By Sarah McCarthy
WASHINGTON – On the weekend that would have marked journalist James Foley’s 41st birthday Oct. 18, his life was instead celebrated in prayer services and memorials across the country.
Foley, a 1996 graduate of Marquette University in Milwaukee, was vocal about his faith and the strength he drew from his alma mater. In April 2011, as Foley was covering the raging civil war in Libya, militants loyal to Moammar Gadhafi captured him and two other journalists. They spent 44 days detained alongside other political prisoners. During this time, Foley was given the opportunity to call his mother. The conversation between mother and son, and Foley’s evident faith, were made public in an article Foley wrote for the fall 2011 edition of Marquette Magazine that was titled “Phone Call Home.”
“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us,” he said. “It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”
Beginning Oct. 16, people at more than 20 universities across the country bore witness to that same sense of faith as they came together in remembrance of Foley, who was killed in Syria Aug.19. The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, or AJCU, invited its member institutions to recognize Foley’s contributions toward justice and freedom of the press and commemorate others killed in war by offering a Mass or interfaith prayer service in their honor. Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount and Marquette were just several of the universities that celebrated Foley’s legacy and his devotion to God.
In a press release about the initiative, the AJCU said Foley was “one of our own,” and the organization’s president, Jesuit Father Michael J. Sheeran, called him “an American hero.”
“We are proud to lead this initiative that unites our Jesuit colleges and universities in solidarity, and honors the memory of a Jesuit alumnus who was a true man for others,” he said.
At an Oct. 19 Mass celebrated at his hometown parish, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester, N.H., Father Marc Montminy, a close family friend, said that “Jimmy played a pivotal role in the lives of so many” during his life. The priest said he always was sustained “by a deep faith” and his goodness called him to do for others and report the truth of their lives “so the entire world would know what was happening.”
In “Phone Call Home,” Foley related his experience as a captive and the numbness he felt after seeing one of his colleagues get killed. One of the more poignant effects of the piece is the realization, on the part of both Foley and the reader, that it was the enduring power of prayer that sustained Foley through his imprisonment.
“I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed,” Foley said. “It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Mary’s off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.”
Foley also referenced a speech given by one of his friends at a Marquette vigil that was held for him before he was liberated in May 2011. (He returned home to New Hampshire but seven months later returned to Syria). He noted it was “just a glimpse of the efforts and prayers people were pouring forth.” He also expressed how praying with his colleague and fellow captive bolstered his faith under duress.
“It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone,” he said.
It is fitting, then, that to remember Foley’s humble service in Christ, hundreds of people gathered together to continue that conversation, manifesting the indelible power of prayer in times of peril, loss, and celebration.