A priest who met and exchanged zucchettos with retired pontiff Benedict XVI last week marveled at the former pope's joy, mental clarity and good health.

“We were so, so enthused by the joy in Benedict, (by his) his serenity. He's a man at peace, at peace in the will of God for him today, which is to pray for the Church,” Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo told CNA Nov. 7. Benedict XVI is like a wise grandfather, he said, pointing out how as “a tender man who is full of humility,” the retired pope is a living example of what Pope Francis means when he often speaks of the importance of tenderness. “He is in fantastic health, fantastic health, and his mind is as sharp today and perhaps even sharper than when he was the great theologian and the great Pope that we knew him as.” Msgr. Figueiredo serves as spiritual director at Rome's Pontifical North American College. He was one of five leaders of the new “Caritas in Veritate International” confederation, for which he also serves as Vice President for Relations with Bishops, who met Benedict XVI last Thursday. Inspired by the retired pontiff's encyclical letters “Deus Caritas est” — God is Love — and “Caritas in Veritate” — Charity in Truth — the organization is made up of several Catholic communities, international groups and charitable institutions who are involved in missions in 80 countries throughout the world. By using these two encyclicals as the foundation for their work, the organization, who also met with Pope Francis at the end of their Nov. 4-9 leaders' forum in Rome, seeks to unite works of charity with the preaching of the Gospel. “Charity is not something extrinsic to the Church, but along with preaching the Gospel and the liturgy it’s actually one of the three essential tasks of the Church,” Msgr. Figueiredo said of the organization’s driving motives. The priest recalled how during their 45 minute audience with him, Benedict XVI expressed his gratitude that his encyclicals were not only being read, but also put into practice by the organization, saying that the true inspiration in writing them came not from himself, but from the Holy Spirit. Benedict, the priest observed, “really encouraged us in charity and faith. He said something very significant: he said ‘charity without faith is meaningless, and faith without charity remains a dead letter.’” “So it really is essential to bring both together; faith in forming charity, but charity as well in strengthening our faith in Jesus Christ who we encounter particularly in those in need.” Msgr. Figueiredo spoke about the use of the phrase “charity in faith” versus “charity in truth,” which is the name of the former pope’s encyclical, saying that faith is essential if we are to fully know the truth. It is with the light of faith that we are able to recognize the truth when it is given to us, he said, noting how in the Church we receive our faith through scripture, the Church’s sacred tradition and through the teachings of the Magisterium. “So we need to go to those three sources in order to know the truth. The faith being rooted in these three elements then sheds light on the truth,” the priest continued, saying that Benedict’s encyclicals give a clear explanation of this. He then recalled how he exchanged zucchetto’s with Benedict XVI during their meeting, saying that the former pontiff was “so gracious,” in giving it to him, and it is something he will treasure as a source of encouragement for years to come. A zucchetto is a small, circular skullcap worn by clerics in various rites of the Catholic Church, as well as by the higher-ranking clergy in the Anglican, Syriac and Malankara Orthodox traditions. In the Catholic Church, black is worn by priests, purple by bishops, red by cardinals, and white by the Pope. Benedict XVI is a great example for all priests, and especially seminarians, to look up to, Msgr. Figueiredo said, noting that during his pontificate the retired pontiff “really spoke as a father of the Church.” “He was able to combine sound doctrine, without changing (it), with a very pastoral approach,” he said, explaining that as pastors, priests must be able to reach people in the pews not by changing doctrine, but rather making it something living and meaningful in people’s lives. However, despite the many gifts Benedict has given through his writings and teachings, his greatest gift to the Church so far has been his example of humility, particularly in his resignation from the papacy. “The greatest pulpit from which Benedict has ever preached is his great witness of humility. Here is a man who reached the top, we would say, in the Church. He is the successor of Peter, but he did not cling to that dignity,” the priest explained. Rather, the retired pontiff made himself a living example of St. Paul’s exclamation that all things are considered nothing in comparison to knowing God, Msgr. Figueiredo continued, saying that Benedict’s departure from the “glory” of the papacy to live a life of prayer is a clear example of what the apostle is talking about. This relationship with Christ is what matters the most in our lives, the priest observed, saying that because of his actions Benedict “remains an enormous witness that the most important spiritual lesson we can learn is to enter in God’s will for us today with courage.”