SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers

SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers

by Hilary C. Franco
SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers

SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers

by Hilary C. Franco


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“Monsignor Franco is known as an engaging storyteller of his impactful time in the Church. Read this book and you will see why.” — Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archdiocese of New York

Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers is Monsignor Hilary C. Franco’s engaging memoir and a story only a son can tell, a son not only of the Catholic Church, but also of Italian immigrants.

From Belmont, his Bronx neighborhood, Franco rose to work with the highest and most influential figures of the Roman Catholic Church.

As a young man he attended Rome’s premier seminary, soon after becoming the special assistant to Archbishop Fulton Sheen. As a priest he would travel the world, and he recounts a harrowing experience in the Deep South in the early 1960s, his work at the Vatican Councils that redefined the Church, and his time posted at the Church’s diplomatic missions in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations. This most formidable churchman reveals his tales of intellectual, pastoral, and diplomatic service to the Catholic Church, enlivened by recollections of the fascinating people he came to know from U.S. presidents and foreign heads of state, to religious leaders like Padre Pio and Saint Mother Teresa.

The title of his current role, Advisor at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, gives little hint of the drama of the times he recollects.

Stories of this book’s six pontiffs that Franco served under — John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis — offer landmarks along Franco’s trek through the corridors of spiritual power in New York, Washington, D.C., and Rome.

Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers is written from a unique eyewitness vantage on many of the events and movements that shaped our world and the Catholic Church. There is really no other book like it.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781630061333
Publisher: Humanix Books
Publication date: 05/25/2021
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 297,214
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Monsignor Hilary Franco (New York, NY) was ordained a priest in Rome at the young age of 22 and received a doctorate in Biblical Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, among other degrees. He served in the Parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Dominic’s in the Bronx, and Assumption Church in Staten Island. He was also a member of the Board of Editors of World Mission magazine and also contributed Biblical articles to the New Catholic Encyclopedia. He then served in the Diplomatic Corps of the Vatican at the Apostolic Delegation in Washington D.C. and was named an official of the Prefecture of the Economic Affairs of the Holy See in the Vatican. After two years, he was named Official of the Congregation for the Clergy and was in charge of the English desk for 24 years, which he initiated. He served as Judge of the Interocean Ecclesiastical Tribunal and was named Monsignor in 1971 and Prelate of his Holiness in 1981. An active member of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, he has been the recipient of several international awards which he shared with the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Mother Teresa. The Monsignor is the author of Bishop Sheen Mentor and Friend and a frequent contributor to Newsmax Magazine & TV.

The author lives & works in the New York City metro area.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 to SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers by MSGR. HILARY C. FRANCO

Bronx Kid

The last day of non-Leap Year Februarys is the 28th. In 2013, it was last in another, historically significant way: it was last day Joseph Ratzinger served the Catholic Church as Pope Benedict XVI. For on that day he took the unprecedented step of resigning his papacy. Not two weeks later, on March 13, a conclave chose his successor, Jorge Mario Bergoglio who, as an Argentinian and Jesuit, also made history. Not in over five hundred years have two popes been living contemporaries.

That spring, I reached the milestone age of 80. I was serving as pastor St. Augustine’s in Ossining, New York, about which more in due course. My “retirement” was around the corner, but still a season away. A papal transition after a papal retirement moved thoughts of my own possible transition to my mind’s back burner.

I was born in an historic era. (So are we all, but some are more historic than others.) As the administrations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Pope Pius XI overlapped each other, I entered the world on July 16, 1932. For this kid, there was one president, one mayor, one pope.

My neighborhood was Belmont, near 187th Street and Crotona and Arthur Avenues in the Bronx. This locale was home to one of the leading Doo-Wop groups , the Belmonts, two of whom having grown up on Belmont Avenue.

The Italian immigrants who dominated Belmont made for great lore, the stuff of movies like Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Hollywood myths aside, however, Belmont was populated by hard-working Italian-Americans who loved their families, their country, and their Church.

We shopped in the Arthur Avenue Market when it was new, one of many vendor consolidations created by Mayor La Guardia in the Thirties and Forties to replace the myriads of street-clogging pushcarts and liberate the pedestrian sidewalks.

The first wave of Italian immigration hit America’s shores in the 1880s; the second, around the turn of the 20th century, booming just after World War I. Many of them settled in Belmont and gave Arthur Avenue the Italian identity it has to this day. Among them, my parents.

My mother, Maria Catalina Scali, a primary school teacher for 41 years, was always after us—especially after me!—to get an education. An immigrant from Italy’s Calabria region, she loved her Italian culture and didn’t let us speak English at home. And we had to speak “real” Italian, not a dialect. Anyone who speaks with me can hear its echoes in my voice.

