The Vatican rooms are impressive. As opposed to what happens in television studios, which in reality are smaller than they appear on the screen, here everything is larger: Saint Anne’s Door, the Apostolic Palace, the majestic stairway, Saint Damasus Courtyard. Historic magniloquence: some of its parts in fact are older than 500 years – splendid, but as opposed to what some continue to say, not ostentatious. In fact, I would say the opposite. Archbishop Georg Gänswein received us in one of those rooms: not very large, red, luminous, ancient and elegant.
I asked him if it bothered him to be known as “The George Clooney of the Vatican” and he just laughed. “To be honest”, he said, “I had to Google him. And when I saw who he was, I thought, ‘Really?’ Let’s not exaggerate. I hear things, but I ignore them and eventually they go away”. One does not find in Archbishop Gänswein that haughtiness that one could expect from someone in his position, so close to two of the most influential persons in the world. He began to work with Cardinal Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996, becoming his personal Secretary in 2003, a position that he kept at the election of the Cardinal to the Papal Seat. In 2012, he was appointed Prefect of the Papal Household and, with the new Pontificate, Francis confirmed him in that post. It was the year 2013, in fact in the month in which the intense heat paralyzed Rome, but not Pope Francis! It was August 31. Hence, Archbishop Gänswein is, to date, the only person in the history of the Church that serves two Popes contemporaneously. He lives with the German Pope: he concelebrates with him in the morning, they pray the Rosary together, and walk together for about a half hour in the Vatican Gardens. In the afternoon, instead, he works with the Argentine Pope.
How do you manage to collaborate with two Popes? It doesn’t seem easy to adapt oneself to two such different personalities …
They are certainly very different between them: and for me, after a long experience as Secretary of Cardinal Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, to begin to work also with Pope Francis was not easy. Let’s say that, using media language, I had to “render myself compatible,” because it was quite an intense change. I had already received the office of Prefect, which Francis wished to reconfirm. What my collaborators and I do is to serve. And that is all. How is this done? It depends much on the way the Pope guides the Church. However, I must say that there is a great advantage in all this: to live and work with two Popes, and to experience this diversity, has helped me and helps me to grow humanly and spiritually.
Beyond the physical differences – the shoes, the cross, etc. –, it seems sometimes that there is a distance between the two, also in what they say …
All the stories that we heard at the beginning of the Pontificate as, for instance, that he uses black shoes, or that the material of his pectoral cross is less than silver, are secondary: they are exterior things, ways of doing things. If one looks more closely at the contents, it will be seen that in exercising the munus petrinum there is continuity with Benedict XVI. And this is right. We are talking of a South American and a German, of two very different personalities. The first is educated and formed by the Jesuit spirituality, and it is logical that his way of thinking, of doing and also of exercising the Petrine service is different from one who had first of all an academic-university formation.
Francis often reminds me of John Paul II …
Yes, he can be so, even if they arrived at the See of Peter with twenty years of difference. Both had already accumulated enormous pastoral experience, although in a very different political and cultural context. Pope Francis, after having directed a large and not easy diocese such as that of Buenos Aires; Saint John Paul II at the head of the Church of Krakow that, at the time, was the only place where one could express oneself freely. I think we can compare them in this respect, but also in some aspects of their personality.
Francis, for instance, talks a lot about the “culture of encounter”: to meet persons, and to meet them as much as possible. John Paul II didn’t speak expressly of this culture, but he put it constantly into practice. It is contact with others, including physical contact, which is striking in the two Popes.
Sometimes I’ve heard it said: “John Paul II is the Pope of Hope; Benedict XVI the Pope of Faith; Francis the Pope of Charity.” Although simple, do you think it’s a good analysis of the reality?
It’s difficult to summarize an entire Pontificate in a word. Every time one attempts to enclose something complex in a word one runs a risk. I would say that Pope Francis is the Pope of gestures, the Pope of Mercy. We are still on the way; in any case, after two years, I think that to describe him as “the Pope of gestures” will at least help to give an idea.
Two years after his renunciation, what was Benedict referring to when speaking of his “earthly pilgrimage”?
In his last brief address at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict XVI spoke of the “last stage of the earthly pilgrimage.” And before he had said that he would not come down from the cross, that he would not leave the Lord. He goes up to the mountain to pray for the Church and for his Successor. His role now is spiritual: to pray for Peter’s barque. It’s important to remember that the Church is not governed only with decisions and strategies, but also and above all with prayer. The Church is a “team of prayer,” and we know well that, the more people pray the better it is. In this team the Pope Emeritus has a particular place of “pilgrim”.
Some do not yet understand the renunciation and interpret it as a strategy to block some attempts to cause “great damages” …
We could write a whole book of hypotheses and theories in this regard! On that February 11, Pope Benedict XVI read a brief and very clear statement explaining his reason. All the rest that has been said and hypothesized is altogether devoid of foundation. That there were individual persons, or even currents against Benedict, was irrelevant in regard to the renunciation. It’s obvious that a person like him had reflected long on a question of such importance. He didn’t allow himself to be intimidated by anyone. He was very clear in his conversation with Peter Seewald, several years before the renunciation: “When there are wolves, when there is danger, the shepherd must not leave his flock.” He didn’t do so then, and he has never done so; his was not a flight. This is the truth and it is the only explanation of the reason for his renunciation.
On some occasions you have spoken of the “fruits” of this renunciation. What are these fruits?
Pope Benedict realized that to guide today’s Church it’s necessary to have spiritual strength but also physical strength. It was an act of very great humility to renounce the Papacy to make way for someone younger and stronger. I believe it’s a great example of love for the Lord and for the Church, an example that not all can or want to understand. Observing Pope Francis’ Pontificate, one can perceive how the image of the Church has changed for the better. Pope Benedict took the first step for the change: he opened the door to follow this path. I believe it could happen also in the future.
