Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Our Cardinal John": Letter from Foleydelphia

The celebrant might've been wearing Gaudete Sunday's rose vestments, and the vacant creche might've been filled with gifts for needy families instead of the traditional figures of Bethlehem's stable, but the crowd of over 1,200 that crammed into every last inch of John Cardinal Foley's home church earlier today made it seem as if "Christmas ha[d] come early to Sacred Heart."

Returning to the parish most affiliated with his hometown ministry, the fifth local Mass of Thanksgiving in as many days to mark Foley's recent elevation to the College of Cardinals provided a rousing coda to a week that's seen emotionally-charged standing-room crowds at every stop to celebrate the beloved Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the fourth native Philadelphian ever raised to the papal "senate."

Located in the blue-collar suburb of Manoa, Sacred Heart was Fr Foley's first assignment after his 1962 ordination. While his fulltime service at the place he's called "heaven without the inconvenience of dying" only lasted a year, he served another 17 years there on weekend duty until his 1984 transfer to Rome as archbishop-president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. During his first stint at the parish, his mother moved into its boundaries and never left; Regina Foley was buried from Manoa in 1997.

As the edges of the congregation strained for a good view from the narthex or standing three or four deep, whether at the back of the 900-seat church or along every inch of the walls (not to mention the folks kept behind stained-glass screens because no other space was available, unable to see -- or barely hear -- a thing), the testimony of those years literally overflowed the place.

From near and far, a squadron of Foley's altar boys returned, many with kids and grandkids in tow. Many others came out of tribute to deceased parents and grandparents; the parishioners who've remained reminisced as if time never passed, and though the familiar figure caught up with everyone in the parish hall clad in a scarlet choir cassock, a new pectoral cross inset with a small sapphire (the stone traditionally reserved for cardinals) around his neck, the ushers -- the old guys who, in this town, see everything and live forever -- stood around musing over how "he hasn't changed a bit."

And at first glance, practically every name, every face, every family was remembered.

Nestled as it is between the tightly-packed duplexes of the oldest suburbs, parking proved difficult around the church, and pandemonium reigned in the hall as Foley was escorted to a seat to catch up with the people. Since no place was designated for the 800 or so well-wishers to queue up, the crowd closed into an enormous semicircle around the cardinal, with some semblance of order coming only after several minutes. And when the local fire department dropped Santa Claus off to greet the day's main attraction, not even St Nick could upstage the clean-shaven figure in red.

The feeding-frenzy was intensified by Foley's ever-honest noting near the end of the the Noon Mass that he had to leave by 3pm to catch his return flight to Rome.

"I don't mean to be rude," he said in apology. "I just don't want to get fired."

In the end, however, everyone got through. But while the ability to jump the receiving lines at the Consistory Night "courtesy visits" in the Apostolic Palace was limited to cardinals and curial bishops, here the privilege was reserved for the parish regulars with walkers -- and, of course, the nuns.

In a sentimental homily, Foley recalled his first Sacred Heart days, when 2,000 people would converge for Daily Mass during Lent. So huge were those crowds, he said, that the distribution of Communion had to begin as the Mass did, with the celebrant joining in at the usual Communion Rite.

"The liturgists might not have liked that," he remarked, but it's what had to be done.

Later, he remembered making his first call to the rectory, where the longtime housekeeper "so memorably" welcomed him by asking, "So, Hon, d'ya like to eat?"

A few months later, after his mother noted that he'd gained 20 pounds, Foley told her he'd attempt an intense round of prayer and fasting.

"Forget the prayers," Regina Foley shot back.

When the pastor, Fr Hank McKee, took the music stand near the Mass' end, the day's first utterance of the words "Cardinal Foley" sparked a minute-long round of applause -- one of at least a dozen ovations during the liturgy, which saw the Eucharistic Prayer mention "your servant Pope Benedict, our Bishop Justin, and our Cardinal John."

It was McKee's line that "Christmas has come early to Sacred Heart," to which he added, "You're all invited back next Sunday."

Beginning his own remarks a moment later, the cardinal looked at the pastor and said, "You know, I wouldn't mind coming back every Sunday."

The folks knew that already, but they went wild again regardless.

* * *
Three nights earlier, Foley could say but one thing as he looked out at the packed cathedral where he was ordained a priest and bishop:

"It's good to be home."

His voice seemed to catch a bit at that, and with good reason: it was a moment 24 years in the making.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul was packed beyond its capacity of 1,200 on Thursday as four other cardinals, 20 bishops, and over 400 priests, deacons and seminarians attended the week's main event. Keeping with the norms for Advent, the celebration was more liturgically subdued than it could've been. Even so, multiple sustained ovations washed over the new cardinal during the 95-minute liturgy, which began a quarter-hour late given the processional crush of clerics.

