In the Heart of the Church: Archbishop John J. Meyers


Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, Prefect of the Pontifical Household
March 2014

This week, the Spanish magazine 'Palabra' carried an exclusive and extensive interview with Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, prefect of the Papal Household and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s personal secretary. With Palabra’s permission, we republish the interview in which he talks about his passions and his work, and his very “special” occupation. He recalls the moments of Benedict XVI’s resignation a year ago, and the fruits that have emerged from it for the whole Church.

--Q: Tell us a bit about yourself: where you were born, your studies  …

--Archbishop Gänswein: As is known, I am German. I come from the south of Germany, from the Black Forest, concretely from the Archdiocese of Fribourg. I am the eldest of five children: I have two brothers and two sisters. I grew up in a Catholic family. After the University Entrance Examination, I entered the Archdiocesan Seminary of Fribourg. I finished my studies in Philosophy and Theology in the University of Fribourg and in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In 1982 I received the diaconal ordination, and then spent a year in a parish, as the rest of my fellow students. Finally, in May of 1984, I was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Fribourg. 

--Q: And after that?

--Archbishop Gänswein: After receiving priestly ordination, I was parish vicar in a large parish. While I was there, the then Archbishop sent me to the University of Munich to study Canon Law. I stayed in Munich for seven years, from 1986 to 1993. For six years I was a docent at the University. After doing my doctorate I returned to Fribourg as theological adviser to the Archbishop, also carrying out pastoral activity in the Cathedral. I thought I had found my definitive place, but a year later, through the Apostolic Nuncio, they asked for a German collaborator for the Congregation of Divine Worship in Rome, and they sent me, although according to the plan, it would be only for a limited time.

--Q: Did you meet Cardinal Ratzinger there?

--Archbishop Gänswein: Yes, I met Cardinal Ratzinger there. When he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he asked me to work in his Dicastery, because a collaborator of his had been recalled to Germany. We are talking about the year 1996.

Before I didn’t know him personally, but during my theological studies, being a seminarian, I had read almost all his writings. In Rome I lived in the Pontifical Teutonic College, which is located inside the Vatican. Cardinal Ratzinger came there every Thursday morning to celebrate Mass with pilgrims, and that’s how we met. After a few years collaborating in his Dicastery, I became his personal secretary. When he was elected Pope in 2005, I continued at his side, and have done so up to today.

--Q: How was your passion for Canon Law born?

--Archbishop Gänswein: On my part, it wasn’t an innate passion. I became a canonist by a force majeure, as the Diocese was in need of a future judicial Vicar, and they thought of me. Given that my thesis for my licentiate in Dogmatic Theology also had a canonical aspect, they dared to think that I was the right person to be entrusted with this type of work. I admit that initially I didn’t like this discipline. I thank the director of my thesis, Professor Winfried Aymans who, subsequently, made me discover the importance and also the beauty of Canon Law.

--Q: What do you like to do when you are not working as Prefect?

--Archbishop Gänswein: I am very passionate about nature and excursions to the mountains in all the seasons. I love music and reading. In summer I return to my village for two weeks, to see my family again, my siblings and nephews, and to dedicate some time to the parish. I regret that, at present, given the service I carry out, there is little time to dedicate to reading and to nature.

--Q: Is it possible for you to carry out some type of pastoral activity?

--Archbishop Gänswein: This is something I miss very much. Normally I receive requests to celebrate a Baptism or a wedding and, if I have the time, I like to accept them. But it’s also true that often the time is materially lacking for me to dedicate myself as I would like to pastoral activity.


--Q: About your work, what exactly is the responsibility of the Prefect of the Papal Household?

--Archbishop Gänswein: The Prefect of the Papal Household is responsible, together with his collaborators, for all the public audiences of the Holy Father and, in the first place, of the General Audience on Wednesday morning, which usually takes place in Saint Peter’s Square. He is also in charge of the papal audiences to Heads of State and of Government, to Cardinals, to heads of Dicasteries, Bishops; of the visit ad limina of the Episcopal Conferences; of the visits of exponents of political and cultural life, etc. Our office organizes and coordinates activities in close collaboration with the Holy Father himself and with some organisms of the Roman Curia, primarily the Secretariat of State. It is also the Prefecture’s responsibility to organize the Holy Father’s visits in his diocese, that is, in Rome, and his trips in Italy. Added to this is its responsibility for the most important buildings in the Vatican, such as the Apostolic Palace and its halls, where the Pope’s private audiences are held. Let’s not forget that there is in the Vatican a great artistic and cultural wealth that must be protected and maintained.

