Fr. Robert J. Fox

Author: John Janaro


The sun glimmers on the horizon, shedding its golden hue across the fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Birds begin to sing, fireflies blink, and the shadows of a small town become long and faded as its skyline melts into silhouette. The shapes of farmhouses and grain bins draw into a cluster around a prominent water tower that announces its identity: Alexandria, South Dakota. Somewhat removed from the water tower another structure rises above the landscape-it is the steeple of St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church.

(Mt. 5:5). The people of this place are straightforward and practical; they bring forth their livelihood each day from what nature-aided by their own good sense-raises out of the ground. They grin and grip your hand with firmness and warmth; and you feel as though they are honestly glad to meet you. Six hundred of these people inhabit Alexandria, just enough to give them their own exit on interstate 90. And on this particular evening one of them is out for a walk; by his stature and the length of his stride he is unmistakably a farmer, but his clothes display that he is a laborer in another harvest. As he strolls along he stops to talk to passers-by, or perhaps to wave to someone across the road. People respond with respect and affection; everyone seems to know him, indeed to know him as a personal friend. Especially the children....

"Hi, Father Fox," the head of a little girl pokes out from around a doorway. She wears a smile as they exchange some small conversation; she is introducing her cousins, two small children that Fr. Fox does not yet know. But he will.

The youth of America are bombarded with things that attempt to make a claim on their hearts. In the midst of this there is one man who uses his every ability to offer them his heart. Fr. Robert J. Fox has a mission to young people, and a message to proclaim: there is another way to live, God's way. In order to say this, however, he must demonstrate that way in his own life. This demonstration has taken many forms, as author and journalist, as television personality, as leader in the World Apostolate of Fatima. In all, however, he is priest, and he touches the lives of his people-particularly young people-by living the life of Jesus, human in its tenderness and intimacy, divine in the fact that it knows no limit.

Fr. Fox has a truly international public that includes Cardinals and members of the Roman Curia. Yet they have not drawn him out of his simplicity of life and its roots in the fields and farms of South Dakota. On the contrary he has drawn them into his simple vision, a vision of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Christ who has known hard work, suffering, and great love.

Such characteristics filled the household of Aloysius and Susie Emma Fox, who ran a farm near Watertown, S.D. They were devout people, for whom the truth that Jesus is the Son of God was as basic as the truth that the ground freezes in winter. They had five healthy sons-a bit boisterous in temperament, but good boys-and two daughters. Then, on Christmas Eve of 1927, Susie Emma brought forth a sixth son. Robert Joseph they named him, and he gave-them yet another hope for an answer to that special request that they often brought before God. The Foxes did not have a great deal of exterior piety; their devotion, rather, was bound up with the practical realities of daily living and solidified by a basic and essential family spirituality. On occasion, however, Aloysius and Susie would ask God for a gift-that at least one of their six sons would become His priest.

Robert was still a baby when his father was called to God. He never knew his father by face, but he knew him by the tone that he had set in the family; an attitude that his mother would carry on, and that would pull the family through the difficult years that lay ahead. The whole family had to pitch in to keep the farm going during those times of the Great Depression, when nature herself seemed to have gone bankrupt and no rain fell from the sky. Somehow there was always food on the table, though not much of it. Clothes came from relatives in Minnesota, and heat came from the kitchen, rising up from a large wood stove. Winters were cold, and every day was long. Robert was already milking cows at the age of six, and as he got older he began to run the farm equipment. The family survived; in fact their poverty did not greatly hinder their happiness, for the home was laden with another kind of wealth.

(Mt. 5:3). Every Sunday the Fox family would make the five mile trip into Watertown for Mass. Fr. O'Meara, the pastor, offered the Eucharist with a faith and sincerity that left a deep impression on Robert. Everyone in the area, it seemed, was Catholic-and many of them were related. Most of Robert's playmates were his first cousins and religion was a regular topic of conversation between families, and a source of unity. Robert had a sense, from a very early age, that a Catholic-wherever he might come from-was someone he could trust; someone who shared his beliefs and values, who had the peace of the same God in his heart. All Catholics are united in some very special way, the boy thought.

