Cardinal John P. Foley yesterday celebrated his first Mass in the Philadelphia area since becoming a cardinal, and he did it at the institution that made him a priest.

"Welcome back," Monsignor Joseph Prior, rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, told him moments before the late afternoon Mass began. "Welcome home."

"It's good to be home," replied Foley, 72, who was born in Darby, grew up in Delaware County, and graduated from the seminary in 1962.

Late last month, Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal in a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He will continue to serve at the Vatican, as he has for 23 years, but is back in his native archdiocese this week to celebrate Masses and greet friends and well-wishers.

Yesterday, the long pews of the seminary chapel were dotted with 109 young men, most of whom wore the black cassocks and white surplices of seminarians.

Concelebrating the Mass with Foley, who wore a red cassock under purple Advent vestments, were Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the former archbishop of Philadelphia, along with 15 priests of the seminary faculty.

Moments before beginning his homily, Foley made light of a mistake in the ceremony.

"In a drafty church like this, I'll need a hat," he joked, sending the assistants on the altar in a scramble to present him with his bishop's miter.

He went on to thank and praise the seminarians for entering into a life of service to God and the church: "In a world of very little hope of immortality or eternity, you give your lives as evidence of hope."

St. Charles was "not all peaches and cream" when he was there in the 1950s, he told them. "It wasn't even easy," and he had "severe doubts about my vocation" in his first year.

He urged those seminarians who continue on to ordination to "accept wherever you're assigned, whatever task you're given."

After his ordination, he was sent to Rome to earn a doctorate in theology, and report on the Second Vatican Council for the archdiocesan newspaper. He taught theology at the seminary for 17 years before Pope John Paul II made him an archbishop in 1984.

In June - when he thought he had a little more than three years before retirement and a return to Philadelphia - he learned that Benedict was elevating him to cardinal and naming him grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a post that will keep him in Rome.

At the close of the Mass, he turned to the seminary rector with a smile and admitted that he had not cleared with him what he was about to say.

Then he told the seminarians, "I am declaring one free day for all of you," and they burst into laughter and applause.

"I always wanted to do that," he added to more laughter.

In addition to Masses this week at St. Joseph's Preparatory School, where he graduated, and at Holy Spirit parish in Sharon Hill, where he grew up, he will also celebrate Mass at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

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