--Q: How has your work changed since Pope Francis’ election, especially with his decision to live in Santa Martha’s?

--Archbishop Gänswein: Pope Francis’ decision not to stay in the Apostolic Palace but to stay at Santa Marta’s was, initially, quite a substantial change, especially because concrete and consolidated procedures had to be modified. We have worked a lot to make the Holy Father’s wish a reality, adapting procedures to the new situation. And I can say that this change no longer poses either a logistical or an organizational problem.

--Q: Having the opportunity to spend your days with two great personalities, you have a very “enviable” job. Do you feel privileged?

--Archbishop Gänswein: In a certain sense yes, I do feel privileged, but all this also has its price. I feel privileged because I live with Pope Benedict in his house and I also share life with him, and I feel privileged because I am at the daily service of Pope Francis. To attend to the needs of both Pontiffs certainly has a price in terms of time, strength, sacrifices, ideas, etc. Despite everything, I am very willing to pay it.


--Q: There are probably some people who still do not understand the gesture of Benedict XVI’s renunciation. How can we explain it briefly to our readers?

--Archbishop Gänswein: We must start from what Pope Benedict himself said on February 11, 2013: that he no longer had the strength, in spirit or body, to be the strong guide that Peter’s bark, that is, the Church, needs at this time. He put back into the Lord’s hands what He gave him in April of 2005, namely, the Petrine ministry. He didn’t do it to flee, but out of love for the Lord and the Church. If this isn’t clear, speculations begin to spread … among other things, already in a famous interview granted to German journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict answered clearly that there was the possibility that a Pope could resign. Obviously he wasn’t referring then to his renunciation. Canon Law provides for the Apostolic See to be vacant by the death or renunciation of a Pope. It is fundamental to understand that Pope Benedict’s renunciation was an act of love, of courage and of great humility towards the Lord and towards the Church.

--Q: You were one of the first to know that intention of the Holy Father. What did you think at that time? And, how do you remember that gesture a year later?

--Archbishop Gänswein: The moment the Pope confided to me his intention, under papal secrecy, instinctively I answered that it wasn’t possible, that he couldn’t do it … However, I understood immediately that he was not communicating to me a possibility on which he would like to reflect, but a decision taken after much prayer, much reflection and also much interior struggle. It wasn’t easy for me at the beginning to accept this decision. Over time I realized that many spiritual fruits would emerge from this act. A year later one can understand much better the meaning of that very courageous act, after the initial commotion.

--Q: What really great legacy has Benedict XVI’s pontificate left the Church?

--Archbishop Gänswein: The great legacy that Benedict XVI leaves the Church can’t be enclosed in a word. First of all, he has given a lucid example of love of the Lord and of his Bride, which is the Church. It’s an example that everyone can easily understand, both believers as well as non-believers. Being the case of a person with a very acute spirit -- he was a true teacher of the Word --, Pope Benedict has left a great magisterial richness. He has sown much in this ambit, and I’m sure that it will bear much fruit in the future.

--Q: In your understanding, why were there so many “problems” in the eight years of his Pontificate?

--Archbishop Gänswein: That a Pontiff has to address every day small and great problems, is a characteristic of his Petrine ministry; it is part of his daily efforts. This is true for all Popes, not only for Pope Benedict. That afterwards, the problems sometimes accumulate and become heavier, depends on many reasons and circumstances. One must be attentive, however, to distinguish real problems from “virtual” ones, those which appear only in the media or are even created by the media. The “real” reality and the reality communicated don’t always agree. This was also and especially true of Benedict XVI’s Pontificate.

--Q: What did you think, given the great attention that the media gave to Benedict XVI on the first anniversary of his renunciation? Have many skeptics of the first hour, in a certain sense, believed again?

--Archbishop Gänswein: I think that, with a year’s distance, not a few of those who criticized Benedict XVI have realized that many of their criticisms were unfounded. Unfounded criticisms can’t be denied or rejected either, because they would be given an attention and weight that they don’t deserve. Therefore, I am very confident that history will help to clarify and to separate the grain from the straw: good from evil, what is true from what is worthless. 

--Q: How does Benedict XVI spend his days? Can you tell us an anecdote for the Spanish-speaking readers?

