An Interview with Archbishop Georg Gaenswein (Part 1)

«Many spiritual fruits have emerged from Benedict XVIs act of renunciation»

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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. This is the first of two parts; the second part can be read here. Translation by ZENIT.


–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 r
enunciation 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. 


The second part of this interview can be read here.

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