VATICAN CITY — I first met Cardinal John Foley on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base in March 1984. Of course, he wasn’t a cardinal then. He was editor of The Catholic Standard and Times, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and he had just returned from serving on a U.S. government-sponsored mission to monitor elections in El Salvador. I was in Washington for a few weeks, and he was my assignment that day.
Msgr. Foley said the elections had been essentially fair and that the people showed a real enthusiasm for the electoral process. He backed that up with comments from some of the 100 or so voters he had spoken with at polling places. He said El Salvador needed more U.S. aid, but when I asked about President Reagan’s request for additional military aid, his answer surprised me: he said he would “hate to say yes” to such a request.
“As a priest, I’m not enthusiastic about recommending more arms,” Msgr. Foley said. “I felt great empathy with Archbishop Rivera Damas when he said, `All the arms come from outside the country, but all the victims come from inside the country.’”
Msgr. Foley impressed me that day as someone who gave real answers. He measured his words carefully, but didn’t hide behind them.
A few weeks later, we met up in Rome. I was a correspondent for CNS and now-Archbishop Foley had just been named president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Our paths would cross many times over the next 27 years, often at press conferences but more often at lunches at Taverna Giulia, one of his favorite restaurants in Rome.
Cardinal Foley took journalism seriously. He was an attentive and daily reader of Catholic News Service, and if he thought we wrote something good, he’d phone and tell us so. Occasionally, he’d weigh in with a criticism, which we took all the more seriously because of his absolute sense of fairness.
As a Roman Curia official, Cardinal Foley made an unusually good impression with the local Vaticanisti. He was a breath of fresh air at Vatican press conferences — straightforward, concise and witty. Many times I heard Italian reporters describe him with the single word simpatico, “friendly.”
And in fact, inside or outside the Vatican, he was someone who made friends quickly, because he was genuinely interested in people. He was a man of deep and cheerful faith, and I always considered him one of the Vatican’s most effective evangelizers.