Looking back, looking ahead

Father Ronald Franco celebrates silver anniversary in the priesthood as he prepares for next assignment

By Dan McWilliams

The celebration of 25 years as a priest for Father Ronald Franco, CSP, incorporated all three of his assignments, including his latest stop at Immaculate Conception Parish in downtown Knoxville.

Slide shows during breaks in Mass on Oct. 29 at IC highlighted Father Franco’s time over a quarter century at St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto, St. Paul the Apostle in New York City, and finally his 10 years at IC.

“You know, 25 years is a nice chunk of time,” said Father Franco, whose ordination was Oct. 28, 1995, at St. Peter’s. “It’s a very special day, a lot to be grateful for.”

Bishop Richard F. Stika attended the anniversary Mass in choir. Father Franco was the principal celebrant of the Mass. Deacon Joe Stackhouse and Deacon Doug Bitzer assisted. Also present were Knoxville’s four other Paulist priests: Father Tim Sullivan, associate pastor at IC; Father Donald Andrie, pastor of St. John XXIII University Parish; Father Bob O’Donnell, associate pastor of St. John XXIII; and retired priest Father Jim Haley.

The Mass was livestreamed around the world.

“It’s being livestreamed so my family in California and New York and other people, friends from around the country, can see it if they wish,” Father Franco said.

The occasion was rather bittersweet, as Father Franco had already announced that his time at IC would end after this year. He will be succeeded as pastor by Father Charlie Donahue, CSP, who formerly led Knoxville’s other Paulist community, St. John XXIII.

“I’ve had a very good experience here, and I’ve been very happy here,” Father Franco said. “But, you know, time passes and we get older, and it’s time for a younger man to take the helm. I’ll be going to our motherhouse in New York in senior ministry.”

The anniversary Mass highlighted his memories “from three different places,” Father Franco said.

“A lot of people, I’ve passed in and out of their lives. A lot of people that I’ve seen on a weekly basis, people that I’ve buried, people that I’ve married,” he said. “This is an opportunity for me to give thanks to God and to the Church and to the people of the parishes where I’ve served for the wonderful experience I’ve had over these years.”

Father Franco preaches at his anniversary Mass as a slide show with photos from his three assignments plays above him.

In his homily, Father Franco referred to the evening’s Gospel reading from Luke 10:1-9.

“It’s the same one that was read at my ordination 25 years ago. Despite the Lord’s explicit command, I must confess that I have not, to my knowledge, cured any sick in these 25 years,” he said. “But I do hope at least to have been better about fulfilling the rest of the Lord’s command: whenever He went to a city, say, ‘the kingdom of God has come here.’ Often enough I’ve felt more like Thomas Merton when he prayed, ‘I have no idea where I am going, and I do not see the road ahead of me.’

“But now so many years down that road, I feel closer to St. Paul, writing to his friends in Philippi, straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on for the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Twenty-five years does not seem like such a long time, but it has been a long time, or long enough, to have made a difference in our world. Back then, as many of us here may remember, we still wrote letters and made phone calls. We read the paper in the morning and watched the news together at the appointed hour in the evening. But that common and shared experience of all living in the same world was sadly not to last. As Pope Francis wrote in his recent encyclical, ‘We no longer have common horizons that unite us.’”

Father Franco then harked back to 1995.

“Of course, if I’m going to go into the past: as the Good Witch said to Dorothy, it’s always best to start at the beginning. By Oct. 28, 1995, I had already lived almost two-thirds of the life allotted to me so far,” he said.

“I had already lived almost half a century, a pilgrim’s progress of fits and starts that had led me to that day and has continued to lead me to this day. Unlike [Paulist founder] Servant of God Isaac Hecker, I did not know already at an early age that God, in Hecker’s words, had a work for me to do in the world. I doubt I knew much of anything then. When I did start knowing things, forming ideas, having hopes and dreams, they were limited by time and space, as are all our ideas and hopes and dreams, apart from the Good News of God’s kingdom.”

Father Franco recalled growing up in The Bronx, N.Y., and his neighborhood church, St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

“Dominating that space in those foundational early years, there was the great Gothic-towered church across the street that took me out of time and beyond the narrow confines of my limited space and taught me that to go to the altar of God would give joy to one’s youth. That was something that I never forgot, both in brief intervals of ephemeral, fleeting success and in times of devastating, frightening failure.”

Father Franco said he admits “that I am easily bored by the parable of the sower, but I have learned to see my time in that story’s space, for at one time or other, I’ve been like the thorns or the rocky ground, letting God’s grace be choked or withered, but then at other times I have flourished in that rich soil seeded by the Church, in which God’s grace and mercy have taken root and produced fruit. Like the seed, I may have been all over the place, but God never gives up, because that is who God is and how God is. God never gives up on the commitment He has made to each of us. And despite all of the obstacles real and imagined, that was something somehow I always sensed.”

Father Franco said, “I sensed it long before I had ever studied and been taught by St. Augustine that God has made us for Himself and that our hearts remain restless until they rest in Him. In the 15th century, Nicholas of Cusa, whom I once dressed up as at a Princeton grad student’s Halloween party sometime in the 1970s, prayed this prayer, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for bringing me this far. In your life, I see the light of my life. You persuade us to trust in our heavenly Father. You command us to love one another. What is easier?’

“Well, sometimes, certainly it doesn’t seem so easy. So often in this vale of tears, the Good News that the kingdom of God is at hand can come across as no news at all, or even worse, as bad news, or maybe as Good News sort of learned once upon a time but long since forgotten. That is why the world so desperately needs the Church, to show the world what Good News the kingdom of God really is, Good News that is actually at hand for anyone and everyone.”

