Venerable Fulton Sheen’s Aide Pens Memoir, Discusses Beatification and Vatican II

With a life spanning 6 pontificates, Monsignor Hilary Franco's new book offers insights into current crises within the Church and society, highlighting his work with Venerable Fulton Sheen, and even helping Mother Angelica during EWTN's first days.

Book cover of Monsignor Hilary Franco's new memoir: 'Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remember.'
Book cover of Monsignor Hilary Franco's new memoir: 'Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remember.' (photo: Humanix Books)

“I love history and I hope posterity will appreciate and perhaps learn something from what is written here,” says Msgr. Hilary Franco, a priest for over 65 years who was a special assistant to Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

Now in his eighties, the Bronx-born priest has just completed Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers, a fascinating and colorful memoir of a life that has included attending the Second Vatican Council as an expert adviser, working as an official at the Congregation for Clergy for 24 years and, most recently, serving as an adviser at the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations in New York. “Monsignor Franco is known as an engaging storyteller of his impactful time in the Church,” writes Cardinal Timothy Dolan on the book’s cover. “Read this book and you will see why.” 

In this May 28 interview with the Register, Msgr. Franco shares his reasons for writing the book, his views on Ven. Archbishop Sheen and problems over his beatification, his memories of Vatican II, and his views on the current state of the Church in the context of a life that has spanned six pontificates.

 

Monsignor Franco, what prompted you to write this book, what are you aims for it?

Many times, I had been asked by friends and people that knew me well to write something about my multiform experiences during my long priesthood, reaching the point of telling me that it was a mortal sin not to do it. 

I had always declined to do something about it until a great friend of ours actually cornered me and made me understand what a great responsibility to posterity I had if I would deprive it of my “life-stories.” I capitulated! And, frankly, at the beginning — we are talking about almost three years ago if memory does not fail me — I was not so convinced that I would go through with it. I had other chores to take care of and I felt that nowadays there are so many people writing futile stories, a proposito ed a sproposito! (in season and out of season). Why did I want to add to that plethora of nonsensical writings?

At this point, I must confess that in the last few years I have written what I call some reflections, probably I should call them zibaldone [notebook of thoughts, ideas] on whatever would inspire me to write at that moment and I suddenly realized that I had reached over 80 pages on my computer! I say this because, when I started thinking about writing my memoirs, I wrote the following:

December 26, 2017. When it all started!

At the beginning of this memoir, I’d like to ask my reader why he is reading me, since he will have read a lot of printed paper, of all kinds, but then I also ask myself the reason for my writing these pages that perhaps will interest no one!

In reality we are going through a strange period in our so-called “civilization”, when culture with a capital C seems to be expressed in a thousand ways, given the age of digitalization, one of which is, rightly or wrongly, is to write down whatever goes through one’s head, whether it is of interest to society and has repercussions for the overall history of man, or rather is restricted to a very small microcosm that leaves behind nothing but—or perhaps at most— a fleeting, severely faded image.

It all started on a summer night — to be exact at 9:20 P.M. — when my Mom gave birth to a rather dark skinned ‘heavyweight’ (hence, apparently, the darkness because of the difficulty in delivering, so I was told!) baby who was giving no signs of life! It had been a difficult birth for my Mom on that Saturday, July 16, 1932. That was the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and therefore my Mom wanted to call me Carmine, but the Franco family suggested that the name Ilario had been in the family for many generations and I was the first born, so I ended up with Carmine as my middle name and a third name, Antonio.

I was told that, in order to revive me, mi sbatterono su una cassapanca (they slammed me on a chest)…while my maternal grandfather (Prof. Domenico Scali) was downstairs, kneeling down, and entrusting me to the Madonna of the Rosary of Pompeii to whom he was very devoted. 

I hope that I have not annoyed you in deviating from responding to your question, but…I believe I did. It all boils down [to] what Cicero told us long time ago: “Historia, magistra vitae!” [the study of the past should serve as a lesson to the future]. I love history and I hope posterity will appreciate and perhaps learn something from what is written here.

 

You have lived a life of fascinating experiences as a priest, from being an assistant to Archbishop Fulton Sheen and serving 26 years in the Roman Curia to being present at the Second Vatican Council and, most recently, serving the Holy See at the United Nations in New York. Which of all your experiences in service to the Church stand out as the most significant to you?

Of all my experiences in my long priesthood, the first and for me the most important one, was serving the people of God (this is why I insist in my book that being in pastoral work was for me paramount); then comes the great opportunity to work and live (I am the last surviving member of his household, at 109 East 38th Street) with the exceptional human being and saintly man, Fulton J. Sheen; the last (and certainly not the least): my experience at the Second Vatican Council where I had the privilege to help in the General Secretariat, where the General Secretary was my former spiritual director archbishop, then Cardinal Pericle Felici, and being the expert (a lot of work!) for the bishop and the other American Council Fathers.

 

What can you tell us about Ven. Archbishop Sheen to help us understand his character and how hopeful, in the face of persistent obstacles, are you about his beatification?

