The year 1939 saw many milestones. Most critics say it was the best year for movies (Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Ginga Din, Stagecoach, for starters). For the Polish people, however, all the attention was on the terrifying sight of Hitler’s tanks and shock troops rolling into their homeland. In Spain, the civil war ended and the rule of Franco began. I could go on.
In Toronto, Canada, on Saturday, June 3, 1939, young Vincent Foy was ordained to the Catholic priesthood, the beginning of a high and lasting adventure: the longest life of priestly service in Canadian history and one of the longest in the world.
From the start, Foy had a passion for helping ordinary Catholics with their family struggles. Although he dearly loved theology, out of obedience Foy took a doctoral course in canon law at Laval University in Quebec City. In 1942, he was appointed vice chancellor of the Archdicoese of Toronto and secretary of the Toronto Archdiocesan Matrimonial Tribunal; by 1957, he was named both presiding judge of the regional and archdiocesan tribunals and a domestic prelate by Ven. Pope Pius XII.
Born in 1915 during the so-called War to End All Wars, Foy has lived a life spanning the reigns of nine popes, with the Second Vatican Council bisecting his nearly eight decades of service to God’s people. At a hale and hearty 100 years old, Msgr. Foy still celebrates daily Mass and keeps up an impressive roster of correspondence and other writing. I have admired Msgr. Foy for many years, having learned a great deal from his courageous defense of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. He has suffered much because of this courage, but his is a witness of firm and persistent gentleness. He’s also got stories galore.
The pro-life lion agreed to a Q&A interview this week:
PC: Monsignor, you have been ordained now seventy-six years. By any measurement, that is astounding. I understand your vocation was tied in some way to a promise to God to spare your mother. Tell us about the seed of your priesthood.
VF: About ninety years ago, I was going to lose my mother to double pneumonia. She was fighting for her life at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital after giving birth to one of my sisters, Doreen. I begged God to spare her life. “If my mother recovers,” I prayed, “I will do my best to become a priest.” My mother recovered, and I remained true to my promise—a promise that I kept a secret for the duration of my mother’s life.
I was an altar boy early on. Fr. Fullerton, our pastor, came to the house and told my mother that he’d like to train me to serve at the altar. My mother used to get me up to serve Mass. I served at the 8 a.m. Mass and went to school without having breakfast, since I went to Holy Communion. The eucharistic fast in those days went from midnight onward and with no water. I didn’t go home for lunch, but sometimes my mother gave me fifteen cents, and I got fish and chips. If I served at the 7 a.m. Mass, I went home for breakfast. When I went to De La Salle Catholic High school, I used to take breakfast and lunch in a bag.
These were some of the seeds to my priesthood.
PC: The year you were ordained, 1939, was a tumultuous one, a year of great crisis. Do you see a pattern of God raising up saints in such times to manifest his care?
VF: Politically, 1939 was a tumultuous year. World War II began the very day I was supposed to leave for Rome to study canon law. I don’t know whether there are any extra saints. God provides all the grace and strength we need for difficult and tumultuous times.
PC: Whom have you met who you consider a saint?
VF: My former confessor and friend, the late Fr. Oliver Moloney. He had a very delicate conscience and gave an excellent example of a holy life. Another holy priest was Fr. Gerald Loftus of St. Catherine’s diocese. I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with him. We had an agreement never to go out without wearing our priestly garb with Roman collar.
PC: So much of your priestly ministry has been devoted to family life and marriage, especially through your leadership in the Archdiocese of Toronto and across Canada. How did your interest in canon law begin?
In the seminary, I was much more interested in studying theology than canon law. My ordination classmate Fr. Darby was interested in studying canon law rather than theology. We were the top students in our ordination class. When I was ordained to the priesthood, I was sent to study post-graduate canon law and Fr. Darby was sent away to study post-graduate theology. I did so in obedience to my bishop; we both simply obeyed. I got a doctorate in canon law. I found it difficult, but graduated summa cum laude and was appointed to the marriage tribunal. I had to apply canon law in the marriage tribunal for twenty-five years. I was made vice chancellor of my archdiocese and then head of the provincial marriage court. I became co-founder of the Canon Law Society of Canada.
PC: A major characteristic of your priesthood has been the defense and explanation of the Church’s teaching against contraception. I first heard about you because you were one of the few Catholics who saw what was terribly wrong with the so-called Winnipeg Statement. Its appeal to an alleged “primacy of conscience” has been the source of much confusion to this day. Even though there are dynamically orthodox bishops today who strongly support the norms of Humanae Vitae, you believe that the Canadian bishops must formally repudiate the document. Why?
