In his new memoir, “Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers,” Msgr. Hilary Franco recounts with precise and smooth writing the positions he has held in his seven-decade priesthood which have brought him into contact with pontiffs and other holy and luminous Church personalities.
His years as an archdiocesan priest have been marked with service in Washington, D.C., Rome and New York, most recently as adviser at the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, a post he still holds.
Before that, he served for 19 years as the pastor of St. Augustine’s parish in Ossining until 2013.
Early in his priesthood, which began at age 22 in 1956, Msgr. Franco did parish work in the Bronx parishes of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in the Belmont neighborhood where he was born and raised in the Italian-American community there, and St. Dominic, and at Assumption parish on Staten Island. He later served briefly at Our Lady of Victory in Mount Vernon.
Beginning in 1962, he was an assistant to Bishop Fulton Sheen at the National Office of the Propagation of the Faith in Manhattan. He attended the Second Vatican Council as a peritus, or expert, for the American Council Fathers.
In 1967, he served in the diplomatic corps of the Vatican at the Apostolic Delegation in Washington, D.C. The next year, he was named an official of the Vatican Prefecture for Economic Affairs of the Holy See. He soon became an official of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, serving for the next 24 years.
In his book, published by Humanix Books and written with Anthony Flood, Msgr. Franco shares stories and insights from all his postings. In the introduction, he said his habit of keeping diaries “faithfully since his ordination” greatly aided his continued ability to recall dates and events accurately, even years after they took place.
One, which occurred when he was a seminarian at Pontifical Roman Seminary, involved an interaction with St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina at a three-hour morning Mass the Capuchin Franciscan friar celebrated in a small church at San Giovanni Rotondo. He served at the Mass.
“During the Mass, Padre Pio would go into ecstasy, a spiritual state in which one transcends ordinary experience,” Msgr. Franco writes. “It was clear to me that for Padre Pio, ‘ecstasy’ literally, not figuratively, described his experience.”
Later, he accompanied Padre Pio back to his cell, where the future saint bestowed a blessing and they shared a private chat.
A meeting with another future saint, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom he had first met years earlier while with Bishop Sheen, took place in his Vatican office. When he went to retrieve the documents she sought from him, he returned to find Mother Teresa and two of her Missionaries of Charity “bent over their rosary beads” deep in prayer.
In 2001, Msgr. Franco received a phone call from Sister Maria Nirmala Joshi, M.C., the new superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, reminding him of a promise he had made to Mother Teresa some years before to preach a retreat of the new millennium to sisters making their final profession.
By that time, he was serving as pastor in Ossining. When he inquired where the retreat would take place, Sister Nirmala, with great nonchalance, replied: “Oh, in Calcutta.”
He gave four talks daily over 10 days on spiritual direction for the sisters. “I treasure my memory of that week-and-a-half, despite the heat…and the limitation of my cuisine to white rice chased by Coca-Cola.”
The six popes Msgr. Franco came to know personally are Pope St. John XXIII, Pope St. Paul VI, Pope John Paul I, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
In the introduction, Msgr. Franco says, “I’ve served the Church as a priest under six popes, but I do not claim to have been an intimate of all of them. But I do claim to be a witness.”
In the last lines of “Six Popes,” Msgr. Franco asserts that he left some chapters unwritten. “There are many other stories (episodes) in my life that could have been written in this book, but I have refrained from writing them, either because I feel that they would not be of interest to my gracious reader…or because it is better that they may not be told.”
Perhaps the book’s best sections are those involving Bishop Sheen, whose every written word Msgr. Franco had read before entering the seminary and whose television show, “Life Is Worth Living,” he and many other Americans considered “appointment television.”
Their initial meeting in 1959, and its staging, was an eye-opener. Msgr. Franco, then a young summer appointee at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, had “a crazy idea.” Why couldn’t he just meet with Bishop Sheen, then the national director of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith?
So he called and made the request. Edythe Brownett, who was on the bishop’s staff, years later confessed to him that she didn’t know what to tell him. Even heads of state had to wait to see Fulton Sheen.
When she replied that the bishop could see him at 3 p.m. the following day, Msgr. Franco thought that was normal. It was not. The meeting went well enough that Bishop Sheen invited him to lunch the next day.
Also of great interest were Msgr. Franco’s first-hand recollections of the heady atmosphere of the Second Vatican Council. Not only the devotion Bishop Sheen’s remarks inspired (“He held them spellbound, living up to his reputation”), but also citing the day a young Karol Wojtyla arrived as a young auxiliary bishop from Krakow, Poland, and the presence of his successor as pontiff, then-Father Joseph Ratzinger, one of the many expert theologians present.