My father, also a native Calabrese, arrived in America as a young man. Coming from a well-to-do family, he had been under no economic pressure to emigrate. He did, however, imbibe socialist ideas from the old country. An old-school socialist, but no communist, he wanted to help new immigrants “make it” in their adopted homeland. Before settling in the Bronx, he had a mind to start a newspaper in Clarksburg, West Virginia, whose coal mining jobs had attracted so many of them.

He did not find immigrant life easy, coming as he did from a well-groomed Catholic family that, in the course of a century, had given the Church at least three priests: my great-uncle Don Ilario Franco, a well-known 19th-century professor of classics; his brother, Archpriest Tommaso Franco; and my uncle Father Ilario Franco who had come to the United States to serve Italian immigrants and had been incardinated in the Archdiocese of New York.

One Sunday an Irish priest barred his entrance to a church where he had intended to go for Sunday Mass. He was told to go to church in the basement. A handsome and powerful young man, Dad didn’t take kindly to disrespect. “I had a choice,” he told me many years later. “Push the priest aside (which would have only angered and hurt his people) or leave. I left.” He never set foot in a church until the day of my ordination to the priesthood.

Dad was all about taking care of people, a trait of his I wanted to emulate. When as a teenager I shared inklings of my vocation with him, he wasn’t thrilled. At my ordination, however, he presented to me a parchment on which his own “ten commandments” were inscribed. The first? “Take care of the people.” That directive has never been far from my thoughts during the past nearly seven decades. And so, my goal as a priest was always to be with the people of God. Not serve them at a distance (although sometimes I had no choice), but to be with them. I attribute this attitude to Dad’s social-minded, if not socialist, sensibilities and their influence on me.

As a youngster, I aspired to be, not a policeman, fireman, or soldier, but an actor. Mother encouraged my proclivity to declaim at the drop of a hat, which I did with any poetry I memorized. It’s interesting to note that when directing the liturgy, the priest is center-stage on the altar—facing the tabernacle in the traditional Mass—re-enacting the drama of the Sacrifice on Calvary. That suited me to a T.

Father having “unchurched” himself, Mom assumed responsibility for her children’s religious education. As a boy, I accepted the Catholic faith more or less passively. I thought no more about it than my chums did. But one day the sight of an elderly priest in the Manhattan neighborhood where I was working provoked me to ask: “What plans does the good Lord have for me?” I was barely 18; no vocation entered my mind until that time.

Upon my return from Rome as a priest—much more on that later—I was assigned for three months to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Bronx church, then Saint Dominic’s on Unionport Road, also in the Bronx, was home for me for almost two years (while I attended Fordham University to earn a master’s in sociology). From the Bronx I was transferred to Assumption Parish in New Brighton, Staten Island, a borough of New York, but connected only by ferry to the rest of the city. (The Verrazzano Bridge opened in 1964.) I served there for three years. As there was no shortage of pastoral outlets for my energy, I enjoyed every minute of these assignments. My paternally inspired wish to be with the people was fulfilled in abundance. But God had other plans for me.

When the Fifties began, and before I voyaged to Rome, I was but one of Fulton J. Sheen’s millions of fans. An American Catholic bishop, Sheen was a renown philosopher, prolific writer and television star whose ratings rivaled those of Milton Berle (“Mr. Television”) and Frank Sinatra (“The Voice”). An admirer of Sheen’s based on what I had read—pretty much every word he’d ever published—I eagerly looked forward to his TV show Life Is Worth Living, which aired on the Dumont network Tuesday nights at 8:00 P.M (EST). With as many as ten million viewers hanging on his every word, the show’s success rivaled that of Berle’s Texaco Star Theater to his every word.

As a Roman university student in 1954, the year Pope Pius X was canonized, I had caught a view of Sheen at a distance. During the canonization ceremony, in which the saintly Pope’s casketed body was carried, Sheen struck a handsome, statuesque figure. His head of neatly combed black hair was revealed only at the Mass’s consecration, when prelates had their mitres removed.

I could not then imagine that by the decade’s close, Sheen would promote me from fan to friend to trusted assistant and confidante. The last surviving member of his houseful, I have had the privilege of receiving over one hundred handwritten letters from him, the last one coming a little over a month before he died in 1979.

My earlier book, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: Mentor and Friend, tells that story, some steps of which I’ll retrace here while adding a few more details. Both as a friend and witness to his saintliness, I’ve been devoted to the cause of Sheen’s beatification, which proceeds at a snail’s pace as I write. It’s usually a slow process, and Sheen’s is no exception. There have been ups and downs. Here are a few.

Sheen’s beatification had been set for December 21, 2019, but the diocese of Rochester, New York, where he had served as bishop for three years in the late Sixties, wants to examine how he handled clerical abuse accusations against priests under his authority. The Vatican has suspended the cause indefinitely.

