The Spanish magazine ‘Palabra’ published an exclusive and extensive interview this week 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 second of two parts. The first part was published yesterday. Translation by ZENIT.
LIFE OF A POPE EMERITUS
–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.
THE CHALLENGES OF THE CHURCH
–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.
Read the first part of this interview here.