The following is Chapter One of the new book, SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers by Monsignor Hilary C. Franco, published by Humanix Publishing (May 25, 2021) and available to purchase here.
The last day of non–Leap Year in February is the 28th. In 2013, it was last in a historically significant way: it was the last day Joseph Ratzinger served the Catholic Church as Pope Benedict XVI. For on that day, he took the unprecedented step of resigning his papacy. Not two weeks later, on March 13th, a conclave chose his successor, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who, as an Argentinian and Jesuit, also made history. Not in over 500 years have two popes been contemporaries.
That spring, I reached the milestone age of 80. I was serving as pastor of Saint Augustine’s in Ossining, New York, about which more in due course. My “retirement” was around the corner, but still a season away. A papal transition after a papal retirement moved thoughts of my own possible transition to my mind’s back burner.
I was born in a historic era. (So are we all, but some are more historic than others.) As the administrations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Pope Pius XI overlapped each other, I entered the world on July 16, 1932. For this kid, there was one president, one mayor, one pope.
My neighborhood was Belmont, near 187th Street and Crotona and Arthur Avenues in the Bronx. This locale was home to one of the leading doo-wop groups, the Belmonts; two of them grew up on Belmont Avenue.
The Italian immigrants who dominated Belmont made for great lore, the stuff of movies like Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Hollywood myths aside, however, Belmont was populated by hardworking Italian-Americans who loved their families, their country, and their Church.
We shopped in the Arthur Avenue Market when it was new, one of many vendor consolidations created by Mayor La Guardia in the thirties and forties to replace the myriads of street- clogging pushcarts and liberate the pedestrian sidewalks.
The first wave of Italian immigration hit America’s shores in the 1880s; the second, around the turn of the twentieth century, booming after World War I. Many of the immigrants, settling in Belmont, gave Arthur Avenue the Italian identity it has to this day. Among them were my parents.
My mother, Maria Catalina Scali, a primary school teacher for 41 years, was always after us—especially me! —to get an education. An immigrant from Italy’s Calabria region, she loved her Italian culture and didn’t let us speak English at home. We had to speak “real” Italian, not a dialect. Anyone who speaks with me can hear its echoes in my voice.
My father, Tommaso (“Thomas” as in his 1927 American passport) Franco, also a native Calabrese, arrived in America as a young man. Coming from a well-to-do family, he had been under no economic pressure to emigrate. He did, how- ever, imbibe socialist ideas from the old country. An old-school socialist, but no communist, he wanted to help new immigrants “make it” in their adopted homeland. Before settling in the Bronx, his goal was to start a newspaper in Clarksburg, West Virginia, whose coal mining jobs had attracted so many of them.
He did not find immigrant life easy, coming as he did from a well-groomed Catholic family which, in the course of a century, had given the Church at least three priests: my great-uncle Don Ilario Franco, a well-known nineteenth-century professor of classics; his brother, Archpriest Tommaso Franco; and my uncle Father Ilario Franco, who had come to America to serve Italian immigrants and was incardinated in the Archdiocese of New York.
One Sunday an Irish priest barred my father’s entrance to a church where he had intended to go for Mass. He was told to go to church in the basement. A handsome and powerful young man, Dad didn’t take disrespect kindly. “I had a choice,” he told me many years later. “Push the priest aside (which would have only angered his people) or leave. I left.” He never attempted to set foot in a church again until the day of my ordination.
Dad was all about taking care of people, a trait I wanted to emulate. As a teenager I shared with him inklings of my vocation, but he wasn’t thrilled. At my ordination, however, he presented me with a parchment on which his own “ten commandments” were inscribed. The first? “Take care of the people.” That directive has never been far from my thoughts since that day during the past six-and-a-half decades. And so, my goal as a priest was always to be with the people of God. Not serve them at a distance (although sometimes I had no choice), but to be with them. I attribute this attitude to Dad’s social- minded, if not socialist, sensibilities and their influence on me. As a youngster I aspired to be, not a policeman, fireman, or soldier, but an actor. My mother encouraged my proclivity to declaim at the drop of a hat, which I did with any poetry I memorized. When directing the liturgy, the priest is center- stage on the altar—facing the tabernacle in the traditional Mass—reenacting the drama of the Sacrifice on Calvary. That suited me to a T.
With Dad having “unchurched” himself, Mom assumed responsibility for her children’s religious education. As a boy, I accepted the Catholic faith more or less passively. I thought no more about it than my chums did. But one day the sight of an elderly priest in the Manhattan neighborhood where I was working provoked me to ask: “What plans does the good Lord have for me?” I was barely 18; no vocation had entered my mind until that time.
