As a young boy I was under the impression that every priest had an office in the Vatican and was on close terms with the pope. When the pastor of my local parish included stories in his homilies about his time spent working in the Vatican and his close relationship with popes and saints—and even popes who were saints—my mind wasn’t able to grasp the uniqueness of it all. As I grew older and began to discern my own vocation to the priesthood, I came to understand and appreciate how truly extraordinary a life my pastor has lived in service to the Church.
Msgr. Hilary Franco is still serving the Church well into his eighties. In his over 65 years as a priest, he served as Venerable Fulton J. Sheen’s personal assistant and expert advisor at Vatican II, was an official in the curia of the Vatican for 26 years, and today is still working as an adviser at the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations in New York. Over the years he has had a unique eyewitness vantage point on many of the events and movements both within and outside the Church, accumulating a treasure-trove of memories spanning the last six decades. With the publication of his fascinating and colorful memoir, titled Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers, now readers can benefit from his stories just as his parishioners have for so many years.
In detailing his life, Msgr. Franco uses the six popes he knew as points of departure. In addition to his memories of working beside the past six popes (three of whom have been canonized), he also writes of encountering Padre Pio, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, Mother Teresa, Mother Angelica and even President Donald Trump.
The book begins in the Fordham section of the Bronx where Hilario Franco was born on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1932. His home parish (which bore that same title) is located at the corner of Arthur Avenue, the true “Little Italy” of New York. His parents were Italian immigrants and only their native tongue was spoken in the home. Though his mother would take him to Mass, Hilario’s father was an avowed socialist who refused to enter any church because of the “second class” treatment he felt the predominant Irish clergy of New York showed Italians. The socialist father would not set foot in a church again until years later, when his son Hilario was ordained a priest in Rome.
As a boy, Hilario never thought of a vocation to the priesthood, and he didn’t even serve Mass at his local parish. At the age of 18, however, he was working a job in Manhattan and entered a church he happened to be passing by to cool off a bit from the summer’s heat. As he sat in the pews he caught sight of an elderly priest going about his tasks and the thought that God wanted him to follow in that path came to him clearly. I had heard Msgr. Franco reference this moment a few times over the years, and he makes a passing reference to it in his memoir. When I asked him to elaborate on it a little more in a recent conversation, he demurred, saying: “It was a mystery. A grace given to me by the Good Lord. It should remain private.”
Shorty thereafter he began studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of New York. Because of his fluency in Italian he was sent to Rome. The North American College was closed at the time for a needed renovation after the Second World War, so Hilario was enrolled in the Pontifical Lateran Seminary. He arrived there in 1951 and was taught entirely in Latin. When I was a boy, it was common to see him sitting in the same spot in our parish church praying his Divine Office in Latin. His stellar education in Rome was certainly of the “old world”. He is among the few alive today who were taught in Latin. To this day he has a near perfect reading fluency of the language and each year I have looked forward to when he would chant the Exultet in Latin at our parish’s Easter Vigil.
Speaking of Holy Saturday, that was the day on which he was ordained in 1955. Fr. Franco was only 22 years old and had to receive dispensation to be ordained at such a young age. After the Easter Vigil Mass, which was offered in the morning those days, he offered his first Mass in the glory of Easter at the altar of “La Modonna della Fuducia, Our Lady of Confidence,” in the Lateran Basilica.
After defending his doctoral dissertation in Biblical Theology a year later (which he did, of course, in Latin), Fr. Franco returned to the States to begin his work in the parishes of New York. This is when Hilario began to be called Hilary, something easier on the American ear. He served parishes in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Westchester.
Working in New York he crossed paths with the famed Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, widely known for his popular radio and television programs, which were heard and watched by tens of millions. Sheen recruited the young Fr. Franco to work for him. At first, it was a part-time job to help with Bishop Sheen’s preparations for the upcoming Second Vatican Council. Fr. Franco’s fluency in Latin was a particularly important asset as all documents and relevant correspondence related to the Council were conducted in the ancient language. Soon, however, it turned into a full-time job as Fr. Franco joined Bishop Sheen at the National Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Fr. Franco worked as Sheen’s closest assistant from 1962 to 1966. They lived at the same house at 109 East 38th Street, New York, and traveled the world together for their work on behalf of the missions: Hong Kong, a leper colony in Thailand, Brazil, and more. Many fascinating anecdotes from Fr. Franco’s time with the man who has since been declared “Venerable” by the Church are contained not only his recently published memoir Six Popes, but also in his first book, titled Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: Mentor and Friend.
I was always impressed whenever I entered Msgr. Franco’s rectory to see a signed portrait of Bishop Sheen prominently displayed, with the inscription: “To my dear friend Father Hilario Franco, who has done more for me than any priest in the world and is a constant edification. Gratefully in Christ, Fulton J. Sheen.”
When Sheen was named Bishop of Rochester, Fr. Franco briefly returned to parish work before being named Secretary to the Apostolic Delegation in Washington D.C., which is the office of the papal nuncio to the United States. He served in that position for two years until he was called to work in the Vatican in 1968. He would remain there for the next 26 years, working at the “English Desk” of the Congregation for the Clergy. About Msgr. Franco’s time in Rome, of particular interest to me was reading about his role in secretly hand-delivering letters from John Paul II to Soviet leadership in Moscow in early 1981.
Msgr. Franco returned to the Unites States in 1994 to become a pastor for this first time at the age of 62. St. Augustine’s in Ossining, New York sits on 35 acres of land overlooking the scenic Hudson River. After his almost two decades at the parish, there were six vocations, two priests and four deacons. He also guided the building of an addition to the school, which educates 600 students.
In such a full and extraordinary life, there are many memories and insights that could have been lost to posterity. Thankfully, we can be assured they will live on in this memoir, because “littera scripta manet, the written word remains.” Of all that can be taken from reading about such a fascinating life, I appreciate its most basic message of the joy and good that can come from a life of service to Christ and the Church.
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