“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”

The Rosary in the back story of one of this year’s biggest news stories

The Rosary’s simple repetitiveness can make it seem monotonous but its simplicity also makes it a convenient, easily accessible and, even more so, a powerful form of prayer. It’s quiet yet strong force featured prominently in the life of James Foley who appeared on news headlines recently in August as the first (of later several) Western hostages held by Islamic State (IS) militants to be executed by them and whose executions were recorded on video and released on the internet. However, alongside the cruelty, violence and atrocity of what happened; there is also a back story to James which is a story of courageous faith, heroic selflessness and a tenacious peacefulness, which the Rosary in large part powerfully gave him in the face of great evil and danger.

James Foley’s rediscovery of the Rosary during first captivity in Libya

James Foley’s capture by IS militants was not the first time that he had been kidnapped. In 2011, while covering the conflict in Libya, James was kidnapped and held captive in Tripoli. During the darkness and uncertainty of the weeks that he had been held captive, James began praying the rosary and, through this, found the strength to endure the sufferings associated with being held captive. He was able to count the ten Hail Mary’s on the knuckles of his hands and say the Our Father between each set of ten Hail Mary’s.

Through praying the Rosary, James found that he could keep his mind focused and prayed aloud with Clare (a fellow captive). James wrote later in the same article that he found it strengthening to be able to speak out their helplessness and hopefulness and to do so in a conversation with God rather than just trying to do so in quiet and on his own. James felt further the sense of solidarity in prayer when he was able to speak with his mother on the phone while in captivity. She had told James that countless others on the outside were offering prayers for his release. James now knew in an even more certain way that he was not alone and was supported by the prayers of many.

In addition to James’ faith being strengthened, his selflessness and charity while in captivity was also being strengthened through his faith. Other fellow prisoners captured with James in Libya have told of how James shared food, blankets and even jokes to help his fellow captives cope in a difficult and scary situation. James’ selflessness continued even after his release from Libya when, while being asked to make public appearances to talk about his experiences while in captivity, James used the publicity to raise money for the family of a colleague who was killed while they were being kidnapped.

It was during James’ reporting of the Libyan civil war that he discovered a passion for helping those in the wider world to relate to those who were caught up in the middle of unthinkable conflict. James’ compassion for those caught up in conflict moved him with his journalistic skills to tell their stories to the larger world and so empower ordinary people both those whose stories he was telling as well as those to whom he was telling. This was what led James to Syria and report in the midst of its civil war. It was here that James would be kidnapped and captured by IS militants and later killed by them too.

James Foley’s faith during last captivity under IS

During James’ captivity under IS, Daniel Rye Ottosen (a fellow captive) was released from IS captivity a couple of months before James’ death. Before Daniel’s release, James had dictated a letter to Daniel which he memorised and relayed onto James’ family. The letter reads in part: “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.” In contrast to his scripted last words that his captors made him say on camera before they killed him, these would truly be his last words – words of faith in the certainty of an impending death.

As can be seen from James’ words in the last letter, he had remained faithful even to the end and also his selfless concern for those whom he truly loved. His courage was also manifest as attested by Didier Francois, a French fellow journalist and another captive under IS.  Over a period of almost two years, James had to endure torture, simulated executions and was also once crucified to a wall. James’ treatment became worse once IS discovered that two of his brothers served in the US military.

Eventually, in retaliation for US airstrikes, IS decided to execute James Foley on camera and show it to the world via the internet. As images of James beamed around the world with his shaved head, hands tied behind his back and on his knees; one cannot help but notice that in his eyes was not primarily fear or hatred for his soon-to-be killers but rather steadfastness and courage fuelled by his faith. We can only guess what was going on in his mind in those last moments but a safe bet would have been those last words at the end of each Hail Mary in the Rosary “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.”

No doubt, Mary would have been interceding for James particularly as he had been praying the Rosary during his previous captivity in Libya and just as likely under captivity by IS and no doubt as he was awaiting the end of his life. While, God-willing, none of us will likely have to face such harrowing situations; we will face some moments of darkness, stress and difficulty at some point in our lives such as relationship problems, serious illness or some form of loss. In these moments, as well as in good times, Mary is waiting for us to ask her to pray for us. During the month of October, it would be worthwhile to seek Mary’s prayers for us more often in the Rosary or even encouraging others to do the same. Mary is always waiting for us to ask her “to pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”.