Read: The Lansing Priest at the Papal Funeral | Father James Conlon

This is a photograph of Father James Conlon, left, concelebrating the Requiem Mass for the repose of the Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on January 5, 2023. RIP. Until a few weeks beforehand, though, Father Conlon of Saint Francis of Assisi in Ann Arbor had no inkling he would be heading to Rome, let alone participating in a such a significant and solemn moment in Church history.

“I had intended a whole quiet week to myself,” explains Father Conlon in the latest edition of FAITH Magazine, the official publication of the Diocese of Lansing.

His plans for a quiet week were quickly shelved, however, when he received some sad news in December. The father of Father Ryan Riley, chaplain to Father Gabriel Richard School in Ann Arbor, had died. RIP. The school’s impending pilgrimage to Italy needed a new chaplain. Father Conlon generously stepped into the breach.

“When we left on the first of January, we knew Pope Emeritus Benedict had died. We also knew that we would be in Rome around the time. Once they announced the timing and the date of his funeral, we knew we would be in Rome at that time.”

The pilgrimage organizers, Corporate Travel Services, had already arranged for FGR students to attend Holy Mass in Rome for the Feast of the Epiphany Mass, January 6. Now the organization worked hard to change things around, so the FGR students could experience the papal funeral.

“We were going to attend that Mass, so I went online to see how I could get permission to celebrate, and which I did,” Father Conlon says. “While I was there, I also signed up for the funeral Mass. In the meantime, our tour organizers had also a sought permission for the students to attend the funeral. Permission came while we were in Assisi.”

And, so, the FGR pilgrim group made their way to Rome, where they joined the estimated 50,000 other mourners who came to pay their respects and pray for the soul of the late Pope. Meanwhile, Father Conlon joined approximately 3,700 other priests concelebrating the Requiem Mass in Saint Peter’s Square. It was a occasion as emotional and it was prayerful and historic.

“There was a moment when the coffin came out of the double doors at Saint Peter's, and nobody was expecting it just then,” says Father Conlon, “And then suddenly there was this applause, which is very much a European thing to do, to applaud the deceased.”

“As I scanned around, I was amazed at the number of priests who were crying. This wasn't just a celebrity or a well-known person that we were burying. This was somebody who's intimately connected with our life of faith. We knew him.”

According to Father Conlon, the students from FGR seemed similarly moved by events and by the crowds who turned out to pray for the late pope. It’s estimated that nearly 200,000 people came to view Pope Benedict mortal remains as he lay in state. Meanwhile, another 50,000 were present for the Requiem Mass.

“They were just delighted to be there at this extremely historic moment. How many teenagers can say, ‘I was at a Pope's funeral’? I think they enjoyed it immensely, and I think they were quite impressed by what pomp and ceremony that was there. I think they really, really were fascinated by all of that.”

“What impressed me were the crowds of the laity for a pope who had been in retirement and almost in seclusion for 10 years,” Father Conlon says.

“Anytime we passed by the Vatican on our travels that week, the week prior to his funeral, the crowds just in line to go into view his remains were quite extraordinary. Especially when you remember that was longer retired than he was Pope.”

The service itself was also unique among papal funerals.

“Pope Francis has a certain style of preaching. He doesn't preach so much about the person, but more about our faith and the hope that our faith gives us. And he didn't stray from that,” recalls Father Conlon says. “And then of course, instead of using the Roman Canon, he used Eucharistic Prayer III, which is a little shorter, breaking with the tradition.”

Father Conlon had actually met the Pope Benedict before, twice in fact: once as a seminarian and once at a gathering of charismatic community members.

“He had been the chief celebrant at the Mass for the solemnity of Pentecost. After Mass many of us were able to have an audience with him, which was a delight,” Father Conlon remembers.

“He was very small. It wasn't what I expected at all. I'm not a tall person myself, but he was smaller than me. And his piercing eyes and that really very, very white hair. But he had that very beautiful German accent.”

“And just when you spoke with him, he was speaking to you and not as if he was speaking to a big crowd. It was almost like a one-on-one conversation. He wanted to know about you. From what I hear, he was very much a priest’s priest. He was more at home with clergy than he was with laity. Pope Francis is the opposite, I think.”

Despite his reputation as a theologian and “priest’s priest,” however, Father Conlon noted the lines and lines of ordinary lay people who made their way to Rome to pray of the late Pope.

“For many Italians, he was like a grandpa. As I spoke to people, ordinary Italians that just got in line, they were there to say farewell to him. He could really bowl people over with his erudition and scholarship, but also with his personality.”

“He just came across as being so gentle and caring. He also had a very pastoral approach to things within the church. He had that scholarship, but he also had a strong pastoral approach. He was a gifted man, and he will be missed.”

Pope Benedict XVI, requiescat in pace.

* Photograph: Father James Conlon, left, concelebrated Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Requiem Mass pictured with Father Ryan Brady, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

* Additional material from FAITH Magazine. For more: