By REX W. HUPPKE
CHICAGO - The Rev. Matt Foley has stood by the ornate oak altar of his church and made the sign of the cross over dozens of young soldiers bound for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each time, his blessing has echoed through the Little Village sanctuary and back to a long-ago promise unfulfilled.
In the early 1980s, Foley faced diverging paths: Follow his brother into the Army, or follow his faith into the priesthood. Reluctantly, he felt pulled to the church.
But he told his brother, Mike, that he would join him in the service if war ever came.
The United States invaded Iraq in 1991. Mike commanded a company of Bradley Fighting Vehicles as they stormed across the desert. Matt was two years out of the seminary, sworn to the church, tied to his priestly duties at a North Lawndale parish.
There was no resentment, but in the decade that followed, the Irish Catholic priest could never shake the feeling he had let his brother down.
In 2000, Matt took over St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic Church, becoming a dynamic and beloved figure known across Little Village as ‘‘Padre Mateo.’’
He marched with parishioners, protesting the neighborhood’s lack of parks. He boldly scolded the community for allowing gang violence to claim young lives.
When a man tried to break into the church’s donation box, the priest chased him down, tackled him and held him until police arrived.
But even as the parish flourished, Foley, 45, began to feel tugged toward a change, the same sensation he had when God pulled him into the priesthood. It was something in the worried eyes of the young men and women who sought his blessing before going to war.
‘‘I keep sending these people, and now I feel like it’s my turn to go,’’ said Foley, his head resting against the wall of a dimly lit prayer room a day before he was sworn in to the Army. ‘‘I just feel like it’s my turn to go. You can’t just keep blessing people.’’
On Feb. 27, by the church’s altar, Foley recited an oath to his brother, an Iraq veteran twice over.
‘‘I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’’ said Matt Foley, standing rigid, right hand raised, beside the family of a Little Village soldier serving in Iraq.
It was the culmination of more than a year of prayer and meditation. Foley had searched his soul, thought about the strong parish he had built and the people he would leave behind.
‘‘When you bury people’s children or their relatives, you’re really connected to them on a very high level,’’ he said. ‘‘I feel like I’m not going to be with these people who will forever be mourning their losses.’’
He also had to seek approval from the archdiocese of Chicago - to which he had vowed obedience - at a time when the church faces a shortage of priests.
The Rev. Claudio Diaz Jr., director of Hispanic ministries for the archdiocese, said Cardinal Francis George let Foley go because he recognized the dearth of Catholic priests in Iraq and believed Foley’s calling was sincere.
‘‘That’s part of who we are as priests,’’ Diaz said. ‘‘We remind the people of God to be attentive of God’s will in their lives. Simultaneously, as priests, we have to be attentive to the voice of God in terms of our ministry and service to his people.’’
Foley will leave in June, bound for military chaplain training in South Carolina. He has asked the Army to send him to Iraq as soon as possible, and Army officials say his wish will certainly be granted.
During his swearing-in ceremony, the priest read a fitting Gospel passage: ‘‘When you were young, you walked where you wanted to walk. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will carry you where you do not want to go.’’
Up through college, Foley was a troublemaker, a partyer. As a political science major at Marquette University, he played rugby with fellow student and soon-to-be-famous comedian Chris Farley, known for his life of excess. Farley, who died in 1997, named one of his most revered ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ characters, a bumbling motivational speaker, after Foley.
‘‘I was interested in law and drinking beer,’’ Foley said.
Yet he couldn’t escape a pull he had felt since his high school days in Libertyville, the sense that God was calling him. Maybe it came from memories of his Uncle Jerome, an Army chaplain who served two tours in Vietnam. Foley still recalls 1970s nights spent by the television, watching the end of the network newscast as names of the day’s soldiers killed in action scrolled down the screen, praying his uncle was safe.
By his junior year at Marquette, in 1983, Foley reached his crossroads. His brother, Mike, a senior and already enlisted, was sure Foley would become an Army man.
‘‘My roommate and I both became infantry officers,’’ Mike Foley said. ‘‘And Matt enjoyed being around us all the time. We’d tell him about what we were doing. I think Matt always liked that adventure, that leadership kind of thing.’’
But Matt couldn’t resist the spiritual pressure bearing down on him. He surprised everyone he knew by entering the seminary in Chicago.
‘‘I surrendered,’’ Foley said. ‘‘I let somebody else control me. I let my God guide me.’’
He finished the seminary in 1989 and became an associate pastor at St. Agatha in North Lawndale, a white priest in a nearly all-black community.
In 1994, barely able to speak a word of Spanish, he moved to a parish in Quechultenango, Mexico.
Six years later he returned to Chicago and took control of St. Agnes, a spiritual anchor in a culturally rich neighborhood divided by rival Latino gangs, struggling with issues of poverty and immigration.
Once again, Foley was a stranger relying on divine direction.
‘‘We started to notice a lot of things changing right away,’’ said Dolores Castaneda, a parishioner and activist. ‘‘He fixed the church. He fixed the school. He fought for us to have better places for the children to go. He joined marches, he got angry, he protested.’’
Quickly - more quickly then anyone could expect - he was embraced. They liked him because he admitted his own sins and warned them of theirs. He spoke of how he enjoyed hearing babies cry during Mass because they sounded full of life.
Since he arrived in 2000, Foley has buried nearly 30 members of the feuding Latin Kings and the Two Sixers street gangs. He never tried to hide his frustration.
‘‘He’d tell us that we don’t have compassion, we’re not really focused on God,’’ Castaneda said. ‘‘If you’re focused on God, you’re not killing your brother, you’re not killing your neighbor.’’
But what few knew about Padre Mateo was that his time in Little Village began expiring as soon as he felt comfort setting in. He said it’s the nature of his relationship with God, a connection that, in order to work, must routinely be renewed.
‘‘I’m so restless with my God,’’ Foley said. ‘‘When I get stripped of this place, which has been my life, my home, my family, I’m going to be brought to a place where I’m not going to know anyone. I’ll be a vessel that God’s going to use.’’
And he’ll fulfill a promise unkept. When Foley told his brother, now a reservist based in Georgia, that he was signing up, the response was simple.
‘‘About time,’’ Mike Foley said.
He was joking, but the priest knew it was time to move on. He felt the flutters of fear in his gut, worried he could lose his zeal, as though he still had to run to stay ahead of the college kid who never thought he would be a priest in the first place.
So Foley will stay with his parish until June, serving more than 6,000 people who attend Mass each Sunday and look to him for help.
Then he’ll pack his bags and let himself again be carried somewhere he doesn’t want to go, but needs to be.
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