Archbishop Georg Gänswein says Pope Benedict “follows his successor with great attention and sympathy.” The prefect of the Pontifical Household gave an interview to La Nacion’s Elisabetta Piqué, which was published on March 21st.
The German prelate, who serves as personal secretary to both Pontiffs, said that in a number of ways he and Benedict have been “impressed” by Pope Francis, both as a human being and as a spiritual leader.
While acknowledging that the first Jesuit Pope to hail from the Americas is ‘full of surprises,’ Archbishop Gänswein says Benedict admires his strong work ethic and prayer life.
“He works for two, and is 78 years old,” Archbishop Gänswein said, also noting how attentive Francis is to the people he encounters every day, giving much personal attention.
Benedict, he confirmed, is “impressed by Francis’ particular gift for relating with people.”
Noting how Francis rises very early to meditate and prepare for Mass, he said that the Pope leads a contemplative life, where “the coherence between his very active life and the time he dedicates to prayer is impressive.”
“The Ignatian spirituality,” he went on to say, “is really incarnate in him.”
When discussing how the words ‘encounter’ and ‘mercy’ have truly become key words of the pontificate and extend to the greatest and the least, Gänswein said: “This is something that I admire and that inspires me.”
The 58-year-old German prelate did admit, however, he finds how much “unpredictability in his action, in the changes, in the surprises at the last moment that are never lacking” to be “a little difficult!”
He noted that Pope Francis “jokes about this when he speaks about protocol and ‘the bureaucracy’ of the Vatican… but, joking aside, I think the Pope has experienced that the protocol and all those who work in this sector do not seek to condition him in any way, they only want to serve and assist him in his Petrine service.”
‘Criticisms without Foundation’
When asked how some have criticized the Argentine pope for “allegedly desacralizing the papacy” by not living in the Apostolic Palace, being a populist, and so on, Gänswein said that such “criticisms are without foundation.”
“Pope Francis does not go to the peripheries to receive applause; he doesn’t meet people in prison to increase his popularity. It’s ridiculous to think in that way. As for his style of life: I remember well that one of his first affirmations was: ‘I am 76 and I am not going to change my life’. It was and is that way. I see it every day.”
“Furthermore,” the archbishop stated, “I consider it absurd to speak about a desacralizing of the figure of the Pontiff. Those who make these kinds of criticism have an unreal image of the papacy. It’s sufficient to observe the history of the popes and one sees many external changes, due to different reasons, but what remains identical and irreversible is the substance of the promise of the Lord to Peter.”
Archbishop Ganswein continues to serve as private secretary to the-emeritus pope as he has since his election. In 2003, he had become private secretary to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, two years before being elected Pope. Two months before Pope Benedict would resign, he appointed him as Prefect of the Pontifical Household, the post he currently holds.
In the first months of the new pontificate, the prelate said, he had to adjust to Francis’ “personal style” and that his new role—an unprecedented one–meant serving both the new pope and the emeritus pope.
“But with the passing of time, I hope I have found a right way of relating to each of them,” he said.
Recalling that on April 16th Pope Benedict will celebrate his 88th birthday, Archbishop Gänswein said in spite of his age, “His head functions perfectly, but his legs have begun to create problems.”
Still, he noted, Benedict walks a little every day. He leads a life of prayer, reads very often, deals with private correspondence and receives visitors. Francis phones Benedict and they sometimes write to each other, the archbishop confirmed.
“There is full continuity between them,” he noted, which he said is evident in their work to clean up the Vatican Bank, officially known as the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR) and the sexual abuse crisis.
Yet, the Vatican official did express some unease at Pope Francis’ pre-Christmas discourse to the Roman Curia in which he identified 15 diseases. He said it was a discourse that surprised many and was very strong, adding that “it offered an occasion to make an examination of conscience, and I did that.”
“But I fear,” he continued, “in fact, that the words of the Pope could be manipulated against his closest collaborators: the good Pope, on the one hand, and the sick, corrupt Curia on the other. But where there is an illness, there is also an antidote.”
Love for the Lord and the Church
In the interview, Archbishop Gänswein admits he senses some “unease” in the Curia about some of the things in the reform process, even if so far the only new measures are that of the Secretariat for the Economy and the Council for the Economy.
From both Pope’s, Archbishop Gänswein said, he learned something very important: love for the Lord and the Church.
As personal secretary to Benedict XVI, he said, “I learned serenity in facing the daily challenges in a brave and sincere way, and to fear nobody and nothing.”
Whereas from Pope Francis, he said, “I am learning to look ahead, to open myself to new questions. The experience of the peripheries, which he loves to speak about, is something different with respect to the church experiences that we have in Germany, Italy and Europe.”
Responding to whether this means the Vatican was too euro-centric, Archbishop Gänswein said, “It could be.”
“It’s clear,” the prelate added, “that the personal experiences of a Pope has much to do with his pontificate and with the governance of the Church.”
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