--Archbishop Gänswein: Pope Benedict said that he would retire to the mountains and, in fact, the Mater Ecclesiae convent where he lives, is located in the highest point of the Vatican Gardens. There he is, hidden from the world, but present in the Church. He doesn’t intervene in Pope Francis’ government, but he prays for his successor and for the whole Church: this is his mission now. He has left the governance of the Church to continue praying.

His concrete day is well ordered. He begins every day with Holy Mass, followed by thanksgiving and the Breviary. Then he has breakfast. He dedicates the morning to reading and to correspondence, and also receives some visitors. After lunch he takes a short walk and then rest cannot be lacking: the “siesta,” as the Spanish say. The afternoon begins with the Rosary, and we pray together walking in the little forest that is behind the convent. Then he continues to read, watches the television news, and has another little walk in the terrace. Then Benedict goes to his room; at times one can also hear the piano …

--Q: It is said that many people write to Benedict XVI. What sort of letters does he receive? Are there letters from those who don’t share his decision?

--Archbishop Gänswein: Indeed, many letters arrive every day. In the beginning, not a few of them showed that some persons were struck by the renunciation, they didn’t understand his decision, or their faith was subjected to a harsh trial. Little by little these types of letters have disappeared and those of thanksgiving and gratitude have increased: the requests for prayers or the expression of the desire to visit the Pope Emeritus. Undoubtedly, the Pope’s personal correspondence reflects great love for his person, but also for the Church.

--Q: It also seems that in the Sunday Masses for the papal family in the convent’s chapel he preaches the homily, which he prepares in writing the day before, but which he then freely delivers …

--Archbishop Gänswein: It’s exactly like that. He prepares the homily on Saturday, writing it down, but then he delivers it freely. So, everything that he preaches, even if he doesn’t read it, is well prepared in writing ….

--Q: As Benedict XVI’s secretary, do you propose the things he has to do? Are you involved, also, in planning the Pope Emeritus’ rest?

--Archbishop Gänswein: The question isn’t altogether correct. I don’t propose the things he is to do, but I help him to do them. It’s not the same thing. Now, in fact, the situation is somewhat different. When he asks me to make a proposal, I certainly try to formulate it. We have known one another for many years, so we understand each other well. As is logical, the appointments for visitors or the distribution of the correspondence and the organization of concrete things are up to me, and I do it gladly.


--Q: How did Pope Benedict live the phases of the Conclave and how did he receive the news of the election of his successor?

--Archbishop Gänswein: After the renunciation he lived for two months in Castel Gandolfo and, in so far as possible, he followed the preceding phases of the Conclave and the Conclave itself through the media. On the afternoon of the white smoke, Pope Francis expressed to me his desire to speak with Benedict XVI. And, in fact, shortly after, he called him on the telephone that same afternoon.

--Q: Beyond that which is leaked to the outside by the media and from the point of view of your experience, what are the common features of Benedict XVI and Francis? In what way are they different?

--Archbishop Gänswein: What they have fully in common is their love of the Lord and of his Church. This love is the basis of everything they do. Instead, they are different in personality, in gestures, in behavior. Pope Francis’ gestures are typically his, whereas Pope Benedict has a rather reserved character. They have both brought to the Petrine ministry the gifts and talents that the Lord has given them.

--Q: What does Benedict XVI think of Pope Francis and of the great success he is having with the public?

--Archbishop Gänswein: Benedict XVI is very happy that his successor is having such great success with the public. It’s good for the image of the Church and of the faith. However, we must not forget that the measure of a Pontificate is not the external “success” but what is right before the Lord. Benedict XVI’s appreciation for his successor is based on a human and also theological foundation.

--Q: How did Benedict XVI receive Francis’ decision to assume a good part of the encyclical on faith?

--Archbishop Gänswein: With joy and gratitude. Pope Francis himself has said that it is a document written by four hands. I consider this fact an undeniable sign of the continuity between the two Pontificates. Despite the exterior diversity, there is a clear interior unity and continuity, that is, of the Magisterium. And it’s also a clear sign of appreciation for the work done by his predecessor.

--Q: Do you think that in the ceremony of canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II we might see Benedict XVI as concelebrant with Pope Francis?

--Archbishop Gänswein: I’m not a prophet: I don’t know. It might be that he is present, but certainly not as concelebrant.