Before Robert had his first day of school, his mother took him aside and asked him, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" "Nothing," the little boy answered. "I thought you might like to be another Fr. O'Meara," suggested his mother, recalling her constant prayer for her sons. A sudden vision burst forth in the child's mind: How tremendous it would be to be a priest!

This thought remained with him through the years at Immaculate Conception school. His teachers were Franciscan nuns, and their manner and attitude-as well as what they taught-spoke to him of the power of humility. In fifth grade, one of the nuns taught him that the Mass is the Sacrifice of the Cross. Not understanding the theology, Robert thought that Jesus was suffering pain every time a Mass was said. But he loved Him all the more. Sometimes Robert would roll up a towel and wrap it around his neck like a roman collar in order to see what he would look like as a priest. Then there were pictures of Padre Pio; the boy marveled at the power of Christ's priesthood, marked by the wounds that Padre Pio suffered in union with Jesus. The Eucharist began to be a vivid reality in Robert's experience; he would peek into the church in Watertown and draw near to the real presence of the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament-a Jesus who seemed to be calling, beckoning....

High school, however, soon approached and brought with it the inevitable discovery of girls. Robert found that girls were really quite nice, and he rather enjoyed going to dances. He thought that perhaps he'd like to get married and have a family; he very much wanted a family, and besides-he'd have sons who could be priests, lots of sons. But then there was that special bond that draws all Catholics together-like a family. How he longed to embrace them all in Jesus. Would a family of 6 or 8 children be enough? No, he wanted thousands!

There was a tugging on his heart that would not go away, a fire that was the Holy Spirit reaching within him and casting his longings far beyond the high school, the girls, the dances, everything that fell short of Jesus. (John 23:16). The desire to be a priest, born of his parents' prayers, had taken firm hold in his heart and it would not be uprooted.

(Mt. 26:55). Robert, however, faced another difficulty. It was quite uncommon for South Dakota farmboys to become priests; the pattern of life was fixed, and priests and nuns seemed to drop out of the sky rather than come off the farm. How would he tell his family of this seemingly strange ambition? A sudden fear took hold of him-would they take him seriously? Would they understand what he wanted? and why? Robert needed courage, or perhaps he would never leave the farm.

An accident with a hay rake, which broke his leg and even threatened his life, took him away from his farm duties for several months during his senior year of high school. This gave him time; time for prayer and reflection, time to develop courage. Robert Fox, internationally known leader in the apostolate, a light with the vigor of the earliest disciples-the clarity of St. Philip, the zeal of St. Steven, the dedication of St. Barnabas- began like them as a man afraid; even more so because his fear was of something undefinable; it was the fear of being misunderstood.

But the Spirit of the Lord lifted him up and his heart was filled with fortitude. Robert decided to tell a married sister, and rely on her to tell the rest of the family. The revelation of his desire came as a joy to the whole family, but especially to his mother whose special request, unknown to Robert, was now going to be fulfilled.

St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota was a center of liturgical development during the late 40's. The atmosphere gave the sense of a worldwide Church, and young Robert, who knew mostly plows, potato fields, and the parish church at Watertown, was a bit bewildered at first. The studies were formidable, and at first Robert feared that he would be overwhelmed. He prayed that God and the Blessed Mother might take special charge of his vocation, because he felt so powerless to do it alone.

(Mt. 14:27). From that point on his grades improved, and he began to understand the depth of the Mystery that had called out to him from the tabernacle years ago. Among the most beautiful of doctrines that he explored was that of the Mystical Body of Christ-the Church as the extension of the Incarnation. Here was the source of that powerful union that he had always sensed among Catholics-their union as members of Christ Jesus; (Eph. 4:34).

