Too little has changed


James Foley, R.I.P.

James Foley, R.I.P.

Earlier today, as I celebrated Mass on the Feast of the Beheading of St John The Baptist, I could not help but draw comparison between the far distant barbarity of that senseless act and the recent, equal in barbarity and senselessness, murder of James Foley.  James, an American journalist, was brutally murdered in an act of cruelty – made even more cruel, if possible, by the fact it was recorded and broadcast on YouTube.  Though the video was removed I feel certain enough saw it to be moved to horror and revulsion.  At least John’s martyrdom took place in the caged privacy of a prison cell. Afterwards John’s disciples came and took his body away for burial.  No such dignity or closure, it seems, for James’ family.  His Funeral took place without body or burial.  May he rest in the peace some so misguidedly denied him.

I read a piece about James the other night. (It is re-printed below)  He had been captured before a number of years ago and recalled trying to pass the time in the uncertainty of his surrounds. He had the companionship of another journalist, also held in captivity, and he recalled the two of them trying to cope.  He said he remembered his mother and grandmother and decided to do what they would do – namely pray the Rosary.  HE talked of counting the Hail Marys on his fingers – a hundred at a time, day and night.  He found strength in this, peace in the inner world of prayer that the external world of day to day life was tragically lacking.

He spoke of being able to speak to his mother sometime later, when his captors allowed him a call and asking if she had been aware of his prayers.  She said she and countless others were praying too and he said he could feel that.  He named some of those who were praying for him and wanted his mother to let them know he knew this was their response.  He said he felt connected with them all.  He spoke of the love he had for his parents, family and friends and of the gratitude he had for his school that had taught him how to pray.  What amazing witness.

I hope his prayers were equally comforting to him on his last day.  Forced to read a prepared statement that seemed very much at odds with his own views and tradition, you’d hope that his inner voice spoke of a different truth and that he felt close to those who loved him most.

John the Baptist’s death was the result of spitefulness and hate.  A King who controlled a vast kingdom could not see fit to override a request made by a girl who had so graced the dance floor a few minutes earlier.  Her request was not her own either – her mother sowed the poison and she felt duty bound to see the request through to its bloody end.  The King – the one in control of a nation, seemed so powerless and weak.  Afraid to lose status in the eyes of his guests, he passed the order for the killing to be done.  So little seems to have changed.

It seems certain that John the Baptist and James Foley had more in common than the barbarity of their murders.  They had an awareness of and faith in Jesus.  In the womb of his mother, we are told, the Baptist rejoiced when Jesus was carried into his presence by Mary – his mother’s cousin.   They grew up in the shadow of a shared past, spoke about one another and met by the banks of the Jordan River.  They knew each other, even when not physically present.  The Baptist was no stranger to Jesus and vice-versa.

Surely the same is true of James Foley.

Phone call home A letter from James Foley, Arts ’96, to Marquette.

Marquette University has always been a friend to me. The kind who challenges you to do more and be better and ultimately shapes who you become.

With Marquette, I went on some volunteer trips to South Dakota and Mississippi and learned I was a sheltered kid and the world had real problems. I came to know young people who wanted to give their hearts for others. Later I volunteered in a Milwaukee junior high school up the street from the university and was inspired to become an inner-city teacher. But Marquette was perhaps never a bigger friend to me than when I was imprisoned as a journalist.

Myself and two colleagues had been captured and were being held in a military detention center in Tripoli. Each day brought increasing worry that our moms would begin to panic. My colleague, Clare, was supposed to call her mom on her birthday, which was the day after we were captured. I had still not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened. But I kept telling Clare my mom had a strong faith.

I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her.

I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.

Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.

Later we were taken to another prison where the regime kept hundreds of political prisoners. I was quickly welcomed by the other prisoners and treated well.

One night, 18 days into our captivity, some guards brought me out of the cell. In the hall I saw Manu, another colleague, for the first time in a week. We were haggard but overjoyed to see each other. Upstairs in the warden’s office, a distinguished man in a suit stood and said, “We felt you might want to call your families.”