Emeritus Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Theodore McCarrick of Washington and William Keeler of Baltimore led the list of concelebrants, which also included native sons Bishops Joe Pepe of Las Vegas and Michael Burbidge of Raleigh alongside the hometown auxiliaries and a sprinkling of others. Vested in choir dress, Cardinal Justin Rigali presided from his cathedra, and in a tribute to Manoa, Sacred Heart's Deacon John Suplee served at Foley's side.

In his homily, after paying his own effusive tribute to Foley and the love he's kept for his hometown, Rigali noted that, given every cardinal's charge to "conduct [him]self with fortitude even to the shedding of blood," the night's confluence with the feast of the martyr St Lucy -- "one of the church's great witnesses" -- was appropriate.

But even for all the privileges of the red hat, Rigali cited its greatest one from a statement made by John Paul II in an interview that Foley had set up.

In the mid-1980s, the cardinal said, a journalist asked the late pontiff what the greatest part of being Pope was. John Paul replied that it "was the same privilege shared by every Catholic priest": to say the Mass.

Through his years of traveling the world in the service of communication in the church, Rigali said that Foley "came to know many, and many came to know [him]." More important, though, was that through Foley "they came to know Christ."

In his post-Communion remarks, the new cardinal made his customary relays from the folksy to the emotional and back. "It's a sign that one's up in years," he mused, "when your students have started becoming bishops"; five high-hatted Foley alums were in attendance.

Foley thanked each of his "brother cardinals" in attendance at length, noting that he first got to know Rigali during the Second Vatican Council, when the native Angeleno was working for the gathering's central body and the Philly priest was covering it.

"We first met in 1963," he joked, "when Cardinal Rigali was four."

At that, even the Pharaoh -- who spent the night in a notably lighthearted mood -- had a laugh.

Of Washington's McCarrick, who he's known for close to four decades, Foley offered that "he's the only one in the American hierarchy who calls me what my mother did -- Jack."

Turning to one of his traditional puns, he added, "So if you hear him say 'Hi, Jack,' he's not trying to hold me up."

His greatest appreciation, of course, was reserved for "one cardinal who is not here": his mentor, the late John Cardinal Krol, from whom he veered seamlessly to his life's other heroic figure: his late mother.

Regina Foley wasn't happy that Krol recommended her only child to John Paul II for the Vatican post, he said, "and she never really forgave either of them for it."

Recalling her encounters with the late pontiff, Foley recalled that Wojtyla once greeted his mother by saying "I remember you" -- a statement she registered as "Why are you bothering me again?"

Already peeved at John Paul for having moved her son to Rome -- and thus unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt -- she later said that "Being Pope can really go to some people's heads!"

Following Mass, Foley remained in the cathedral narthex for over an hour to greet well-wishers as guests piled over to a nearby hotel for an invitation-only reception. When he finally arrived in the lobby at 20 'til 9, the Polish-American String Band struck up "Golden Slipper" -- the Mummer anthem -- to which he replied by raising his fists in a strut that, while not full-on, would've been enough to make Tom Wassel proud.

Round after round of "Domine, Salvum Fac" awaited him upstairs, yet a few empty seats could be spotted around the ballroom.

At least one of those was due to a friend who, en route to the festivities, was stranded midway in a snowstorm. But on the night when the pieces of his life came together, even the open seats were appropriate.

In a church that transcends time, space, even this life, they were a reminder the many who had longed to see it all come to pass, but were absent not by weather or a scheduling conflict, but God's call home to himself.

The spirit among the (physically) living might've been exuberant, yet the presence of those looking on from beyond could be sensed just as powerfully.

It was a gift to be there, to soak it up and experience it at long last with our own eyes, but it still weighed heavy that we weren't just there for ourselves.

* * *

Thursday's full-dress Mass might've been the climactic event of the weeklong Foleymania/Foleypalooza run, but the others were no less impressive.

On Monday, the cardinal offered his first hometown liturgy at his alma mater, St Charles Seminary, Overbrook, where he taught philosophy before being sent to Rome and has since kept his hometown flat since leaving for Rome.

Wednesday saw Foley's return to his other alma mater, St Joseph's "Prep," the Jesuit high school which spurred his brief foray in the Society as a novice. The school has long been a cradle of bishops, with six living high-hat alums and now, in a first, a Prep-bred prince of the church.

After a morning liturgy in its grand Gesu church attended by current students alongside the surviving members of his class of 1953, Foley fielded questions from the school's seniors in an hour-long sit-down, during which he held their attention by talking of "God's little whisper" which, during his Prep days, first prompted him to consider the priesthood.

