ROME — A priest who met and exchanged zucchettos with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in early November 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,” Msgr. 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,” the monsignor added.

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.

Inspired by Benedict XVI’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 that are involved in missions in 80 countries throughout the world.

By using these two encyclicals as the foundation for their work, the organization seeks to unite works of charity with the preaching of the Gospel. Its leaders also met with Pope Francis at the end of their Nov. 4-9 leaders’ forum in Rome.

“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 recounted how he exchanged zucchettos with Benedict XVI during their meeting, saying that the pope emeritus was “so gracious” in giving him something he will treasure as a source of encouragement.

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, he “really spoke as a father of the Church. He was able to combine sound doctrine, without changing [it], with a very pastoral approach.”