In the meanwhile, a scandalous tug-of-war over his mortal remains unfortunately transpired between Catholic dioceses. On many occasions he made it clear to me that he wished to be buried in New York. Yes, Peoria, Illinois, was his hometown and city of his priestly ordination, but there’s no evidence he wanted to be buried there. All the evidence we have goes the other way.

The rope-pulling contest began when Mrs. Joan Cunningham, a niece of Bishop Sheen’s who had been happy with the interment of her uncle’s remains under the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s, requested that they be translated to Peoria. Justice Arlene Bluth of the Supreme Court’s New York County Petition Court granted the request on November 17, 2016. On February 6, 2018, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court reversed Justice Bluth’s decision. The court ruled that disinterment couldn’t occur until an evidentiary hearing was held, and so it was. The original decision to translate Sheen’s remains to Peoria was reinstated. On June 9, 2019, the Archdiocese of New York gave up the effort to keep Sheen's remains. They traveled a few weeks later to St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria.

To say I’m disappointed by this outcome is to understate things. As I recorded at the time:

“. . . the appellate justices recognized that in Justice Bluth’s 2016 decision, she “failed to give appropriate consideration to the affidavit of Monsignor Franco and too narrowly defined the inquiry into Archbishop Sheen’s wishes.” It added, “Monsignor Franco stated that Archbishop Sheen had repeatedly expressed his ‘desire to remain in New York even after his death.’ Contrary to the motion court's conclusion, a fair reading of this alleged exchange, if it is true, is that Archbishop Sheen wished his body to remain somewhere in New York.” . . . The petition court . . . improperly deferred to the family's wishes, merely because Archbishop Sheen's remains did not end up in Calvary Cemetery [where he had bought a plot for his burial], and without a full exploration of Archbishop Sheen's desires.”

Unambiguously, Sheen wished to be buried in New York. But this wish was not to be granted. May ours for his beatification receive a favorable answer. In my lifetime, God willing!

Table of Contents

Introduction to SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers by MSGR. HILARY C. FRANCO

  1. Bronx Kid
  2. Roman Formation
  3. Angelo Roncalli: Fellow Alumnus, Pope, and Saint
  4. Cheating Death, and My Southern Adventure
  5. Meeting Fulton J. Sheen and Assisting Him at the Council
  6. Updating the Church: The Council’s Mission
  7. Movers and Shakers
  8. The Sixties: Upheaval in the World and the Church
  9. Working in the Vatican
  10. John Paul II: Council Father, Cardinal, Pope, Saint
  11. Back in New York: From Ossining to Turtle Bay
  12. The Church
  13. Acknowledgements


Introduction to SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers by MSGR. HILARY C. FRANCO

When, over 65 years ago, God called me to be a priest and I said “Yes!,” I set off on a journey that would involve both leading people to Heaven and saving them from Hell. Along the way I accumulated a treasure trove of memories.

I was born during the reign of Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-1939); his successor, Pius XII (r. 1939-1958), was the first Pope of whom I was cognizant. There were, however, six men who became popes whom, as seminarian and priest, I came to know personally. They are points of departure for the story of this son of the Church.

It’s the story of a kid who, by the grace of God, rose from the streets of Belmont in the Bronx— an Italian-American neighborhood that helped create Doo-Wop music—to serve Christ’s Church and spread His message of divine love. I saw the human race’s great possibilities alongside it’s tragically missed opportunities—the mansions of the super-rich not far from the hovels of the abysmally poor. I saw the latter’s champions in the saints whom it was my privilege to know.

For many years, friends and family have encouraged to “write a book.” Neither they (nor I, for that matter) saw myself as a great Church father; Though I served in the clergy under six popes, I do not claim to be an intimate of them all.

But I do claim to be a witness. I have been a witness to the good and great of the Roman Catholic faith, with this book sharing some of best recollections from my times with Archbishop Fulton Sheen and working at the Vatican for St. John Paul II, among other Fishermen.

My life’s outline, trajectory, and contents are gifts from God Who, in His infinite mercy and through His Blessed Mother’s intercession, bestowed this grace upon me. I did nothing to merit it. An extra grace has been my continued ability—aided by the diaries I’ve kept faithfully since my ordination֫—to recall dates and events accurately at my not-so-young age and set them before you.

This is inexplicable to me apart from the Almighty’s quiet but persistent work through me. As it turns out, this book may help fulfil my mission to the Church and Our Lord to serve as a witness. I am reminded of Paul’s instruction to the Phillipians, “. . . I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”

I hope the fruit of this effort convinces you that a life of service to God in Jesus Christ, fortified by His Blessed Mother’s intercession, can make a difference in this sin-ravaged world.

Even if it begins in the quartiere of Belmont.

Ad Jesum per Miriam.

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