After two years at St. John's, Robert advanced to St. Paul's Seminary to conclude his studies. Here he lived an intense and structured prayer life, the form of which he has maintained to this day. At the seminary he learned to approach his priestly duties prayerfully, and how to reflect in those duties the Priesthood of Christ. Also, he was moved with the desire to preach the Word of God. During those days the seminarians would gather around a television set-a new piece of technology in 1953-and watch as Fulton Sheen grabbed hold of a fresh medium and claimed it for Christ. Robert was seized by the zeal that seemed to leap out of the television screen when Bishop Sheen spoke. "I thirst; I thirst for souls!" said the bishop. Robert felt this thirst, and longed to quench it by proclaiming the Gospel.

Finally ordination came on April 24,1955. Robert felt as though the very statues in the Cathedral would come alive and cry out, "this man is unworthy!" His unworthiness, however, gave him a greater sense of the power of a God who (Heb. 7:24). After the ordination, the priests' families approached the altar rail for a personal blessing. Susie Emma Fox shed a tear as she approached her son; a tear in memory of her husband's prayer-and hers-now answered to the Glory of God.

For young Fr. Fox, the priesthood meant the culmination of his devotion to the Mystical Body of Christ. He was filled with awe and wonder at each Mass he said; the richness of the presence of Christ and the intimacy of the union of the Mystical Body that was expressed in the liturgy increased his desire to "live the Mass" entirely in his priestly life-to be a victim, always pouring himself out in service to the members of Christ. Very early on, the basic approaches of Fr. Fox's pastoral life were established. This life centered on preaching, which produces the faith that makes incorporation into Christ possible and more vital. As a priest, Fr. Fox soon saw that all of his actions-indeed everything about himself-had a teaching significance. Mindful of this, he never failed to appear in clerical dress, because his mere identity spoke to people: "this man represents Jesus Christ."

From the beginning, Fr. Fox saw his preaching duties as particularly addressed to children. As an assistant in several rural parishes in South Dakota, he taught catechism right through the high school level. Here he saw the strength and significance of the basics of the faith, and how important they were to catechetical instruction. The rural people-modest, reserved, possessed of a natural humility-opened like blossoms when the young priest spoke of faith and devotion, and within these parishes he was already finding the "family" he had always desired.

Moreover it was his dedication to preaching that brought about the quite accidental series of events that launched Fr. Fox into his writing apostolate. During the early 1960's, after Fr. Fox had become pastor in Bristol, S.D., the sent a letter to parish priests all across the country asking them not to neglect the preaching of sermons during the summer. Fr. Fox wrote a letter to the editor of the in which he supported the view and expounded at some length his -own defense of the importance of preaching the Word of God at Mass. This was something central to his ministry, so the ideas flowed quite easily onto paper, and Fr. Fox sent the letter off without any difficulty. He was astonished when he received a reply praising his ideas, and suggesting that he write an article for a magazine for clergy.

Fr. Fox didn't see himself as a writer, especially one who could be published in a national magazine. He was, after all, a pastor from the farmland of South Dakota- journalism was the furthest thing from his mind, and he didn't think that others would have too much interest in what he had to say. Therefore the idea of writing for was quickly forgotten.

Several months later, Fr. Fox was leafing through the latest issue of The Priest, and he came across an article written anonymously; this was not uncommon in the magazine which listed such articles under the pseudonym of "Sacerdos." This particular article was about sermons. As Fr. Fox read, he was struck by the fact that "Sacerdos" thought very much like himself about the need for consistent and fruitful preaching. He read on enthusiastically. Suddenly his mouth dropped open. "This is me," he gasped, recognizing the words and structure to be the very same as the letter he had written to the The editor, perhaps suspecting Fr. Fox's own reluctance, had submitted the letter as an anonymous article to

Fr. Fox was greatly encouraged by this unintentional success. Perhaps there was a way for him to serve God in the printed medium; at least he saw that it was possible for his writing to be published. So he began writing articles, and soon he found that his work was in great demand. Articles began to appear frequently in and the where Fr. Fox eventually secured a weekly column.

