In this exclusive interview with Exaudi, Monsignor Hilary C. Franco, who served every Pope since Pope St. John XXIII, elaborates on what it was like to work these pontiffs (three of whom are now saints) and closely with then-Bishop Sheen.
Still actively working as Advisor at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York City, Monsignor Franco in his new book Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers has given insight into the Catholic Church through his vast experiences in Rome, New York, and Washington D.C.
In his book, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, reflects: “Monsignor Franco is known as an engaging storyteller of his impactful time in the Church. Read this book and you will see why.”
From the Belmont neighborhood in Bronx, New York, Monsignor Franco, always with an attitude of service to the Church and a strong prayer life, would even develop relationships with religious figures, including Saints Padre Pio and Mother Teresa, U.S. Presidents and foreign heads of state.
Franco attended Rome’s Pontifical North American College, referred to as the NAC, and shortly thereafter, became the special assistant to Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He also wrote Bishop Sheen: Mentor and Friend.
Here is Exaudi’s interview with Monsignor Franco:
EXAUDI: Monsignor Franco, why did you feel compelled to share this eyewitness, anecdotal memoir with the world?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: History has always been one of my favorite subjects since I had been convinced that Cicero was right when he told us that “historia magistra vitae” (‘history is life’s teacher’). At one point in my life, I had felt that…I had gone, willy-nilly, through a lot of history. Many friends had reminded me of this and so, I felt that, perhaps, in conscience, I had to share with posterity what I had gone through in my long life (not all of it…just some episodes). But I still lingered and waited perhaps blaming my laziness in writing with the excuse that I was busy with my work, etc. When, after so much insistence, my publisher forced me to reconsider my responsibility to posterity, I actually capitulated, perhaps not fully understanding at the time the amount of work that that commitment would require.
EXAUDI: In your book Six Popes: A Son of the Church Remembers which reads almost like a diary, you provide recollections of the people you came to know, from U.S. presidents and foreign heads of state to religious leaders like Padre Pio and Saint Mother Teresa. Which individual struck you most? Did anyone’s personality or character surprise you?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: It would be impossible for me to single out the ‘individual’ that struck me most. Each of those personalities had a special impact on me and left something in me that has become part of my persona. I am convinced that the Popes, Presidents, and saints that I had the privilege of meeting or serving and that you encounter in the book, had a special call from above, using talents that, notwithstanding their human fragilities and limitations, would make contemporary history.
EXAUDI: Starting in 1962 you served as special assistant to Archbishop (then-Bishop) Fulton J. Sheen, and since you wrote another work Bishop Sheen: Mentor and Friend. I believe anyone reading this would love to hear from someone who worked so close to him and maintained a friendship. What would be among the most valuable lesson you learned from him as a mentor? Also, as a friend, what struck you most about his person?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: If I would have to mention all that I learned from my mentor and friend, the saintly Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, it would take volumes! It should suffice to say that I started to work for the Bishop in 1959–long before I was officially named Assistant to Bishop Sheen who was then National Director of the Propagation of the Faith–when in August of that year I had my first meeting with him at his office (366 Fifth Avenue) and, once home that evening, I had to burrow several pages from the other days of my diary in order to express what I had gathered in that audience that was supposed to last fifteen minutes and it was protracted for over 40 minutes!
His kindness, his sanctity, his acute intelligence that would make him a prophet, foreseeing what would happen or been projected many years later are just a few of the features that characterize my closeness to this exceptional man of God. Many of the subjects that we had discussed even at lunch or dinner time or during our evening strolls on Park Avenue or on the way to the office from our residence located at 109 East 38th Street, would be years later aired and discussed at the Council and in post-conciliar circles.
EXAUDI: Having been a member of the Advisory Board for the Cause of Beatification of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, I’d like to ask what’s the status of his canonization cause?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: I had been a member of the Advisory Board for the Cause of Beatification of Fulton J. Sheen, but I do feel that what happened with the delay of his beatification is simply scandalous since the needed miracle had been approved and all the other prerequisites for the conclusion of the cause had been followed thoroughly. Let me add, however, that, even though we will wait for the official decision of the Church, to me personally Fulton J. Sheen as well as the other saintly people mentioned in my book…were saints even while I was living and working for them, witnessing their holiness in their daily actions.
EXAUDI: In the text, a reader finds him or herself easily impressed by your service to the Church, spanning some 60 years, between New York, Rome, and Washington, D.C. You served under six pontiffs, namely: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. While one could talk about a career, one notices here, more than a career, it has been a call to service…
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: Let me share with you something that I have thought about especially on special occasions like my anniversary of ordination, 66 years on April 9, 2021! Well, I went through all these years, and…lo and behold, I could not find one morsel of time when I thought that I could make ‘a career’ out of my priesthood. I mean ‘career’ in the sense that is intended in human terms. As I often mention in the book, I had taken my priesthood since the beginning as a service to God and to the People of God.
