Father Theodore Foley (1913-1974)
by Victor Hoagland, C.P.
over Troubled Waters
From May 7 to 13, 2006, members of the North American Passionist Province of St. Paul of the Cross and affiliate members met in a provincial chapter to elect leaders and plan for the future. Among its resolutions the chapter endorsed a proposal requesting that Father Theodore Foley, a member of St. Paul of the Cross province and former superior general of the community, be considered as a candidate for canonization. Father Ottaviano D’Egidio, the present superior general of the Passionists in Rome, where the process would have to begin, warmly endorsed the proposal. right: with his parents
Why present Theodore Foley as a candidate for canonization 32 years after his death? One reason is that sometimes only with the passage of time does the greatness of a person and his contribution become apparent. Appreciation for him has steadily grown over time, for he exemplifies the kind of spirituality today’s church and today’s Passionists need to face an uncertain future.
What kind of spirituality does Fr. Theodore exemplify? He was a bridge person in the difficult transitional times that came with the Second Vatican Council who sustained the Passionist Community and many others in the church. Bridges over turbulent rivers or impassible chasms get little attention, but without them no one crosses over. Today, the church realizes more and more its need for the quiet, steady, loyal holiness that Theodore Foley exemplified to make its pilgrim way. Rooted firmly in the past, he reached out to the future with heroic Christian hope.
Born and raised in the Springfield, Massachusetts, of a devout Irish-Catholic family, Daniel Foley was the first child of Michael and Ellen Bible Foley. Three years after he was born, the couple welcomed another child — a daughter, Marie. Likeable and popular, he grew up in the friendly, settled North End neighborhood of Springfield, then a thriving industrial city in America’s northeast. He went to Sacred Heart parochial school there and was nourished by the rich devotional life and ordered piety that emanated from Sacred Heart Church.
Boys’ Retreat, Passionist Monastery, West Springfield, 1926.
Daniel Foley is in the center of the second row (detail at right).
Contacts with Passionist priests who gave a mission at Sacred Heart and weekend retreats at the recently built Passionist Retreat House in West Springfield fostered a desire in young Daniel to serve the church as a priest. He entered the Passionists in 1927 at the age of 14.
The Passionists, then 75 years in America after their foundation from Italy, were growing along with the immigrant nation and between 1900 and 1930 the community became a strong force in the American church. Young recruits, sons of Irish, German, Polish, Slovak and Italian immigrants, came to the community from parishes where Passionist missionaries had preached.
Along with the witness of their preaching, the Passionists were a community known for their saints. Their founder, St. Paul of the Cross, was canonized in 1867. The young Passionist student, St. Gabriel, was canonized in 1920, and Catholics of the youthful nation were strongly attracted to the young saint.
In this same era, in 1921, the American Passionists made a dramatic move beyond their own country by sending missionaries into the troubled mountainous province of Hunan in China. Within a decade, 30 Passionists were relating their adventures to their American countrymen through “The Sign” Magazine, begun in conjunction with the missionary venture to China.
Taking the religious name Theodore at his religious profession on August 15,1933 the young Springfield native found genuine happiness in his years of Passionist formation. He welcomed the regime of prayer, study and simple human activities that came with the disciplined Passionist life-style; it appealed to his natural love of order and balance. He seemed made for such a life.
Certainly, his classmates, teachers and superiors in those days thought he was. A classmate, Fr. Nicholas Gill, recalls that Theodore “instantly stood out as a gracious, cheerful, friendly person willing to help you in any way. His obedience was as perfect as any religious I’ve seen in my years in the order. But he did things in such a quiet way that you could miss it if you didn’t see him day in and day out. We all had the greatest respect and love for him.”
Ordained as a priest in 1940, Fr. Theodore was sent to Catholic University of America by his superiors who recognized his intelligence and his spiritual giftedness. Obtaining a doctorate in theology, Theodore spent eight years as a beloved teacher of Passionist seminarians.
Fr. Flavian Dougherty, later provincial superior of the eastern province of the Passionists, recalled:
“How will any of us who were privileged to be his students forget the picture of that pudgy face before us; the blackboard as backdrop, completely full with the outline of the matter to be treated; his habit a bit chalky from his early morning labors; his ever-present smile; his indefatigable patience with each and every one; his absolute security in that role, so that no over-bright, aggressive student or any under-developed, hopeless case could threaten or disturb him.”
Students of Fr. Theodore saw him as teacher more than a scholar, whose purpose was not to lead them into a dry intellectual world or impress them with his own learning but to bring them to God, the source of truth. right: attending Vatican Council with Bishop Quentin Olwell, C.P.
His was a theology of “genuflecting and adoring,” a theology for deepening faith and strengthening union with God, a contemplative style of theologizing, which was congenial to his own mind and personality. He himself preferred resting and delighting in truth rather than searching and questioning what still was unresolved. His mind, rather than inquiring and far ranging, was simple and intense.
Committed to the solid tradition of St. Thomas and to the Neo- Scholastic theology current in his time, Fr. Theodore was challenged by the theological upheaval that came with Vatican II, when theological positions he firmly held were questioned or reinterpreted. His own personality and theological style led him to approach new ideas slowly.
