For nearly 21 months after James Foley’s capture in Syria in late 2012, his family held out hope for his safe return, keeping faith that they would never see a day like Sunday, with a Mass in his memory.
After all, the courageous photojournalist seemed to have nine lives as he reported from the most dangerous conflict zones around the world, his parents recalled last week. Once before, he had made it home safely: from Libya after being held in captivity there for 44 days.
But Foley's brutal killing by Islamic State militants in a beheading that was released on video last week brought his family, friends and neighbors together here in his hometown for a Roman Catholic Mass of healing, hope and peace.
As the close-knit parish tried to come to terms with what happened, the central theme of Sunday's service was forgiveness — even for Foley’s captors.
Every seat was filled for the Sunday afternoon service at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester. Foley’s parents, Diane and John Foley, sat side by side in one of the first pews. Many parishioners stood, filling the long side aisles to the candlelit altar.
On their way in, mourners passed large black-and-white photographs of the journalist, wearing his ever-present sunglasses and training his camera on war-torn streets of Libya and Syria. Some people clutched cards bearing his image above the Prayer of St. Francis.
In his homily, the bishop of Manchester, the Most Rev. Peter A. Libasci, urged mourners to focus on the verses: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.”
Libasci asked the congregation to remember that Foley lived his life in St. Francis’ example.
Some mourners wept as Libasci emphasized the prayer’s final lines: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Libasci noted that many close to Foley may be doubting their faith at this moment. He urged them to remember Foley’s “gifts to the world” as a journalist and spoke of his death as a sacrifice to that mission.
“In a special way today, we are challenged to be mindful of needs of others,” Libasci said. “We are challenged to be true to our faith, especially when most challenged to doubt. We are challenged to see the world through a different lens. To hear the world’s voice as the voices of individuals, people, children, mothers, fathers. We are challenged to hear the cries that are a world away.”
Foley’s desire to shed light on the suffering of war-torn regions should inspire others to “live bravely, and with passion, the life of a true child of God,” he said.
“Jim went back again [to Syria] so that we might open our eyes,” Libasci said. He prayed for peace for Foley and “this fragile world.”
Offering words of comfort to Foley’s mother and father, Libasci reminded them of the blessings they received at James Foley’s baptism, and how the priest had prayed at that time that they would “see hope of eternal life shine on this child.”
“Rarely do we recall those words, but I bring them to mind for you, as they are more poignant and prophetic,” he said.
Mourners sang “Amazing Grace” and the communion hymn “How Great Thou Art.”
Then Diane and John Foley stood briefly at the front of the church and thanked the members of the congregation for their support and prayers.
“Thank you for loving Jim,” Diane Foley said. Everyone in the audience rose and met them with sustained applause.
At the end of the service, the congregation also prayed for the remaining hostages in the region, including Foley’s fellow captive Steven Sotloff — who was threatened on the video of Foley's slaying — and “those in unjust captivity around the world.” They also prayed for Foley’s “legacy of love” to continue.
Earlier Sunday, the British ambassador to the United States told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that intelligence officials were closing in on the identity of the militant with the British accent who killed Foley. “We’re not in a position to say exactly who this is,” Peter Westmacott said. “I think we are close.”
Foley’s family and friends plan a more formal funeral on his birthday, Oct. 18, in part to give his friends from around the world the opportunity to attend. Foley’s parents spoke at length to reporters during a news conference last week, but declined interviews Sunday. None of his friends or family members gave formal remarks during the traditional Catholic Mass.
Mourners waited in a long line after the service to speak with Diane and John Foley, who greeted them with smiles and hugs.
“They’ve been a profile in courage,” said James Page, a family friend from Deerfield, N.H. “I think his family could probably forgive the killer, which is hard to believe, but I think they’re that sort of people. If it meant forgiveness to bring people together, they would be the first ones to do that.”
Kassandra Belcher of Milton, who cut James Foley’s hair throughout his life, said the service had reflected the spirit of a “very faithful, prayerful, community-oriented” family and helped begin the healing process.
“A lot of us have been reading from the Bible and just trying to get our strength to go on as a community,” Belcher said.
At times, Foley’s father seemed to be the one comforting those who came to greet him. “Jimmy is free now,” John Foley told one couple with a smile. “He’s at peace.”