Fr. Fox viewed writing as a "prolongation and extension" of his preaching task, directed to those whom he could not reach personally. Meanwhile his primary focus continued to be personal contact in parish life. While he was busy attending to the needs of his parish community in Bristol, his bishop was participating in the sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Shortly after the promulgation of the Decree on Ecumenism, Fr. Fox- with the authorization of his bishop-conducted an ecumenical Advent prayer service along with three Protestant denominations. The service was attended by over six hundred people, and Bristol gained national attention with some observers calling the young and enthusiastic pastor a "new breed" priest.

Fr. Fox, however, was conscious that God is "ever Ancient, ever New," and with a sense of tradition and continuity he set out to perform the work of Vatican II. The Council revitalized his own commitment to catechesis, and he went about with even greater zeal in teaching the faith to God's smallest children. (Lk. 18:18). At the same time Fr. Fox became keenly aware of difficulties arising in modern catechetics; people who claimed to be responding to the mandate of the council were actually watering down Catholic doctrine in the interests of some false sense of ecumenism or the dubious applications of certain fashionable trends in child psychology.

Fr. Fox's observance of these difficulties led to a book: As the 1960's wore on, the atmosphere in catechetics became increasingly confused, and Fr. Fox's book was greeted enthusiastically by many as an answer to the rising problems, a light in the fog. Others, however, were determined to resist his efforts. As pastor in Milbank he sought to implement his vision of catechetics in the Catholic school. The principal and the school board opposed him, and tension gripped the entire parish. (Mt. 10:34). Fr. Fox found that his commitment was being put to the test. Always desiring the welfare of his parish first, he now found himself the center of a controversy that was cutting a deep wound in his community. Perhaps it was his fault-perhaps he needed more patience in the situation? Or was he pushing his own view too far? Fr. Fox felt the sword within his own heart, driving him to seek a closer union with the suffering heart of Jesus. He wanted to know that he was doing God's will, so he asked for a sign relating to his life as a priest and catechist: "Is my work pleasing to you, O God?" The answer came through the Church: a few days before Christmas, Fr. Fox received a letter from Cardinal Wright, then secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy. "Keep writing, you are needed in America," the letter proclaimed as Cardinal Wright requested six copies of Fr. Fox's book. By the grace of God, Fr. Fox had found new confidence and courage-he stood with the Church.

In the midst of the crisis in the Church, Fr. Fox found his faith growing stronger. Important aspects of the priesthood were being called into question in the public forum, and Fr. Fox met these challenges in his preaching and in the deepening of interior life and commitment that resulted from it. The response to criticism of the priestly life-particularly celibacy-required a greater understanding of who the priest is and the nature of his ministry. Fr. Fox was drawn to reflect more and more on celibacy, the priesthood, and the Mystical Body in order to appreciate the Church and his own role in the troubled times following Vatican II.

(Lk. 11:28). In Fr. Fox's reflection, the Holy Spirit drew him toward the answer to today's crisis of faith. Modern man has forgotten how to believe; how to go beyond himself and find his true identity in the richness of God whom he is called to glorify in a unique fashion. All throughout his priestly life, Fr. Fox had dedicated himself to showing people how to live in faith. From his own work he realized the profound need for a model of the Christian life; the response to God lived perfectly, full of power and love.

Since his childhood, Fr. Fox had always had a generous devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Knowing that Mary brings her Son to all men and all men to her Son because of her unique and preeminent role in the salvation of the world, Fr. Fox had totally consecrated his priesthood to her at his ordination, so that he might be an instrument of her fundamental mission. When Mary was proclaimed Mother of the Church at the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Fox saw her role as source of that mystical Christian unity that is the Body of Christ her Son. Now, as faith was becoming more difficult and the minds of so many were becoming troubled and confused, Fr. Fox was drawn to Mary not only as the means-the mystery of her divine maternity-but also as the model of Christian perfection. Mary is the Woman of Faith; she is the Gospel lived in all its fullness, and union with her means a complete dedication to that Gospel. Living totally in the presence of God, and sharing and expressing in a unique way the fullness of God's life and love, Mary's identity is intimately linked with the personal vocation of each and every human being.