I said a final prayer and dialed the number. My mom answered the phone. “Mom, Mom, it’s me, Jim.”

“Jimmy, where are you?”

“I’m still in Libya, Mom. I’m sorry about this. So sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, Jim,” she pleaded. “Oh, Daddy just left. Oh … He so wants to talk to you. How are you, Jim?” I told her I was being fed, that I was getting the best bed and being treated like a guest.

“Are they making you say these things, Jim?”

“No, the Libyans are beautiful people,” I told her. “I’ve been praying for you to know that I’m OK,” I said. “Haven’t you felt my prayers?”

“Oh, Jimmy, so many people are praying for you. All your friends, Donnie, Michael Joyce, Dan Hanrahan, Suree, Tom Durkin, Sarah Fang have been calling. Your brother Michael loves you so much.” She started to cry. “The Turkish embassy is trying to see you and also Human Rights Watch. Did you see them?” I said I hadn’t.

“They’re having a prayer vigil for you at Marquette. Don’t you feel our prayers?” she asked.

“I do, Mom, I feel them,” and I thought about this for a second. Maybe it was others’ prayers strengthening me, keeping me afloat.

The official made a motion. I started to say goodbye. Mom started to cry. “Mom, I’m strong. I’m OK. I should be home by Katie’s graduation,” which was a month away.

“We love you, Jim!” she said. Then I hung up.

I replayed that call hundreds of times in my head — my mother’s voice, the names of my friends, her knowledge of our situation, her absolute belief in the power of prayer. She told me my friends had gathered to do anything they could to help. I knew I wasn’t alone.

My last night in Tripoli, I had my first Internet connection in 44 days and was able to listen to a speech Tom Durkin gave for me at the Marquette vigil. To a church full of friends, alums, priests, students and faculty, I watched the best speech a brother could give for another. It felt like a best man speech and a eulogy in one. It showed tremendous heart and was just a glimpse of the efforts and prayers people were pouring forth. 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. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.

In recent days James’ family released the text of another letter they received.  He had dictated it to another reporter and asked him to commit it to memory and rewrite if for his family.  The text is below.

Dear Family and Friends,

I remember going to the Mall with Dad, a very long bike ride with Mom. I remember so many great family times that take me away from this prison. Dreams of family and friends take me away and happiness fills my heart.

I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.

Eighteen of us have been held together in one cell, which has helped me. We have had each other to have endless long conversations about movies, trivia, sports. We have played games made up of scraps found in our cell… we have found ways to play checkers, Chess, and Risk… and have had tournaments of competition, spending some days preparing strategies for the next day’s game or lecture. The games and teaching each other have helped the time pass. They have been a huge help. We repeat stories and laugh to break the tension.

I have had weak and strong days. We are so grateful when anyone is freed; but of course, yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength. We are being fed better now and daily. We have tea, occasional coffee. I have regained most of my weight lost last year.

I think a lot about my brothers and sister. I remember playing Werewolf in the dark with Michael and so many other adventures. I think of chasing Mattie and T around the kitchen counter. It makes me happy to think of them. If there is any money left in my bank account, I want it to go to Michael and Matthew. I am so proud of you, Michael and thankful to you for happy childhood memories and to you and Kristie for happy adult ones.

And big John, how I enjoyed visiting you and Cress in Germany. Thank you for welcoming me. I think a lot about RoRo and try to imagine what Jack is like. I hope he has RoRo’s personality!

And Mark… so proud of you too Bro. I think of you on the West coast and hope you are doing some snowboarding and camping, I especially remember us going to the Comedy Club in Boston together and our big hug after. The special moments keep me hopeful.

Katie, so very proud of you. You are the strongest and best of us all!! I think of you working so hard, helping people as a nurse. I am so glad we texted just before I was captured. I pray I can come to your wedding…. now I am sounding like Grammy!!

Grammy, please take your medicine, take walks and keep dancing. I plan to take you out to Margarita’s when I get home. Stay strong because I am going to need your help to reclaim my life.


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