Vatican’s ‘Nicest Guy’ Shares Ideas In Visit Here

For 23 years, John Foley was the Vatican’s highest communication official. His department oversaw all film, television and photographic work at the Vatican, and prepared official policy statements. 

In November, Pope Benedict XVI gave him a red hat, elevating him to the College of Cardinals, and naming him Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (more on that title later.)

Cardinal Foley, who is 72, is now one of 13 American cardinals who are under 80, and therefore eligible to elect the next pope.

He swung through St. Louis this week on his way to Columbia, where he was due to give a couple of talks to University of Missouri students, including one titled, “Is Religion Still Good News?” Foley, who grew up in Philadelphia, has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

In a conversation at Aquinas Institute of Theology on Wednesday, Foley — who has been called the nicest guy in the Vatican — spoke about everything from Catholic-Muslim dialogue to watching videos in his apartment with Pope John Paul II. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Q: In your 23 years in the Vatican, what have you learned about the media world?

Foley: We tried to make it easier for people to cover the pope. (Pope John Paul II) was most open to having all of his public activity covered. He didn’t do interviews, or else he would have done nothing else. … I’ve been at the United Nations every time a pope has been there. I was at Columbia in 1965 when Paul VI came and they sent me down to cover it. Then I was the English-language press secretary for John Paul II on his trip through Ireland and the United States in 1979. And then I was back with him as an archbishop in ’95. I don’t know whether I’ll be back with the new pope this year (when Benedict XVI addresses the U.N. in April), but I’d like to be.

Q: What are the differences between John Paul and Benedict in terms of how they worked with media?

Foley: John Paul was a more dramatic figure, and given to dramatic gestures, which the present Holy Father is not. But the present Holy Father is very open to the media. He’s very kind, gentle, and he has given interviews before he has gone to specific countries. He did for the Polish media before he went to Poland. He did for the German media before he went to Cologne for World Youth Day. So, it would be nice if he’d do that for the American media, too, but I don’t know. He doesn’t feel as secure in English. He speaks English very well, but I guess he just lacks confidence. He’s a professor, so he like to get things right. …

… Not too many people could say that a pope has been in their living room watching videos. Shortly after I arrived in Rome, I had this video player with three systems — American, European and French-Russian systems. (John Paul II) wanted to see some videos, so his assistant asked if he could come to my apartment to watch them. They were religious videos — it wasn’t “Spiderman” or anything like that.

Q: Can you explain what the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is?

Foley: That’s sort of an imposing title, isn’t it? The order of the Holy Sepulchre is a group of about 120,000 men and women around the world who are pledged, not only to the deep meaning of their own spiritual lives, but to assist in the Christian community in the Holy Land, which is interpreted as far as their rules are concerned as Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus. What we want to guarantee is that there is a continuing Christian presence in the Holy Land. These are the descendents of the original followers of Christ, and it would be a great tragedy of they had to leave.

Q: You’ve been in Rome a long time now, but what issues do you think the American church is confronting today?

Foley: Well, a challenge facing all religions is a secularism — the increasing distraction from ultimate values to the satisfaction of immediate needs. Another, of course, is the difficulties of maintaining a Catholic school system, a Catholic education program in an American society which has an interpretation of the strict separation of church and state, so that there can’t be any benefit for Catholics schools even though they provide a major benefit to society.

Q: Do you know Archbishop Raymond Burke ?

Foley: I know Archbishop Burke very well. … I always found him exemplary. He’s a kind, prayerful, gentle, very intelligent and learned person. He has a great sense of humor.

Q: What are your thoughts about the recent letter to Pope Benedict, called “A Common Word Between Us and You” and signed by 138 Muslim scholars around the world asking for dialogue?

Foley: I think it’s wonderful. It’s not easy to dialogue with Islam because: Who represents Islam? In the Catholic church you have a central authority, and you have representatives delegated by that central authority or by the bishop of a particular area to deal with other faiths. And you don’t have that in Islam. So, individuals who have this dialogue may not be representative of the main forces within the Islamic community.

I’m very interested in it because it touches on my present work.

Q: When you received an alumni award from Columbia in 1985, what made you suggest a course in religion journalism, which the school now offers?

Foley: Unfortunately, many assignment editors confuse ignorance with objectivity, and they assign someone to cover religion who knows absolutely nothing about it, thinking that in that way they’re being unbiased. I said, “If you did that in sports, imagine the riots in the street.”