Rev. David LeFort, pastor of St. Mary's parish in Clinton Heights, attended seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome for six years in the mid-1990s. For about two years, he occasionally served at a morning Mass at a cemetery inside the Vatican at which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the celebrant.
"He was very kind, very gracious," Father LeFort recalled. But what resonated with the seminarian even more was meeting the future pope on the streets of Rome: "We would regularly just see him strolling through the city. He was a very happy man, very joyful. He was always smiling."
Father LeFort denied some portrayals of Cardinal Ratzinger as a harsh disciplinarian while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "He was always very attentive to whatever you were saying. His eyes are very gentle. They're very connected to the speaker."
The cardinal would ask Father LeFort about his studies; the seminarian once said he liked reading work by theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and "he just lit up, because he's a von Balthasar scholar. You could just see this man was very engaged with theology, with spirituality, with people.
"Those are the stories I will very much cherish. It was being able to see him as one of us."