Entering the seminary in 1967 he was ordained by Archbishop Rush on 7th August 1973. He held brief parish appointments in Rosalie and Kenmore before he was appointed curate to Ashgrove parish from 1973-1976.
In 1976, the Queensland bishops sent him to Louvain University in Belgium where, for the next five and half years, he studied, receiving his Licentiate and Doctorate in Philosophy. While at Louvain he also worked as chaplain on U.S. and British bases in West Germany working with soldiers and families and spent some months at the Cathedral parish of St John New Brunswick, Canada.
Returning home in 1982, he began teaching philosophy at Banyo Seminary. He also lectured part-time in philosophy at the Brisbane College of Theology, the Australian Catholic University and University of Queensland, where he was Spiritual Director to students from 1985-1992.
During this period, he was also supply priest for Beaudesert parish (1982-1987), spending weekends and Christmas holidays in the country parish. For several years (1985-1988) he served as chaplain to the State Council of the St Vincent de Paul Society.
Bishop Foley has been a member the International Catechetical Commission, Rome, International Committee for English in the Liturgy and The Company, Senate and Queensland Chapter of Australian Catholic Universities.
In his early years, the young James Foley developed a passion for social and local history at St Ignatius Parish School Toowong and Marist College Ashgrove. This passion came to the fore in the trips he now makes to remote areas across the Diocese, traveling where priests once rode their horses between settlements and far flung stations.
James Foley was ordained Bishop of Cairns on the 21st August 1992 at St Monica's Cathedral, Cairns.