Upon my return to America from Rome as a priest—much more on that later—I was assigned for three months to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Bronx church. Then Saint Dominic’s on Unionport Road, also in the Bronx, was home for me for almost two years (while I earned a master’s in sociology at Fordham University). I was then transferred to Assumption Parish in New Brighton, Staten Island, a borough of New York, at that time connected to the rest of city only by ferry. (The Verrazzano Bridge, which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, opened in 1964.) I served at Assumption in Staten Island for three years. As there was no shortage of pastoral outlets for my energy, I enjoyed every day of these assignments. My wish to be with the people was fulfilled in abundance.
But God had other plans for me.
When the fifties began and before I voyaged to Rome, I was but one of Fulton J. Sheen’s millions of fans. An American Catholic bishop, Sheen was a renowned philosopher, prolific writer, and television star whose ratings rivaled those of Milton Berle (“Mr. Television”) and Frank Sinatra (“The Voice”). An admirer of Sheen’s based on what I had read—pretty much every word he’d ever published—I eagerly looked forward to his TV show Life Is Worth Living, which aired on the DuMont network on Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. With as many as 10 million viewers hanging on his every word, the show’s success rivaled that of Berle’s Texaco Star Theater.
As a Roman university student in 1954, the year Pope Pius X was canonized, I caught a view of Sheen at a distance. During the canonization ceremony, in which the saintly pope’s casketed body was carried, Sheen struck a handsome, statuesque figure. His head of neatly combed black hair was revealed only at the Mass’s consecration, when prelates had their mitres removed.
I could not then imagine that by the decade’s close, Sheen would promote me from fan to friend to trusted assistant and confidant. As the last surviving member of his household, I have had the privilege of receiving over 100 handwritten letters from him, the final one coming a little over a month before he died in 1979.
My earlier book, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: Mentor and Friend, tells that story, some episodes of which I’ll retrace while adding a few details. As both a witness to his saintliness and a friend, I’ve been devoted to the cause of Sheen’s beatification, which proceeds at a snail’s pace as I write. It’s usually a slow process, and Sheen’s is no exception. There have been ups and downs. Here are a few.
Sheen’s beatification had been set for December 21, 2019, but the Diocese of Rochester, New York, where he had served as bishop for three years in the late sixties, wants to examine how he handled clerical abuse accusations against priests under his authority. The Vatican has suspended the cause indefinitely. In the meanwhile, a scandalous tug-of-war over Sheen’s mortal remains transpired between Catholic dioceses. On many occasions he made it clear to me that he wished to be buried in New York. Yes, Peoria, Illinois, was his hometown and city of his priestly ordination, but there’s no evidence he wanted to be buried there. All the evidence we have goes the other way.
The rope-pulling contest began when Mrs. Joan Cunningham, a niece of Bishop Sheen’s who had been unhappy with the interment of her uncle’s remains under Saint Patrick’s Cathedral’s main altar, requested they be translated to Peoria. Justice Arlene Bluth of the Supreme Court’s New York County Petition Court granted this on November 17, 2016. On February 6, 2018, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court reversed Justice Bluth’s decision. The court ruled that disinterment couldn’t occur until an evidentiary hearing was held. The original decision to translate Sheen’s remains to Peoria was reinstated. On June 9, 2019, the Archdiocese of New York gave up the effort to keep Sheen’s remains. They traveled a few weeks later to Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.
To say I’m disappointed by this outcome is to understate things. As I recorded at the time:
. . . the appellate justices recognized that in Justice Bluth’s 2016 decision, she “failed to give appropriate consideration to the affidavit of Monsignor Franco and too narrowly defined the inquiry into Archbishop Sheen’s wishes.” It added, “Monsignor Franco stated that Archbishop Sheen had repeatedly expressed his ‘desire to remain in New York even after his death.’ Contrary to the motion court’s conclusion, a fair reading of this alleged exchange, if it is true, is that Archbishop Sheen wished his body to remain somewhere in New York. . ..
The petition court improperly deferred to the family’s wishes, merely because Archbishop Sheen’s remains did not end up in Calvary Cemetery [where he had bought a plot for his burial], and without a full exploration of Archbishop Sheen’s desires.”
Unambiguously, Sheen wished to be buried in New York. But this wish was not to be granted. May ours for his beatification receive a favorable answer. In my lifetime, God willing!
MONSIGNOR HILARY C. FRANCO, STD, JCL, MA (SOC) is Advisor at the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. Franco was ordained a priest in Rome at 22 and received a doctorate in biblical theology before the age of 24 from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He attended Fordham University in New York, where he earned a master’s degree in sociology. Later, he earned another degree in canon law at the Lateran University. He is the author of Bishop Sheen: Mentor and Friend. Hilary C. Franco was born and raised in the Bronx. His latest book, SIX POPES: A Son of the Church Remembers, can be purchased here.
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