As you might know, I tried to convey my feelings about Bishop Sheen in the book that I published in 2014-2015 Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Mentor and Friend, which is in part based on over 100 handwritten letters that he addressed to me while I was in the Vatican until practically the last month of his life. As I say in the book, it was such a profound experience that it definitely changed my life. Think for a minute that in the house, we were only the three of us: the bishop, myself and Fredrick, our Lutheran Norwegian cook who had left the service of Billy Rose to come and serve the bishop. Our offices were located on the 11th and 12th floor of 366 Fifth Avenue.

It would be too long for me to comment on the so-far-failed beatification of this holy man, but to me the saintly people that I dealt with and worked for — and that I mention in the book — were saints while they were alive, before they were proclaimed such officially.

Suffice to say that this delay, in my opinion, has been, and still is, a scandal — allowing such a procedure that has to do with someone’s sanctity to be trampled in front of civil authorities and not be handled by Church authorities. Perhaps, it would be too long for me to explain what I feel about this. The only thing I know is that I was, for two days, on the bench of a civil court explaining to a wonderful lady- judge of the Jewish faith what we mean by sanctity/holiness. She was truly interested in understanding!

 

You recall in the book how you helped Mother Angelica get EWTN off the ground, and how she overcame a number of setbacks. What was your involvement with her efforts to launch EWTN and make it viable?

The wonderful Mother Angelica. When I was tending the desk in my Congregation for the English-speaking countries, we received a long, detailed letter from Mother asking for the help of the Holy See. Actually, she was ready to give up if we would not have intervened. I felt that we had to do it and I prepared a long, detailed letter to send to the proper ecclesiastical authorities in the United States, asking them to support the apostolate of Mother Angelica.


What have been the greatest changes, both positive and negative, that you have observed during your 65 years as a priest under six pontificates? Do you believe that, as many orthodox-thinking Catholics do, that the Church is undergoing perhaps one of her greatest crises and if so, what hopes do you derive from these challenges that perhaps the Lord will draw from them?

Answering this question would require hours and I could give a very long and fact-based lengthy lecture! Allow me to share with you what I had written in my zibaldone on Dec. 26, 2018, that it seems to me that could be considered a response to your query. You might perhaps not agree with something that I had written then, but that was my inspiration at the time: The Old Testament tells us how difficult it was to deal with a world immersed in a lax paganism with no set values or norms, even though, most probably, documents like the “Code of Hammurabi” [a Babylonian legal text composed c. 1755–1750 BC] got lost in the many millennial vicissitudes and we have just fragments that have reached us.

We believe that all that was due to what we call the original sin.

It was truly hard in a world like that to prepare for the coming of a Savior. The prophets of the Old Testament tried to convey the message really without great success!

The human weakness was truly expressed in the words of the pagan poet Horace: “Video bona proboque, deteriora sequor” [I see what is best and I praise it, but I do what is worse]. 

When the Savior came, you would figure that things would change, but humanity persisted, even though it had been elevated to a higher (if not the highest) level by the Son of God who had deigned himself to come down from heaven and share our human fragility.

Even though He could have done everything by himself (with an act of His will He could have saved the world), He decided to enroll the help of human beings in order to fulfill His plan of salvation.

And, in doing so, He instituted the Church. You would expect marvels from the Church since it had been established solely to put into action what was the providential plan of God for humanity.

Instead, all through these 20 centuries we have witnessed many infidelities, betrayals, misinterpretations of His message, scandals, etc., with many laudable exceptions. Would it be better to go back to the spirit of the early Church, even considering the then present defections and deviations? Should we look forward to a Church devoid of the many trappings which we have, sacred and profane, and taking into account the search for political favors and consequent wordily power?

 The Church of the low and high Middle Ages is gone, and so is the Church of the Renaissance and the Church of the Baroque era, with all their pursuit of uncontrolled wealth, worldly power, and prestige.

But I wonder if that Church is really gone? I should say ‘no’ if I have to judge from the crises we are witnessing nowadays, or still from the overwhelming pageantry of some of our solemn liturgies in the Roman Basilicas and elsewhere, or from the great promises that do not correspond to bare facts and resulting actions.

 

You say in relation to the Second Vatican Council that “as only a wounded Christ could convert a doubting Thomas, so only a Church wounded by poverty can convert a doubting world.” To what extent do you believe the Council has achieved this goal of having the Church embrace a spirit of poverty?

The goals of the Council were at times (I dare to say, most of the time) misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misinformed! Very few, dear Ed, of the original goals were achieved! When you think that, of all the 2625 Council Fathers, the only speech on poverty that stands out is the one pronounced with vigor and incredible force on that November 1964 by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. When his name would be announced Audiamus Excellentissimum and Reverendissimum Dominun, Dominum… the Fathers that were ‘discussing’ issues in the “bar Jonah”, would go back immediately to their seats to listen to the man who eventually spoke on ‘the church of the poor”. Certainly as I have mentioned in my previous response, the council goal relating to the ‘church of the poor’ does not seem — to my eyes — to have been achieved.

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