Cardinal John P. Foley, a jovial, popular priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who rose from working-class roots to become a "prince of the church" and the Vatican's longtime spokesman on Catholic social teachings, died Sunday. He was 76.

Once described as "the nicest guy in the Vatican" by the National Catholic Reporter, Cardinal Foley had suffered in recent years from leukemia. He died at Villa St. Joseph, the archdiocesan home for retired priests in Darby, the town where he was born.

Citing fatigue and declining health, he returned to the archdiocese in February after four years as Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a papal knighthood based in Rome.

For the previous 23 years, he had served as first president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, with particular responsibility for explaining church teachings to electronic news media.

When he stepped down from the council in 2007, the year he was made cardinal, he was the longest-serving head of any major office in the Vatican.

"I was pleased he was able to come home during the final months of his life," Philadelphia's Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said Sunday from Rome. "No matter where he lived or how he served the Church over the years, he always considered Philadelphia his home."

Funeral arrangements were not announced, although a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is expected.

Chaput was in Rome for a regularly scheduled series of meetings between diocesan bishops and Pope Benedict XVI. The archbishop asked the people of the archdiocese to pray for Cardinal Foley, and his priests to say Masses for him.

"His charisma and gentle spirit will be sorely missed," said Chaput. "By the sheer force of his personality he drew people to the faith and to himself."

Cardinal Foley was perhaps best known to American audiences as host for 25 years of NBC's annual broadcast of the papal Christmas Mass at St. Peter's Basilica.

Papal biographer David Gibson, a former reporter for Vatican Radio, described Cardinal Foley as "never an insider, never a 'player'" at Vatican politics, "because he didn't want to be." Instead, he said, Cardinal Foley earned a reputation as a "man of such rectitude, who did his job every day."

The council presidency "was never a career," Cardinal Foley said during a 2007 interview in Rome. "It was always a vocation, responding to what God calls you to do."

While in Rome he lived in a plain, two-room apartment at the Villa Stritch, a residence for American clergy, where he answered his own phone.

Thomas H. Massaro, a former Philadelphia housing director, recalled in 2007 that Cardinal Foley was so popular that it took him an hour just to cross St. Peter's Square because so many people would stop to greet him.

Cardinal Foley's fondness for Italian cuisine expanded his waistline, however, and became a target of his self-deprecating humor. "My mother once told me," he would often say, 'John, there's 20 pounds of you that were never ordained.'"

The only child of parents who never finished high school, Cardinal Foley was born Nov. 11, 1935, grew up in Sharon Hill, graduated from St. Joseph's Preparatory School in 1953, and earned a bachelor of arts summa cum laude from St. Joseph's College (now University) in 1957 before entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. He was ordained in 1962.

He soon caught the eye of Archbishop John Krol, who sent him to Rome for advanced studies. While there, he reported on the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council for the archdiocesan newspaper, and continued to write for it on his return.

In 1968, Krol, then a cardinal, made him editor of the Catholic Standard and Times. At Krol's encouragement, Cardinal Foley later earned a master's degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he was elected class president.

While very different in temperament, the two men got along well. During a 1975 trip to Egypt, Krol asked Cardinal Foley whether he should take a camel ride.

"If I were you, Eminence, I would not," Cardinal Foley replied.

When Krol, wearing an Arabic head scarf, ignored the advice and got on the camel, Cardinal Foley snapped his picture. Krol was teased after it appeared in newspapers, and demanded to know why Cardinal Foley had taken the photo "when you told me not to do it."

"As your priest, I gave you my best advice," Cardinal Foley replied. "As a journalist, I took your picture."

Krol understood, and in 1984 recommended the 49-year-old monsignor to Pope John Paul II as head of the newly formed Pontifical Council for Social Communications. John Paul took the advice, and made the monsignor an archbishop.

Foley's mission was to promote moral values in TV, radio, advertising, and film, and to explain church teachings on a broad array of social issues. He came under intense criticism his first year, however, after he described AIDS as a "natural sanction for certain types of activities."

The pope later issued a statement reassuring homosexuals that the church loved them, and Cardinal Foley never provoked such controversy again. Later, he would joke that he turned on CNN every morning "so I know what to pray about."

He visited Philadelphia often during his long tenure in Rome, and there was frequent speculation that he might be made archbishop here, but it was not to be.

As the years passed, his friends used to tease him so much about being bypassed for a cardinal's post that he confided he was afraid to arrange papal audiences for them.

"I'm afraid they're going to blurt out 'When are you going to give him a red hat?'" he said. That day came in November 2007, after months of rumors, when Pope Benedict appointed him to head the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.

The order, which raises money for Catholic sites in the Holy Land, traces its roots to the Crusades and has been headed by a cardinal since its revival in the 19th century. The Sharon Hill altar boy known to schoolmates as "Jack" now commanded the Palazzo della Rovere, the order's palatial, 15th-century villa two blocks from St. Peter's.

It was Foley's elevation to cardinal that prompted John Allen, longtime Vatican columnist for the National Catholic reporter, to remark in 2007 that during his 23 years at Social Communications he had "earned a reputation as the nicest guy in the Vatican."

Although Allen faulted Cardinal Foley for doing little to address the Vatican's deep distrust of the news media, he said he did much to improve the Vatican's image around the world.

"There have been tense days, of course," Cardinal Foley told a reporter that year, but he'd "never had an unhappy day as a priest," he said, adding: "I can't think of anything else I'd rather have been."

In October, Cardinal Foley began a column for the archdiocese's new monthly magazine, Phaith, but said he was so weak he had to dictate it.

Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia archdiocese, said Sunday that Chaput and the archdiocese's four auxiliary bishops all spoke to Cardinal Foley by phone on Friday.

He was described, she said, as "completely at peace with death."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.