--Q: In this connection, how was the relationship between Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II? Does the Pope Emeritus still make reference to the Polish Blessed?

--Archbishop Gänswein: The relationship between Blessed John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger was very intense, and was characterized by great affection and esteem. I think Pope Wojtyla is one of the most persons Benedict appreciates most, if not the one he most appreciates. That appreciation has remained unaltered also after his death. Moreover,  the great affection that Pope John Paul II had for Cardinal Ratzinger is also known.


--Q: You are German, as is the Pope Emeritus. What is the situation of the Church in your homeland? What needs does it have?

--Archbishop Gänswein: The Church in Germany is living the same situation registered in many other countries of Central Europe. Sadly, the faithful are decreasing, as well as attendance at Sunday Mass. There are few children and, consequently, few parents. I think it’s necessary that catechesis flower again and we must try to have it understood better that faith is not a weight that adds a burden to life, but something completely different. Faith help to bear the weight of each day, and it is the source of joy. If you don’t succeed in having the faithful have a clear idea, a clear conviction of what it means to believe, to have faith, to be a member of the Church, to encounter Jesus, I doubt that Christian life and practice can be strong. In a word, I repeat, it is necessary that the proclamation of the faith flower again.

--Q: Benedict XVI visited Germany for the last time in 2011. What moment of that apostolic journey is most memorable to you?

--Archbishop Gänswein: There were three moments that struck me particularly: the Pope’s address in the Federal Parliament in Berlin; the Marian liturgy at Eichsfeld, namely, in the eastern area of Germany, of Protestant majority and, finally, the Holy Mass in Fribourg, my Diocese. But the whole atmosphere of that trip was really beautiful and moving.

--Q: As Bishop, what do you expect from the forthcoming Synod on the Family?

--Archbishop Gänswein: I am confident that from this Assembly valid answers will emerge to address the present challenges that refer to the family, based on the Doctrine and Tradition of the Church.

--Q: What is your opinion on the relativist drift of Europe (and of its institutions)?

--Archbishop Gänswein: If Europe loses or sells its Christian soul, it will become an anonymous conglomerate, which will no longer have a promising future.

--Q: You have canonical formation. What can be expected of the so-called reform of the Curia, on which the Council of Cardinals is working? Is the Church certainly in need of being reformed?

--Archbishop Gänswein: The first and most important reform refers to the heart of the faithful, to the heart of all of us. We must begin there, and begin again … If then, in addition, it is recommended or necessary to modify some structures in the Church or in the Roman Curia, may good proposal be welcomed.

We know that the Church “semper reformada,” must always be reformed, so that we are before an experience which isn’t new, and which can be compared to a tree: the dry branches must be cut to allow the plant to flower better. Naturally, it must all be done in an organic way.

--Q: A subject which is often talked about is that of the financial transparency of the Church. How are things now?

--Archbishop Gänswein: I admit, frankly, that I don’t know, because I’m not part of either of the two Commissions instituted by Pope Francis for financial transparency. I only know that everyone expects results in the near future.

--Q: You were a witness: how much did Benedict XVI suffer because of the scandal of abuses committed by some members of the clergy?

--Archbishop Gänswein: Already when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed energetically the question of pedophilia and the sexual abuses committed by clerics, and he promoted the search for solutions. He has always gone in the direction of clarifying what happened. What he began as Prefect he continued and intensified as Pontiff. The abuses committed by clerics were the cause of great suffering for Pope Benedict.

--Q: As pastor, in your opinion what are the great challenges that the Church is called to address in the coming years?

--Archbishop Gänswein: The most important and most urgent challenge is to move the faithful to encounter the Lord, so that they desire to know Jesus Christ. If one has a direct contact with the Lord, all problems are relative. Otherwise, they become mountains that we can’t climb alone. If one’s faith is alive, one is able to address and surmount the problems, which will certainly not be lacking. What must have the priority in our activities is to encounter the Lord and his Church. All the other questions must be addressed in relation to this one.

--Q: How do you see your future?

--Archbishop Gänswein: I was appointed Prefect of the Papal Household in 2012 by Pope Benedict and I was confirmed by Pope Francis in 2013. In addition, I continue to be the personal secretary of the Pontiff Emeritus. These two tasks are a challenge for me and at the same time a grace. I try with all my strength to serve the two Popes, and I shall try to do so also in the future.


See Page on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI...



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