Cardinal Caffarra was one of the greatest theologians of our time

Pope Benedict XVI gives his cardinal ring to newly appointed Carlo Caffarra (Getty Images)

The death of Cardinal Caffarra marks the departure of one of the great sons of the Church. I met the Cardinal about 16 years ago, when he was Archbishop of Ferrara, and that meeting, brief as it was, has stayed with me. There will doubtless be lots of well thought out obituaries of his late Eminence, but here are a few thoughts of mine in the immediate aftermath of his death.

Carlo Caffarra was a great theologian; indeed, I would say, after Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, probably the greatest in the Church in our times. He started life as a seminary professor, but by the time he was in his thirties he was called to be part of the International Theological Commission, the body which advises the Pope on such matters, and later was handpicked by Saint John Paul as the first head of the John Paul II Institute for Family Life. The saint realised that family life was crucial, and needed able defenders, so he picked Caffarra for the job, which tells you something.

Caffarra was a great preacher. I heard him hold the Cathedral of Ferrara spellbound for five evenings in a row, between Christmas and New Year – and Ferrara cathedral is huge. He did it all without recourse to rhetorical tricks, indeed his delivery was rather dry. But the content was superb and it was animated by a deep and sincere faith. You heard him speak forthrightly in favour of the truth and you knew that he believed what he said with all his heart. That made him a brilliant communicator, despite his rather boring and professorial appearance.

Caffarra was a great pastor. He was born in the same town as Giuseppe Verdi, Busseto, in Emilia Romagna, the then Communist heartland of Northern Italy, the place made famous in the Don Camillo stories. Like a lot of people from a similar background, he was pretty down to earth, affable and easy to talk to. When you spoke to him, you had his undivided attention, and you had the impression (one based I think on fact) that he cared for his interlocutors. Like all good archbishops, he had the manner of a wise and approachable parish priest.

When Saint John Paul II died, Caffarra was not then a Cardinal; when Benedict XVI resigned, he was perhaps considered too old for the Chair of Peter. He would, I think, have made a superb Pope: a lion of orthodoxy, a subtle intellect, a humble man, and one who believed with every fibre of his being. He was a great and unshowy communicator, one whose only desire was to lead souls to God.

I count meeting him as one of the great privileges of my life. May God now reward him! May he rest in peace.