GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Catholic church leaders in West Michigan are remembering the life of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as preparations are underway for his funeral at the Vatican on Thursday.

Father Robert Sirico, pastor emeritus of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Grand Rapids, will fly to Rome on Tuesday to attend the service, which will be presided over by Pope Francis. 

Sirico met Benedict on several occasions and is paying tribute to his legacy.

“His pontificate is yet to be unpacked. The writings, the intellectual ideas. The model of his prayer and his personal sanctity was so inspiring to so many people,” Sirico said.

Father Robert Sirico meeting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. (Courtesy Father Robert Sirico)
Father Robert Sirico meeting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. (Courtesy Father Robert Sirico)

With Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reaching the age of 95, Father Sirico said the church was praying for him as his health deteriorated.

“On the one hand it wasn’t unexpected because we knew that he had been ill for some time and you could see if you were monitoring the photos and everything, you could see his decline,” Sirico said.

Father Sirico said it was an honor to spend time with the pope emeritus and will hold their meetings close to his heart.

“I had a mass at a conference at the Vatican and he was celebrating the mass,” Sirico said. “I was kind of his alter boy at that mass and then met him after, afterwards in audience with him.”

Most of all, he remembers Benedict’s humility and presence.  

“For a man with his intellect, he was so modest. He was so quiet when you’d deal with him or see him in a meeting, he wasn’t the kind of person when you walked in the room everyone was at his command. He was just very humble. Very deliberate. Very quiet, modest,” Sirico said.

Many people will remember when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, the first pope to step down in 600 years.

“He said he prayed about it. He said he was convinced in his heart and his conscious that it’s something he should do but I really regret it. I think he could have led the church quite competently right up until the other day. I don’t think a pope has to go around the world. He doesn’t have to be a superstar,” Sirico said.

Benedict was criticized for how he handled cases of sex abuse but was also known for leading the church through a difficult time.

“People are going to look and objectively see that he did more and earlier than anyone else had done. He was the first pope to meet with victims of abuse and he really went against the grain in Rome in uncovering and removing from the priesthood even high officials, influential people in the church,” Sirico said. 

Father Sirico said the pope emeritus will be remembered for staying strong to his beliefs.

“He didn’t have a mean bone in his body and anything he said that gave offense, gave offense either because it was misunderstood or because people disagreed with him,” Sirico said.

Monsignor Michael Osborn, the vicar general for the Diocese of Kalamazoo, spent years working at the Vatican and had met Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and spent many years studying and working at the Vatican.

“He always took his walk every afternoon in the square and everybody knew who he was by the shock of white hair,” Osborn said. “But he would stop and talk to anyone very, unimpressed with himself.”

Osborn said people were surprised when Benedict stepped down.

“We saw his health deteriorate quite extensively and I think everybody was surprised … when he did resign. I was there at the time,” Osborn said. “When you looked at him you thought, ‘Oh my goodness, he just can’t do it anymore.'”

The Thursday morning funeral will also be a first in the modern age, as Pope Francis will be presiding over the service honoring the life of Benedict.

“Basically it will be the funeral as of any other pope and the only different thing about it is that the current pope will be presiding over it. Usually, it’s the dean of the College of Cardinals because there is no pope,” Osborn said. “But in this case because of his retirement and resignation … the Holy Father would do that himself.”

Monsignor Osborn said the legacy Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI leaves behind is not yet fully understood.

“There’s a saintliness to him, there’s a legacy there that will come out eventually as we … let the dust settle from his passing,” Osborn said. “He’s just been a great gift to the church and to the world in the 95 years that he covered.”