You will admit, nevertheless, that for you those days in February 2013 were not precisely tranquil: who knows what conflicting sentiments you might have gone through …
Undoubtedly. They were very difficult days for me, but the distress began in reality many months before, the moment the Pope told me what he wished to do. Of course, I had to remain silent, as you can well imagine; that requited a great effort. That famous February 11 and then, the 28th, I was pierced by sentiments of gratitude, but also of sadness, and by something comparable to a sort of mourning. However, the Holy Father had made his decision, a decision of conscience, coram Deo, and therefore to be respected and followed.
In your opinion, why did Joseph Ratzinger choose you as Secretary?
What a question! He was 75 years old and was convinced that John Paul II would accept his resignation. I was already working at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and his Secretary at the time had just received a new post in the Congregation for Consecrated Life. The Cardinal was in need of someone who would function as his secretary and he chose me. He never explained to me why he chose me, and I never asked him. I was surprised, of course, but he took this decision and I accepted.
I believe that the surprise to see that your Cardinal was becoming Pope was enormous …
Yes, naturally. I would never have imagined it, and I believe the Cardinal did even less so. He was elected. He wanted to retire, but the future was altogether different! He accepted the election of Pope because he saw God’s will in it. And I became Secretary of a Pope. Those days were also like a tsunami for me, as you can imagine.
With the advent of the new Pope did you ever think that you would probably leave the post of Prefect of the Papal Household, and that your life would then be somewhat more “tranquil”?
No. Not because I was sure that I would be confirmed, but because all that didn’t worry me. Therefore, I didn’t think about it much and I was not afraid at the moment of the change. It’s normal that, when the Pope wishes, when he believes it’s opportune, he changes the team. In 2013 he decided to have me stay on in the post and I’m here. Now I think only of serving in the best way possible.
In your opinion, and recalling that for Pope Benedict the fight against relativism was very important, what do you think is the dearest subject for the present Pope?
The question of truth always remains important and I believe that Francis thinks about it the same way. It’s not that he’s not interested in the fight against relativism, but he sees clearly that, in his Pontificate, God is asking him to concentrate on other points, on other challenges. He has very much at heart to speak of a “poor, missionary Church.” He likes the concept of the Church as “field hospital” or “outgoing Church.” It is in these areas that Pope Francis is fighting at present.
The family is one of the challenges. Why do you think so much confused news has been circulating on the last Synod and on the one that will be held in the next month of October?
There are persons who have written or write without being well informed or well prepared and, in addition, there are “currents.” Therefore, it’s very important that the Pastors of the Church and also the faithful have the ideas and content clearly and express them frankly and sincerely. The October Synod must begin not from a particular problem, but from the main topic and that is, from “the evangelization of the family.” Clearly the Church doesn’t close her eyes in face of the difficulties of faithful living in difficult situations. However, the Church must give sincere answers that are oriented, not to the spirit of the times, but to the Gospel, to the Word of Jesus Christ and to the Catholic Tradition.
What are the present challenges in this field?
A challenge is certainly Christians that are in a marital situation theologically called “irregular”. It means persons who have divorced and remarried civilly. We must help them, certainly, but not in a reductive way. It’s important to get close to them, to create contact and maintain it because they are members of the Church as everyone else, they are not expelled and even less so excommunicated. They are supported, but there are problems in regard to the sacramental life. The Church must also be very sincere with faithful living in this situation. It’s not only about saying: “They can, they can’t.” And there, in my opinion, it must be addressed positively. The question of access to the sacramental life must be addressed sincerely on the basis of Catholic teaching. I hope that in the months of preparation before the Synod proposals will be presented that help and serve to find the just answers to such weighty challenges.
Some of these disputes come from your native land, Germany. Why?
Yes. It’s true that not all the errors come from there, but on the point in question certainly yes: twenty years ago, after a long and laborious negotiation, John Paul II didn’t accept that remarried Christians could accede to the Eucharist. Now, we can’t ignore his teaching and change things. Why do some pastors want to propose what’s not possible? I don’t know. Perhaps they give in to the spirit of the time; perhaps they allow themselves to be guided by the human applause caused by the media … To be critical against the mass media is certainly less pleasing, but a pastor must not decide on the basis of applause or even less of the media. The measure is the Gospel, the faith, healthy doctrine, Tradition.
Why do you think the media you just mentioned say little or nothing about persecuted Christians? Is the Pope alone on this?
The Pope is very clear on this point and, unfortunately, great institutions are silent or, if they speak, do so in an inconsistent way. And this is very grave. It’s unacceptable behavior. Up to now the Pope is the only convincing and courageous voice that says things as they are. He’s not afraid and does not seek people’s applause. He acts like Saint Paul, namely, he intervenes opportunely and importunely in a clear way
The Pope’s day is intense, and I conclude that yours is also: you don’t have time to play tennis, as you certainly would like, or to dedicate yourself to university activity. Would you perhaps have desired another life?
I’ve never asked myself this question, because I’ve never said “ I want to do this, or that …” When a post has come to me, I’ve accepted it. Pope Benedict asked me something, and so I accepted it and did it gladly. The same is true for Pope Francis.
Reviewing your history beginning from those days of your youth – in which you had long hair (laughs) – up to today, what would Georg Gänswein: say of his life?
When I look back from this perspective I laugh a bit about all this … I was 18, 19 and at that time – end of high school and beginning of the Seminary – it was fashionable: I wasn’t the only one! My father didn’t like it and that caused moments of tension. However, personally a principle of life has always been useful to me: “trust, but be careful of whom”. And also another, which in German says: Tue recht und scheue niemanden.. That is, “do everything you consider just and don’t be afraid of anyone”.