Fr. Fox sought a deeper and more formative union with the Mother of God, one that would infuse every detail of his ministry and priestly life. When the Pilgrim Virgin of Fatima statue came to the diocese of Sioux Falls in 1974, Fr. Fox decided to go to Fatima himself in order to find God's-and Mary's-will for him.

The message of Fatima meant above all devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, embodying the fullness of Mary's response to God, and channeling Christ's life to each of the faithful. As he knelt in the chapel of the Apparitions at Cova da Iria, he asked Mary "what do you want of me?" There was no dramatic answer, no brilliant manifestation, no sudden flash of clarity. The prayer, however, took root as a new attitude within him. As the days wore on, an answer impressed itself upon his mind- consistent with all of his past work, yet representing a definite enrichment, a greater awareness: "Teach the fullness of Catholic faith to young people everywhere possible using Fatima as a vehicle."

(John 19:27). Fr. Fox returned to South Dakota with renewed zeal, and became involved with the World Apostolate of Fatima. He produced a tape series-> At this time, however, the specifics of the task with youth remained undefined-how could he preach the Gospel anew to young people by means of the message of Fatima?

(Jn. 11:40). While leading a group of adults in a Holy Year Pilgrimage through Fatima to Rome in 1975, Fr. Fox had an inspiration: What better way to bring the Fatima message to young people than by bringing young people to Fatima! A Youth Pilgrimage, run like a retreat, would provide an opportunity for young people to meet the Lord Jesus through the conversion of heart called for by Fatima and the Gospel it reflects. This inspiration was the beginning of the Youth for Fatima Pilgrimages which Fr. Fox has led each year since 1975. To this day the youth pilgrimages-one for boys and one for girls aged 15-22- are the high point of Fr. Fox's year, filled with tremendous spiritual fruits. On these trips many young people come to grips for the first time with the sins that this difficult age so strongly encourages, and these young people-filled with a newfound hope in the merciful and transforming love of Christ-approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation in great numbers. Fr. Fox recalls how some young people-touched by the Holy Spirit and delivered from so much unhappiness and confusion-will proclaim with tears in their eyes, "Thank God a priest finally told me the truth about my sins." This truth, which because of its difficulty is so often neglected, can only be presented with the ever- present invitation to God's mercy, and the result is a transformation of heart which for so many young people is the first step to their own interior union with the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the perfect Christian life.

During the most recent pilgrimages in the Summer of 1986, the Bishop of Leiria-Fatima, Alberto Cosme do Amaral, greeted the young people at the Cova da Iria-the site of the apparitions-and said: "You are an example to the youth of Portugal. You are an example to the youth of the whole world. Because Fatima is difficult, it is especially for youth." Bishop Amaral also blessed a replica of the statue of Our Lady at Fatima for Fr. Fox, announcing, "Wherever this statue is, there the message of Fatima will be." Thus, Fr. Fox sees the youth pilgrimages as a particular expression of his vocation as a catechist and minister of God's Word and the highlight of his own call to serve God among "the little children."

It was during that same Holy Year tour in 1975 that Fr. Fox met a man who was to have an important influence on his more recent activities. Gino Burresi of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary-possessor of the miraculous charism of the stigmata (the wounds of Christ)--greeted Fr. Fox and some of his pilgrims at San Vittorino, Italy. The two men found a deep spiritual rapport. Fr. Fox visited then-Brother Gino several times over the next few years. He was inspired by Br. Gino's intensity of life, his singular dedication to the Gospel, and the dramatic physical character of his witness of suffering. As this inspiration developed, Fr. Fox conceived the notion of writing a book on Br. Gino's life in order to communicate his witness and charism to a wider audience. < now in its second edition (which includes the ordination of Gino Burresi to the priesthood), has strengthened the faith of many who have read it, and has drawn some of these into the religious life.

The book on Fr. Gino, as well as the constant work with youth, brought about for Fr. Fox an increasing involvement with vocations. Many young men looked up to him as a strong defender of truth as well as a man of evangelical compassion and zeal. His preaching and writing had placed the desire for the priesthood within the hearts of many of these young men, who often sought him out for guidance.