In promoting Servant of God Isaac Hecker for sainthood, New York Cardinal Edward Egan called him “a man of the Church,” said Father Franco, who serves as vice postulator of the cause for beatification and canonization of Father Hecker for the Paulist Fathers.

“That indeed he was. That indeed is what any and every priest is challenged to be; not his own man, purveying the fake news of worldly wealth and creative power, but a man of the Church, tasked to try to show a way for all to see God’s light, to trust God’s love, and to live that love together among God’s people. God’s people, with whom we share our common home on this poor planet, this poor, fragile planet, dangerously overheated in so many frightening ways, but desperate for the warmth of God’s grace and mercy.”

Father Charlie Donahue, CSP

Father Franco said that in 1995, “I made my own this eighth-century prayer of St. John Damascene: ‘Now you have called me, Lord, by the hand of your bishop, to minister to your people. I do not know why you have done so, for you alone know that. Lord, lighten the heavy burden of my sins, through which I have seriously transgressed. Purify my mind and heart. Like a shining lamp, lead me along the path. When I open my mouth, tell me what I should say. By the fiery tongue of your Spirit, make my own tongue ready. Stay with me always, and keep me in your sight.’

“I did not know then whether I might make it to this day or what path might take me here. It has been an amazingly grace-filled path, punctuated by thousands of Masses: daily Masses, Sunday Masses, school Masses, Spanish Masses, Italian Masses, wedding Masses, funeral Masses—an amazingly grace-filled path from Toronto, Canada, to New York, New York, to Knoxville, Tenn.”

That path included “singing Christmas carols on Bloor Street” in Toronto, “living through the soul-searing sadness of 9/11 . . . The spiritual uplift of pilgrimages to famous shrines, and a summer spent studying at Windsor Castle. The challenge of walking for miles in the pre-dawn dark of World Youth Day in Germany . . . And finally back here, to this beautiful and historic Knoxville church, and the amazing adventure of chairing meetings, paying bills, replacing a boiler, restoring the church ceiling, and climbing the scaffolding of the church so I could say I touched one of those beautiful ceiling paintings.

“Blogging and e-mailing and eventually now livestreaming, teaching and learning, preaching, praying for the sick, baptizing babies, burying the dead, caring for the cemetery, then ending up in a global pandemic that has challenged and stretched all of us in ways that we hardly ever expected or imagined. As Pope Francis recently wrote of this pandemic experience: ‘having failed to show solidarity in wealth and the sharing of resources, we have learned to experience solidarity in suffering.’”

Until recently, Father Franco said, “I never expected to celebrate this anniversary Mass here in this community at Immaculate Conception, whose priest and 24th pastor I have been so privileged to be these last 10 years. Paradoxically, I could thank this terrible pandemic for that. In this terrible time, when almost everything we took for granted seemed to have evaporated all at once, this terrible time, which has so separated and isolated us, so divided and diminished us, and so shattered all the empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and personal self-sufficiency—I still cannot cure the sick.

“But, I am at least able to witness how God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus, our Lord, who brings us together in His Church, through which we may have hope that the kingdom of God really is at hand to heal our broken world.”

Father Franco concluded his homily with an expression of gratitude to God.

“So yes, thank you, Lord, for bringing me this far, and thank you all of you for making this journey with me. It has been my great honor and joy to have been your priest, and I will miss it very much. And now may all of us together continue to help one another on our ongoing journey into the kingdom of God, where the news is always good and always true for all.”

Bishop Stika thanked Father Franco at the end of Mass.

“Thank you for your 10 years of service to this church. I’m starting to feel like an old priest—this is my 35th anniversary, but Ron had a much more varied background, at Princeton and all his other experiences,” the bishop said. “He’s a well-respected member of the presbyterate here in our diocese. He’s into his second or third term as dean of this [Smoky Mountain] deanery—he’s been so cooperative. In the diocese, we’re very blessed to have the Paulist community, both here at Immaculate Conception and as well as at St. John XXIII. They bring a good gem into this ring that we call the Diocese of Knoxville, created in 1988.

“Ron, I really am going to miss you. I know that other Paulists will follow you, and they, too, will add to the fabric of this beautiful community of Immaculate Conception. I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Ad multos annos—many more years. I look forward to your 50th. I have my own in 15 years, so we’ll see how that all looks. Again, in the name of all the people you have served in Canada and New York, here in Knoxville, and all those in-between places, thank you for being the hands of Jesus, both in sacrament and in friendship. Happy anniversary!”

Father Franco returned the bishop’s words in kind.

“Thank you, Bishop Stika, for your kind words, and thank you for all the support you’ve given me all these years, all these years when I was chair of all those meetings,” the IC pastor said. “It’s been a great 10 years. Thank all of you who are celebrating this Mass with me tonight. I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but as I thank God and the Church for these 25 fulfilling years, I am especially grateful to all sorts of people: to the bishop, to the priests of the diocese, who have given me so much fraternity and solidarity and have supported and encouraged me in living my priestly vocation here in Knoxville.

“In a special way, I want to thank the parishioners of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto, St. Paul the Apostle Parish in New York, and here at Immaculate Conception in Knoxville for having been wonderful welcoming communities in which I have lived and experienced my life and ministry as a priest these past 25 years. Thank you also to all who have contributed to my 25th-Anniversary Fund for a Post-Pandemic Parish Future, intended to help this parish adapt to the new needs and ongoing challenges going forward from this time of pandemic.”

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