EXAUDI: Would you say these Popes you have worked with have been more ‘human’ or ‘down to earth’ than one could imagine? Is there an episode illustrating this you could share with the readers?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: As far as the different personalities of the popes, I do have to say that all of them were really down to earth because they had at heart the needs of the People of God at that particular time in history and gave the necessary directives to overcome very difficult world situations. Think, for a minute, on the impact of the action of Saint John Paul II on the fall of the Soviet Regime.
And, speaking of unforgettable moments in my life with the six popes, one that really stands in my memory is 5:20 P.M. on May 13th, 1981 when I had my big window in my second-floor office open because it was hot and, while working, I ‘heard’ the hush silence among the crowds, conflicting with the previous tumultuous usual noise of papal audiences. I rush to the window…realize what had happened and run down to the square. I actually repeated this when a year later I helped Martin Kalb from NBC to prepare the now-famous documentary “60 Minutes- The man who shot the Pope”.
EXAUDI: Pope Francis is seen by many as different than his predecessors, while others at times defend in other ways his continuity. How would you describe his approach to governing the Church?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: I believe every pope, being a human person, is different from another, but, for some reason, I feel that the Providence of God, the Spirit of God, raises a pontiff according to the needs of the times. You could mention each one of the popes of the 20th century that seem to have been chosen for that particular time! Francis was chosen for this time, a time of a world that is being enslaved by technology and indifference to the need of ’the other’, living on a planet that risks environmental problems, etc., etc.
EXAUDI: Observing these popes, what is your view on a pope resigning?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: Frankly, I do not see any difficulty in having popes resign, especially today with the multifaceted activities which are placed on the shoulder of the leader of 1 billion 300 million people across the globe. After all, the pope is a human being with his human limitations, including health, age, and whatever goes with humanity.
EXAUDI: Having served under these six popes, would you say there is a characteristic that unites them?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: The mark which characterizes all the popes that I have seen and served in my long life is their Love of God, Love for the Church, and Love for the People of God.
EXAUDI: America often seems so divided today, how can people of all faiths put these differences aside? How do you believe this polarization can be reconciled?
Since you know well the history of the Church in the last two millennia, you are certainly aware of the so-called divisions that we always had since the beginning, suffice to read Saint Paul’s 14 letters. I always have in mind what “Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: My Mentor and Friend,” the title of my 2014 book on my life with the saintly bishop, used to say: I do not like terms like ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ in defining Christians. In the Church, we firmly believe in ‘one, catholic and apostolic Church’ which we always confess in the Creed. We might have different opinions or tendencies, but our aim should always be ‘unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’.
EXAUDI: With your vast experience, what advice would you give a pope for understanding America, the American people, and American Catholics in a contemporary context?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: Understanding America… This brings me to the time that I was called to serve at the then Apostolic Delegation in Washington, DC (since 1984 in the Apostolic Nunciature) where, in the mid-1960s, our office would be representing the Vatican in the United States of America. Sometimes, when I would see directives received from Rome, I would venture to mumble by myself ‘probably Rome does not understand!’. Then, I was called to serve and work in the Vatican with much wider horizons than I had in Washington and I had to realize that. Yes, Rome understood, but from a macrocosmic perspective, the decision would have to be made which perhaps could be not understood or misunderstood by my Washington microscopic frame of reference.
EXAUDI: As Advisor at the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, how can the Holy See — even if not intended to be a political but only spiritual power, but regardless one exercising undeniable influence — can help conflict resolution worldwide?
MONSIGNOR FRANCO: With regard to our work in the office of the Holy See Mission to the United Nations, let me state clearly that we are not one of the 193 Delegations at the United Nations as representatives of a religion, but we are at the UN as representative of a state, Vatican City State, called officially The Holy See, and, even if we do not vote. St. John Paul II insisted that we should not have a vote, to avoid eventually taking sides on very sensitive issues. Our interventions in defense of the most important values, like human rights, life, peace, etc., are very well received by the Assembly. As I mention in the book, history was made when the popes came to the U.N., beginning with the first visit of a pope at the U.N., and to the USA, by Saint Paul VI on October 4, 1965, and ending with the visit of Pope Francis on Sept. 25, 2015. Both popes, as well as John Paul II who came twice, and Pope Benedict, reiterated the message given to the Assembly by Saint Paul VI: “War Never Again.”