Cardinal John Foley returns to Philadelphia for retirement

Cardinal John Foley, 75, a Darby native, spent almost 37 years working at the Vatican.
Cardinal John Foley, 75, a Darby native, spent almost 37 years working at the Vatican.
Posted: February 26, 2011

Cardinal John Foley, a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia who spent nearly 37 years at the Vatican, has retired six months after being diagnosed with leukemia and has returned to Philadelphia.

On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI formally accepted Foley's resignation as grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a position he had held since 2007, the year Benedict made him a cardinal.

Foley, 75, learned in September that he has leukemia and anemia and had been developing blood clots during long air flights. "I'm not in any pain or discomfort," he said Friday, "just very tired."

Popular in Rome and Philadelphia for his informality and good humor, Foley joked that he was not faking his illness just to return home, but acknowledged it was always his wish to come back to Philadelphia.

He returned Feb. 12 and took up residence at St. Joseph's Villa, the retirement home for archdiocesan priests in Darby, where he was born.

Foley remains a member of the College of Cardinals for life and will be eligible to elect a new pope until he turns 80 on Nov. 11, 2015.

He said he had submitted his retirement request to the Vatican secretary of state about two weeks ago and met with Benedict on Feb. 10 to say goodbye. After kneeling for a papal blessing, he said, he had such difficulty rising that the pontiff, 84 and diminutive, had to help him to his feet.

Lately, Foley said, "I was finding it difficult to stand for Mass" and to execute his many duties as grand master of the Equestrian Order, which cares for Catholic sites in the Holy Land.

His travel plans for this year had included fund-raising trips to Poland, Finland, and Houston, but they looked to be too much, he said. Since Christmas he had been able to work only two days a week, he said, adding that his poor health made it unlikely he could say Mass or conduct confirmations around the archdiocese.

Before his appointment to the Equestrian Order, Foley had served 23 years as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. The council seeks to use modern media to communicate the church's message of salvation and its social teachings.

He appeared often on English-speaking television news programs, and for 25 years hosted and narrated NBC-TV's national broadcast of the papal Christmas Mass.

At the time of his departure from the council, he was the longest-serving head of a dicastery, or major bureau, at the Vatican.

He said Friday that both his Vatican assignments had been very satisfying.

"As I said to the pope - how's that for name-dropping? - I very much appreciated his appointing me" to the Equestrian Order because "it was like a retreat at the end of my life as a bishop." His duties often took him to Jerusalem, where he met with people eager to help the order preserve the shrines associated with Jesus' life.

Before leaving Philadelphia for Rome in 1984, he had been editor since 1970 of the archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Standard & Times.

At the urging of Cardinal John Krol, who as Philadelphia's archbishop had ordained Foley a priest in 1962, he earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

It was Krol who in 1984 recommended Foley to Pope John Paul II as Pontifical Council president.

Not sure how long the assignment might last, Foley on Friday recalled that he approached the cardinal before departing Philadelphia 37 years ago. "I said, 'I hope I can retire to Villa St. Joseph someday.' "

"Yes, you can," Krol replied. "But don't expect me to be there to greet you."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or

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