Yesterday saw the cardinal's return to his boyhood parish, Holy Spirit in Sharon Hill, just across the city line. A late January event will be held at the seminary for the local Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre.

Since the world began emerging from the woodwork to swarm him in the months since the Holy Sepulchre appointment and the red hat, Foley's repeatedly said that it's pained him to not have as much time for every last person as he'd like. As he put it, "I hope too many people don't get angry at me."

If anything, though, the overwhelming majority were just thrilled to see him, even if from afar.

As the the sign of peace approached during the Thursday Mass, a middle-aged woman quietly slipped into the back of the cathedral, baseball cap pulled low over her head, escorting an older man with a shuffled step.

Simply happy to have made it through the door, she looked at the first person she saw and, without any prompting, confided that she hadn't seen Foley in 25 years. Hearing his voice from the altar, she looked as if she were about to burst into moved tears.

Suffice it to say, at one point or another during the evening, not a few did.

* * *

On a final note, tomorrow marks six months exactly since "God's little whisper" -- in the form of a call from Rome -- allowed these pages to leak the first word that B16 was set to name Foley to the Holy Sepulchre post, the long-elusive red hat finally visible in the distance.

Clearly, it's always a point of pride to pull the scoop... but, personally, none has ever been sweeter, and none will ever be. Not because it heralded a global media frenzy months in advance (again), nor because it might've burnished whatever credibility this outlet has (again), but simply because it was "the" news that, more than anything else, meant so very much to the folks to whom, in the first instance, I owe the foundation of my faith, my work, and my life.

Over these sixteen years -- a wild ride that, of course, began with a consistory -- I've seen three new cardinals come home and almost every other major celebration this town has hosted. (As some know well, given the local penchant for parties, that's no small number....)

We all knew this one would be big... but never, ever, anything like this.

In the months of run-up to the consistory, the occasional e.mail would come in saying "You've got to lay off the Foley stuff." But for each of those, a score or more would arrive, each telling a story, remembering a fleeting encounter, kind gesture or memorable joke, each of which stayed with the recipient, often across decades. And each writer, however far from this town or how brief their Foley experience, could not have been more genuinely overjoyed at what was in store. (Personal favorite: one longtime viewer of the Christmas Eve Mass wrote from the Midwest to say that, though he's never met its longtime commentator, the annual role has made Foley "like family" to him.)

Of all possible times and circumstances, it was the design of Providence that what'll be remembered as the biggest, most joyous event of Catholic Philadelphia's bicentennial year was the one that, literally, came down from above to crash the meticulously-planned roster of events.

While the confluence is rich in itself, its purest message lies on a deeper level.

It's been almost 24 years since John Foley walked the ground as a priest here. His e.mail and a few favorite webpages get printed out for him, God only knows what he'd do with a Blackberry, and for all his many journeys made and jobs taken on through the years, the one thing he's never had is a flock to canonically call his own.

But none of that matters where it counts. The puns, the quips, the candor and kindnesses, the loyalty and love that've won him the kind of press money can't buy and brought so many out of the woodwork through the week all speak to something bigger than himself, a distinction more priceless and eminent than even the red hat itself.

A theologian once wrote that,
"The priest must be a believer, one who converses with God. If this is not the case, then all of his activities are futile. The most lofty and important thing a priest can do for people is first of all being what he is: a believer. Through faith he lets God, the other, come into the world. And if the other is not at work, our work will never be enough. When people sense that one is there who believes, who loves with God and from God, hope becomes a reality for them as well. Through the faith of the priest, doors open up all around for the people: it is really possible to believe, even today. All human believing is a believing-with, and for this reason the one who believes before us is so important."
As Pope, said theologian provided the catalyst for these celebrations, this moment of hope, the most genuine mass expression of faith and love we've seen in this town in quite some time.

Its substance and emotion, however, is the fruit of 46 years and more of invitation, of that "believing-with" -- the little things with great love that, one by one, have changed lives and given life to the thousands and more for whom this has been a moment to say, simply, "thank you."

And what a "thank you" it's been.

As Foley emerged from the cathedral sacristy on Thursday night, for only the third time in the last twenty years the choir pulled out the old warhorse forever linked with Krol's triumphal entrances: "Ecce sacerdos magnus, qui in diebus suis placuit Deo..." -- "Behold the great priest, who in his days pleased God..."

A couple e.mailers watching the videostream chuckled, while on-site the evocation of the demigod got the troops weepy. But stepping gingerly through the narthex toward the main aisle, neck slightly bent, the look on his son and student's face said everything without a word.

Honest and human as always, it was a palpable mix of humbled, grateful, wide-eyed, heartfelt, radiant, and overwhelmed...

...and every bit as priceless as it was well-earned.

PHOTO: David DeBalko/
St Joseph's Preparatory School