‘A Life of Service to God in Jesus Christ’: Churchman Reflects on Witnessing Work of 6 Popes and History in the Making

BOOK PICK: ‘Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers’

This memoir recounts many stories of papal history through an eyewitness.
This memoir recounts many stories of papal history through an eyewitness. (photo: Humanix Books)

Six Popes

A Son of the Church Remembers

By Msgr. Hilary C. Franco

Humanix Books

256 pages, hardcover under $20; Kindle version also available

To order: Amazon.com

Most people mark their age by number of years. Msgr. Hilary Franco marks his by number of popes: six. In Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers, this son of Italian immigrants  chronicles over six decades lived in close proximity not only to popes but to history-makers and events.

The six pontiffs are: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. His past work includes working in the early 1960s at the Second Vatican Council as an expert adviser and official at the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy and serving the Church’s diplomatic missions in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations.

Ordained a priest in Rome in 1955 at age 22, Msgr. Franco received a doctorate in biblical theology magna cum laude from the Pontifical Lateran University at 23 and later received a degree in canon law at the Lateran University.

But his life began in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. “I saw the human race’s great possibilities alongside its tragically missed opportunities — the mansions of the super-rich not far from the hovels of the abysmally poor,” he wrote. “I saw the latter’s champions in the saints whom it was my privilege to know.”

He was raised by an “unchurched”-yet-charity-minded father and a faithful Italian mother who taught her son perfect Italian — an ability that opened doors for him to serve at the Vatican. His father, although not initially thrilled by a vocation to the priesthood, at the ordination, presented his son with a parchment of his own “ten commandments beginning with: Take care of people. That directive has never been far from my thoughts since that day during the past six-an-a-half decades,” Msgr. Franco admitted. 

His first three months as a priest were spent at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx. Several other parish assignments followed. “My wish to be with the people was fulfilled in abundance,” he wrote. Before his years of service in various positions in Rome, his great admiration of Bishop Fulton Sheen created another opportunity. 

The American Catholic bishop was a renowned philosopher, author and star on the top-rated, Life is Worth Living, a Tuesday evening, secular TV show with 10 million regular viewers across denominational lines. A letter with a request to meet led to a friendship and Msgr. Franco’s becoming an assistant to Archbishop Sheen from 1959 to 1967. Until his death in 1979, the two remained close friends and led to Msgr. Franco’s first book, Bishop Sheen: Mentor and Friend.

Through his life recalled in detail with the help of his diaries, readers are privy to Bishop Sheen’s first meeting with Mother Teresa along with some of her sisters in Naples in the slums along the New Appian Way. On Nov. 9, 1964, they walked into a room where Mother Teresa and her sisters sat cross-legged on the floor. At the time, Mother Teresa was not well-known. The sisters offered to get chairs, but Bishop Sheen insisted on just standing. The meeting lasted two hours and had a deep impact on Bishop Sheen, according to Msgr. Franco. “In the car Bishop Sheen turned to me: ‘This is a truly wonderful and saintly lady.’ 

The three became friends and prayed the Rosary together when she visited them in New York. “When Mother Teresa visited me in my Vatican office years later, her face was no longer unfamiliar,” he wrote. Msgr. Franco also accepted an invitation to give a retreat to the sisters in Kolkata and visited every one of their ministries, including the leper colony and home for abandoned babies. While Msgr. Franco was involved in approval of statutes for lay movements, Mother Teresa arrived one day with two of her sisters, hoping for a positive response over forming a male counterpart for her Missionaries of Charity. He recalled walking past them in the hall and hearing a “deafening silence as the sisters were in prayer, bent over their rosary beads.” 

Msgr. Franco met with popes, emperors, kings and queens and was an eyewitness to political tensions. He shared that while part of the apostolic delegation in Washington, President Lyndon Johnson privately inquired of the nuncio if Pope Paul VI would be willing to host peace talks for the end of the Vietnam War. The answer was yes, although the Communist Viet Cong refused the offer. 

When Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968, Msgr. Franco prepared a message of condolences for Ethel, his widow, but insisted that a message was not enough. Although the custom is for representatives of the pope to only attend funerals of presidents, he received the message from Pope Paul VI that he had named Cardinal Angelow Dell’Acqua as his personal legate to the funeral. 

Msgr. Franco also interceded for Mother Angelica in the early years of EWTN. 

“Mother Angelica pleaded with us to ask the Conference of American Catholic Bishops to support her groundbreaking ministry,” he explained. “If the Vatican won’t go to bat for EWTN, she feared, she’d have to shutter it. I composed for the prefect’s signature a letter outlining why American bishops would support her ministry. Apparently, it did the trick.”

Msgr. Franco credits his life’s experiences as “gifts from God, who in his infinite mercy and through his Blessed Mother’s intercession bestowed his grace on me.” After many years of friends and family encouraging him to write of his experiences, he relented with the thought that perhaps his witness will help complete his mission to the Church and Our Lord. He explained: “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.”

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