Universally admired by members of his province, Theodore was a teacher, spiritual director, and then superior of the large Passionist community of St. Paul of the Cross, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In 1958, he was elected General Consultor of the worldwide Passionist community with headquarters in Rome. In 1964, he was elected Superior General of the Passionists, a position he held till his death in 1974.
Welcomed to the Philippines
The last period of his life as leader of his congregation was the most demanding of all for him. For one thing, he had never been outside the northeastern part of the United States, and the Passionists were growing as a worldwide community. Numbering 3,500 members when he arrived in Rome in 1958, the community had spread recently to Japan, New Guinea, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines. A surge of vocations in Communist-dominated Poland brought about a new province there.
During Fr. Theodore’s term as Consultor the congregation spread to New Zealand and South Africa, to Ecuador and El Salvador, Paraguay and South Korea. Later, as Superior General, he would see the Passionists enter Panama and Honduras, Switzerland and Kenya.
The majority of its members were in Europe and America, but the Passionists were now growing rapidly in Asia, Africa and South America. In 1968 the community reached its peak membership of 4,152 religious. Much of Theodore’s time was spent visiting far-away houses and members, presiding at provincial chapters, settling questions and difficulties that arose among the religious, and representing the interests of the congregation in Rome. The task required long hours of travel, correspondence and patient listening, which engaged him for 16 years.
These years would not be ordinary years. He arrived in Rome when the community was dealing with the aftermath of World War II, and guided it through the 1960s and 70s, when the western world experienced turbulence and social unrest. After the relatively complacent 1950s, a decade of youth protests, political confrontations, assassinations, anti-establishment and anti-war demonstrations shook the West. right: a world of surprises!
Violence erupted in the large cities of America and elsewhere. A mood of uncertainty increased in the 1960s; traditional values came into question, and church membership, pollsters reported, was declining rapidly in western society.
For many, the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII, raised the promise of new energy and hope. But as Cardinal Newman observed after studying the early councils of the church, “It is rare for a council not to be followed by great confusion.”
Few expected the Cardinal’s insight to be borne out so dramatically after Vatican II. The Council shifted the church’s approach to authority, prayer, ministry, and the relationship of Christians to the world. As it closed, bishops and religious superiors had the difficult task of implementing its programs in their own dioceses and religious communities.
Much of Fr. Theodore’s work as general superior of the Passionists after 1965 was to implement Vatican II in his worldwide community. Through general and provincial chapters, he led his religious in the delicate and painstaking process of “aggiornamento.” From country to country, he found his own community increasingly divided by the dramatic changes of the 1960s and the challenges of Vatican II.
Like Catholics everywhere, Passionists saw the Council in different ways. Some called for radical restructuring; others looked for a revival of traditional ways. The debates and questioning that marked the sessions of Vatican II took on new intensity as they were continued in local chapters and community meetings of Passionists all over the world. Fr. Theodore was called on constantly by one religious or another, by one province or another, to interpret, legislate, correct, explain, or intervene as superior general. He was pulled from above as well as below as various Roman congregations grappled to settle these same questions and implement Vatican II’s general teachings on religious life in the years immediately following the council.
“These are days when we are asked to do many things all at once by the different Roman congregations and I wish I could project myself into time about ten years, and be able to look back on all these simultaneous projects as a fact accomplished. However, I suppose that this is part of God’s purification in our lives and we have to accept it and do our best for the future of the congregation and the future of the church,” he wrote to Fr. James Patrick White, then provincial of the western province of American Passionists.
For someone of his measured peaceful temperament, who preferred a quiet peaceful pace, who avoided confrontation and questioning, who loved the past and found contentment in the religious life he had led, the changes that followed Vatican II had to be difficult. Yet, “he was convinced that change was necessary,” says Fr. Paul Boyle, later superior general of the Passionists, “and much of his time was spent reassuring those who found change difficult, and in moderating the excesses of people who wanted radical change to take place.”
“Try to stay calm and not be upset by what is going on around the world,” he wrote in a typical letter to a religious disturbed by the times. “It’s a time of great upheaval and discussion and the failure at times to arrive at any concrete solution is very disheartening. However, we have to pass through this.”
He himself suffered from the times. “He suffered very much in the time after the Council, even though he never showed it, because he feared for the unity of the congregation,” writes Padre Pancrazio Scanzano, then provincial of an Italian province. “And when the special general chapter (1970) and the first synod of the congregation (1972) and especially our international congress at Brussels (1973) resulted in the understanding he had suffered for and desired so much, he rejoiced with joyful recognition to our Holy Founder and with esteem for all his brethren.”
The times needed a bridge person, and that was what he was. He was not a visionary clearly envisioning the future and articulating the way to it. His great gift was his steady hope nourished in prayer and faith in God. Like the popes who presided during Vatican II, he chose to remain in the background, but at the same time he was a symbol of unity for his brethren. A bridge person, he had respect for all, and his quiet, sure presence, his nonpartisan, uncontrolling manner helped the Passionists, and through them, the parts of the church they serve, to journey in difficult times.
Fr. Flavian Dougherty, the Passionist Provincial of Theodore’s native province, expressed his spirit well at the time of his death:
“When systems are changing and unprecedented events are taking place, then it is necessary to have a man so strong that he can be a peacemaker, so secure that he can be confronted with the most troublesome events and people and yet be gentle, so trusting that he can be nondirective and still effect change. Above all, so prayerful that he can use the power of God instead of his own.”