John Foley dies at 76; cardinal explained Catholic teachings

Cardinal John P. Foley, a priest who rose from working-class roots in Philadelphia to become the Vatican's longtime spokesman on Roman Catholic social teachings, has died. He was 76.

Foley was perhaps best known to American audiences as host for 25 years of NBC's annual broadcast of the pope's Christmas Mass at St. Peter's Basilica. He died Dec. 11 of leukemia at a home for retired priests in Darby, Pa., the town where he was born.

Citing fatigue and declining health, he returned to Philadelphia in February after four years as Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a knighthood based in Rome.

For the previous 23 years, he had served as first president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, with particular responsibility for explaining church teachings to the media.

When he stepped down from the council in 2007, the year he was made cardinal, he was the longest-serving head of any major office in the Vatican.

Papal biographer David Gibson, a former reporter for Vatican Radio, described Foley as "never an insider, never a 'player'" at Vatican politics "because he didn't want to be." Instead, he said, Foley earned a reputation as a "man of such rectitude, who did his job every day."

The council presidency "was never a career," Foley said during a 2007 interview in Rome. "It was always a vocation, responding to what God calls you to do."

The only child of parents who never finished high school, Foley was born Nov. 11, 1935, in Darby and grew up in Sharon Hill, Pa. In 1957, he received a bachelor's degree in history from what is now St. Joseph's University before entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He was ordained in 1962.

While in Rome for advanced studies, he reported on the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council for Philadelphia's archdiocesan newspaper and continued to write for it on his return. Foley became editor of the newspaper in 1968. He later earned a master's degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II made Foley an archbishop and head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Foley's mission was to promote moral values in TV, radio, advertising, and film, and to explain church teachings on a broad array of social issues. He came under intense criticism his first year, however, after he described AIDS as a "natural sanction for certain types of activities."

The pope later issued a statement reassuring homosexuals that the church loves them, and Foley never provoked such controversy again. Later, he would joke that he turned on CNN every morning "so I know what to pray about."

In 2007 Pope Benedict elevated Foley to cardinal and appointed him to head the knights of the Holy Sepulchre. The order, which raises money for Catholic sites in the Holy Land, traces its roots to the Crusades and has been headed by a cardinal since its revival in the 19th century.

Foley has no immediate survivors.

O'Reilly writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer/McClatchy Newspapers.