Cardinal Foley: Teaching About Jesus 1st Priority

American Prelate Shares Memories of Priesthood

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ROME, JULY 31, 2009 ( For Cardinal John Foley, there is nothing more important in life than teaching people about Jesus, and helping them to grow closer to him.

During the Year for Priests, the grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem sat down with ZENIT to reflect on his life as a priest.

The cardinal, who is the former president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, acknowledged the example of his parents and priests he knew as being instrumental in discovering his vocation, but also targeted two key events in his life.

“I entered the seminary twice,” the prelate said, “once after high school and once after university.”

He continued: “In my senior year of high school, at Christmas time, I went to our parish church and knelt in front of the crib.

“I said, ‘Lord, you have given me everything I have — my life, my family, my faith, a very good education — and I want to give it all, everything, back to you.”

Thus, at the end of that year the young man entered the Jesuit novitiate. After several months, he said to himself, “I think I would be happier as a diocesan priest.”

John Foley left the Jesuits at this point, and finished his history degree at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while still thinking about entering the diocesan seminary at a later point.

One thing that was “critical” at this point, he said, was doing volunteer work and teaching catechism to mentally handicapped children.

He recalled: “I had six children in this school to whom I was teaching catechism, and the Sister Superior came in and said, ‘Well, children, do you like Mr. Foley?’

“One boy answered, ‘No! No! We love Mr. Foley!’

“I thought that was a marvelous distinction for a mentally handicapped boy to make.

“She said, ‘Why do you love Mr. Foley?’

“He said, ‘We love Mr. Foley because he teaches us about Jesus.’ And I thought, ‘there is nothing more important in life than teaching people about Jesus and bringing Jesus to them.’

“That solidified my vocation for the priesthood.”

Cardinal Foley noted, “I think it was providential that I had to leave the seminary the first time and study at the university, where I got a very good education and a very good experience in apostolic work as well.”

Along with his catechism work, he was active in the Sodality of Our Lady, the debate club, student government — including a term as student body president — and the choir.

He entered the diocesan seminary at the end of his senior year of college, and was ordained five years later.

Family support

The cardinal affirmed, “I never had an unhappy day as a priest; I have loved the priesthood.”

He underlined the role of his family in supporting his priestly vocation, affirming that his parents “never said, ‘You should be a priest,’ and they never objected when I left the seminary or entered the seminary again.”

“They were always supportive with whatever I decided to do,” the prelate affirmed. “They were wonderful.”

He also recalled the contribution of a religious sister who gave him a copy of the “Imitation of Christ” when he was in eighth grade.

The cardinal noted that he read this all through high school, and still has the book, which he still continues to read and meditate on.

After 47 years of priesthood, he reports that the main difficulties he struggles with pertain to the culture, which “seems to be becoming more and more secularized.”

“It is more difficult to get a spiritual message through to people today,” he added, “as they are not as open to it as perhaps they once were.”

As well, Cardinal Foley added, physical difficulties multiply “as we get older.”

Born in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1935, he will turn 74 in November.

Old age “makes you slow down and you cannot do as much as you want to be able to do,” he acknowledged.

However, he added, St. Ignatius teaches us in his spiritual exercises that “we should give ourselves to God in sickness and in health, in poverty and in prosperity.”

“So we should be indifferent in that sense and just use everything for the greater glory of God,” the prelate said.

He explained that this is his episcopal motto: “ad majorem dei gloriam — for the greater glory of God.”

Memorable moments

Despite the natural difficulties that arise, the cardinal noted, there have been some great moments in his priesthood.

He recalled that his best moments are associated with the two Pontiffs under whom he was able to serve in Rome.

The prelate made particular note of the trips with Pope John Paul II in 1979 to Poland and the United States, as well as the visits with Benedict XVI to the Holy Land, and to the United States last year.

He added that another highlight of his priestly ministry is the 25 years of work he has been doing as a network television commentator for the Papal ceremonies on Christmas, Easter and Good Friday.

“It is a way of evangelizing,” the cardinal explained, “in making known to people what is going on in the liturgy, so that they might be able to appreciate Catholic worship,” and “others can be introduced to what we believe and how we worship as Catholics.”

As well, he continued, it helps Catholics to “have a deeper appreciation of the Mass and Catholic devotion.”

As a priest, Cardinal Foley said, “I have had particular moments of consolation, helping people to have their marriages validated or receiving people into the Church.”

He recalled: “A classmate of mine from Colombia University asked several years ago to become a Catholic. He was Jewish — a non-practicing Jew.

“As well, the people against whom I had debated when I was in the university, and with whom I had discussed theology, very often finally decided to become Catholics.

“These are great moments of personal consolation to be able to help to share my faith with others and hope that they will receive the gift of faith themselves.”

[Reporting by Mercedes De La Torre; writing by Genevieve Pollock]
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