"Do not think that it is you who have chosen me, rather it is I who have chosen you"> (Jn. 15:16). Directing the vocations of young men became an increasingly prominent feature of Fr. Fox's work. This prompted him to found a priestly formation program with a specific orientation to the apostolate of the media-the priesthood and the media were, after all, the two areas most familiar to him. He called his program the Sons of the Immaculate Heart. In the fall of 1982 with the encouragement of his bishop and a personal expression of support from Cardinal Pironio, head of the Congregation for Religious, Fr. Fox began his program, and soon he had seven candidates living with him at his parish in Redfield, S.D.

At this time all the "signs" indicated that the Sons of the Immaculate Heart would be a great success, and inquiries and support poured in from all across the country. During this time Fr. Fox also produced a video cassette catechism course, ("Instructions in the Catholic Faith"), in which he revived the style and potential of Catholic television preaching. In addition he maintained parish work, consistent writing, and the Fatima pilgrimages. His work schedule reflected a rich harvest, but perhaps too rich for one man. In time the demands on his energy began to take their toll, and his health began to decline.

(Mt. 5:4). Fr. Fox trusted that God would not allow his own limitations to hinder the ministry of salvation that was entrusted to him. But he did not realize that now-when it seemed that his active apostolate was so necessary-God was calling him instead to a ministry of suffering. His health suddenly collapsed; at Fatima he was struck with pneumonia so severe that he lost the pattern of his voice, the very tool with which he had brought God's word to so many. The bishop ordered the Sons of the Immaculate Heart to disband; Fr. Fox had to retreat to a rural environment, regain his strength, and learn to speak all over again.

Rendered dumb and helpless by the mystery of God's providence, Fr. Fox entered into the immense darkness and smallness of "thy will be done." He experienced a new dimension of conformity to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, one that goes beyond particular plans and ambitions even holy ambitions-and embraces the "fiat" simply for the sake of "magnifying the Lord." Fr. Fox did not understand why God had taken away his strength, or why the Sons had failed. He only knew that this was what God wanted, and that his very helplessness was now a vehicle for God's glory.

(Lk. 1:48). In time Fr. Fox grew well and regained his speech. He wrote a new book, True Devotion, in which he enriches the spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort by casting it in the context of devotion to the Immaculate Heart, a devotion that has become the very core and substance of his own life. In 1985 he came to St. Mary of Mercy parish in Alexandria, where he is building a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima in a spot that is very near to the center of the North American continent. Here Fr. Fox will host the first Marian Congress in America in September of 1987. The Bishop of Leiria-Fatima will visit the United States for the first time to attend the Congress and dedicate the new shrine. He will also crown the replica statue with a crown like that on the original statue at Fatima.

Fr. Fox will also launch a new quarterly magazine in January of 1986. The new publication is intended primarily for young people between the ages of 16 and 25, and will use the Fatima message to inspire its readers with greater devotion to the Church and renewed zeal for her mission in the world. Meanwhile Fr. Fox continues his writing, preaching, and spiritual guidance to youth all over the country. And, as always, he remains dedicated to his parish, especially the children, all of whom he continues to teach just as he has in every parish he has ever served.

(Lk. 10:21). Fr. Robert J. Fox "knows the Father" because he enters with childlike simplicity into the mystery of the Trinity. In 1979, Pope John Paul II spoke< with Fr. Fox, and encouraged him to pattern his life after the Sermon on the Mount. The Pope's advice points to the message of the Kingdom of God, fully revealed as the Mystical Body of Christ and lived in union with the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of that Body, source of the deep and personal union of all its members, and of the members to the Head. This message of unity has been the strength and essence of Fr. Fox's priesthood, its motivation and driving force. With and through Mary, he is present to the Person of Jesus Christ and receives a share in the work of building the Kingdom. In this way Fr. Fox stands as an instrument of God's power, drawing those he encounters into the unity of love that God wills for all men; that unity which is Jesus Christ-the Christ that his soul proclaims, the Christ in whom he rejoices.

This is chapter one of the book, "Fishers of Men," published in 1986 by Trinity Communications.