VF: The reason is that many Catholic couples still quote the Winnipeg Statement as justification for the use of contraceptives. Currently, more than 80 percent of women of childbearing age are using contraception. There are six times as many abortions through contraceptive use as there are through surgical means. Although, the CCCB’s recent statement “Liberating Potential” is a positive affirmation of Humanae Vitae, Dietrich Von Hildebrand says it is necessary not only to teach the truth but also to correct error. The erroneous Winnipeg Statement has never been specifically repudiated. I believe that the CCCB should officially retract/repeal the Winnipeg Statement, even though it’s been forty-five years.
I am very edified that we have so many current bishops in Canada who had nothing to do with the publishing of the Winnipeg Statement and who preach and fully support Humanae Vitae. A repeal would take the form of a specific acknowledgement of the error of the Winnipeg Statement by the CCCB. Along with the repeal, the doctrine of Humanae Vitae should be preached from every pulpit on frequent occasions. It would greatly help if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would condemn the Winnipeg Statement by name.
Speaking ex-cathedra, a pope cannot make a heretical change of Church doctrine.
PC: For the first thirty years or so of your priesthood, did you ever hear of a Catholic politician saying, “I’m personally opposed, but . . .” when it came to things like abortion, euthanasia, or the redefinition of marriage?
VF: No, I don’t recall that. The first thirty years of my priesthood were from 1939-1969. Pierre Elliot Trudeau did not become Prime Minister of Canada until from 1968-1979, and then from 1980-84. Although he was a baptized Catholic, he enabled the serious evils of abortion, the legalization of the sale of artificial contraception, divorce, and the decriminalization of [homosexual acts]. Politicians have gone downhill since the first thirty years of my priesthood, when there was more of a sense and defense of Judeo–Christian morality. Marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman and cannot be redefined. Members of the same sex cannot be “married” in God’s eyes. If a person or politician is personally opposed to something, then they do not endorse it. If a politician is personally opposed to abortion, euthanasia, etc., then they must not condone it publicly. That would be a schizophrenic approach and is duplicitous. We have a responsibility to inform our consciences properly and then to be faithful in our views and actions.
PC: If my math is right, your life has so far spanned the reign of nine popes (nine!). Did you ever meet any of them? I am particularly interested in your reflections on the papacy of St. John Paul II.
VF: The only pope I met personally was Pope Paul VI before he became pope, when he was an archbishop. He visited Toronto, and Cardinal McGuigan asked me to show him our matrimonial court offices. I have often joked that if I had known he was going to be pope, I would have offered him a cup of coffee. I was in Rome in 1978, the year of the three Popes. I gave Holy Communion at the funeral Mass of Pope Paul VI in August, the first Mass of Pope John Paul I also that month, the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul I in October, and then the first Mass of Pope St. John Paul II in October. I think St. John Paul II made an excellent pope. His writings were orthodox and inspiring. He received a great welcoming when he visited Toronto and the Martyrs’ Shrine. I was present when he spoke to all of the priests in St. Michael’s Cathedral.
PC: Monsignor, you’re also a teacher of magic technique. Magic evokes a sense of childlike wonder, as the patron of magic, St. John Bosco, knew well. How did you get bit by the magic bug?
VF: In 1925, when I was a child, I saw Blackstone the magician at the Pantages Theatre in Toronto. I went to the magic shop in the Toronto Arcade and bought some books. I enjoyed magic as a hobby from then on. I liked trying to figure out how sleight-of-hand tricks were performed. I used to entertain children and others and wrote three books and many articles on magic tricks.
PC: My last question: Is it easy or hard to become a saint?
VF: First of all, there are few canonized saints—that is, those persons the Church declares officially to be a saint. In this day and age, the process of getting someone canonized also takes a great deal of money due to all the investigations and procedures necessary to intensely study the person’s life and possible miracles involved through their intercession. People who die in the state of grace are really saints, since they will eventually make it to heaven. That’s the Church Triumphant. For some, it may appear to have been easy and for others very difficult.
Jesus said: “Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it! Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:13-15).
“Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet [easy] and my burden light” (Matt. 11:29-30).
“Again I say to you: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And when they had heard this, the disciples wondered very much, saying: Who then can be saved? And Jesus beholding, said to them: With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 10:24-26).
PC: I know I speak for many in expressing deep gratitude for your priesthood and your great love for Christ and his Church, Msgr. Foy. Ad multos annos!
VF: Thank you very much Patrick. As you know, I am in my hundred-and-first year of age now. In 2016, I hope to continue to offer daily Mass, celebrate my seventy-seventh ordination anniversary and to continue to write my autobiography with many photos posted on my website: www.msgrfoy.com. If anyone is interested, they are welcome to please enter their e-mail address there to follow the blog and receive notifications with copies of new posts by e-mail. May Almighty God bless you and your work!