he is happy at Villa St. Joseph, which is near the hospital where he was born, Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital, "and a mile from my hometown of Sharon Hill."

In 1984, when he was named archbishop and president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in Rome, Archbishop Foley asked Cardinal John Krol, then the archbishop of Philadelphia, if he could one day retire in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at Villa St. Joseph. Cardinal Krol said, "Yes, but don't expect me to be there to welcome you," Cardinal Foley recalled. Cardinal Krol died in 1996.

Being back in the church of Philadelphia is a blessing in itself, according Cardinal Foley. "It's good to come home. That's what I consider it - coming home."

Because a priest never truly retires, the cardinal continues to celebrate Mass daily at his residence and to pray for the needs of all Catholics of his beloved Philadelphia in particular.

"I certainly ask for the prayers of so many people in the archdiocese where I was privileged to serve so long - 22 years of my priesthood were spent here, and since 1984, 27 years in Rome. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I hope I'm able to take part in that with my classmates, if God spares me."

He carries the cross of his illness with courage. "That's part of life," Cardinal Foley said. "We're here to prepare for eternal life. Whatever God has in store for me, that's what I'm here for. I'm grateful to God for what he's given me."

He concedes that his physical limitations prevent him from continuing the busy schedule to which he has become accustomed. "I'm afraid I can't get out very much because I don't have the strength to do public ceremonies," he said.

But he has goals. Cardinal Foley hopes to attend the Catholic Press Association's centennial celebration and convention June 22-24 in Pittsburgh. "It's the 100th anniversary for them and I've been involved in it for 50 years," he said.

The fact that he retired in February, Catholic Press Month, is also significant.

John Patrick Foley's journalism career began in the fifth grade when he and his friends produced a one-page newspaper that contained jokes, cartoons and local news.

He started writing radio plays about the lives of the saints in seventh grade. Not only were his plays aired, but at age 14 he was asked to be an announcer for Sunday morning programming on what was then WJMJ in Philadelphia.

He also appeared in a televised, weekly college debate program during his college years, and later co-produced a 20-program TV series, "The Making of a Priest."

Between stints as assistant editor of The Catholic Standard & Times in the 1960s, he completed his graduate studies in philosophy in Rome, where he also worked as a news reporter. His beat included covering the Second Vatican Council from 1963 to 1965.

In 1970, he was appointed editor of The Catholic Standard & Times, a post he held until Pope John Paul II named him an archbishop and head of the Vatican's social communications council in 1984.

There, he helped the media gain access in covering Vatican events, and provided the English-language commentary for worldwide broadcasts of major papal ceremonies, including Christmas, Good Friday and Easter celebrations.

After 25 years of providing the English-language commentary for the pope's Christmas midnight Mass, he announced in November 2009 that he was ceasing that role. "I guess I'm truly the ghost of Christmas past now," Cardinal Foley said at the time.

Under his leadership, the social communications council issued separate documents promoting ethical standards in advertising, in communications and on the Internet. Another council document denounced pornography.

When the Vatican started to investigate the possibility of going online, then-Archbishop Foley lobbied tirelessly for the Holy See to be given its own top-level domain.

"We were first told that we should be part of .it for Italy. I told them we were surrounded by 'It' - that, in another sense, we were 'It' - but we were not 'It.'"

After refusing to settle for .it and .org, he succeeded in obtaining for the Vatican the top-level domain of .va.

"For us, that is very important, because you can be sure that anything coming from .va is authentic ... material from the Vatican and the Holy See."

Correspondence for Cardinal Foley may be sent to him at: Villa St. Joseph, 1436 Lansdowne Ave., Darby, PA 19023.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011