By Anna Artymiak
Having served as secretary for three Popes, Monsignor Alfred Xuereb is one of the few to witness personally the prayer lives of the most recent Successors of Peter.
Monsignor Xuereb served under the pontificate of John Paul II, and then as one of Benedict XVI’s private secretaries. He has continued with that role with Pope Francis, having recently been named the secretary-general of the new Secretariat of the Economy.
In this second part of an interview with him, the monsignor recalls how Benedict XVI prayed for the faithful.
Part 1 was published Thursday.
Q: How did your appointment come about as second secretary of Pope Benedict?
Monsignor Xuereb: I was already working in the Second Loggia as prelate of the anti-chamber to accompany the personalities who had a private audience in the Library. One day I was told: “The Pope needs to speak with you.” I was very moved to find myself sitting on the same chair on which for some years, first with John Paul II, then with Benedict himself, I had invited persons to accommodate themselves beside the Pope’s desk.
Benedict XVI wished to speak to me personally, and said very beautiful words to me: “As you know, Monsignor Mietek is now returning to Ukraine. We were very happy with him and I thought that you could replace him. I know – he said – that you have been in Germany, therefore you know a bit of German.” I answered that I had been in Munster, that I practiced in a hospital, which the Pope told me he knew. He also knew the area where we lived and the parish, and even the parish priest because he had lived in the neighborhood and had taught there. He knew two professors: Professor Pieper and a theologian called Pasha. Because his house was destroyed in a bombardment he was then invited by the same persons where I was a guest. The Holy Father also said something about Malta and added: “Obviously now everyone has his tasks.” So I understood that we had to start soon. And I began immediately.
Q: I imagine that that time you packed your bags joyfully …
Monsignor Xuereb: Also with emotion, so much emotion …
Q: Did Benedict XVI continue John Paul II’s tradition of bringing to his personal prayer the many intentions presented through the Secretariat?
Monsignor Xuereb: Yes, John Paul II already did so and it was the task of Monsignor Mietek. I inherited this very beautiful task. The intentions arrived almost every day. Many did not come to us from the private secretariat, but directly from the Secretariat of State. To those we responded that the Pope had addressed a general intention during his prayer. Benedict XVI would remain very affected: how many sicknesses that perhaps we didn’t know, and how many families lived the drama of sickness! He thought not only of the sick person, but of the whole family that, night and day, Christmas and Easter, summer and winter, had to look after and go to their sick, some very grave. How many families were in anguish because newborn babies or little ones were sick! And when there was a prayer intention from Malta and from my city, he would say to me: “Do you know these persons?” Sometimes I said yes because I knew them, at other times I said no, because I didn’t know them. But what struck me was that the Pope, after a few days, more than once having finished the Rosary in the Gardens, would turn to me and ask: “Have you had news of Mister — he would say the surname – of whom you spoke to me?” In some cases I had to say that unfortunately the person was dead and I was struck by the fact that the Holy Father would recollect himself and recite immediately the Eternal Rest prayer. And he also invited me, who gave him this news, to pray immediately. The Pope, who had a thousand things to do, a thousand thoughts, considered his prayer for the sick a very important pastoral ministry. I would leave the slip of paper with the names of the persons for whom to pray on the kneeler, which had a sort of box. I know that he looked through them often. They were there. I never took them away unless he told me so.
Q: John Paul II’s canonization is coming close. Did Benedict XVI remember him often?
Monsignor Xuereb: Yes, certainly. He called him “the Pope.” When he said “the Pope,” in the beginning I didn’t understand. He considered himself as one who collaborated with “the Pope.” I think he served “the Pope” faithfully not only because he knew what was meant theologically by “the Successor of Peter,” but also because of the particular veneration for the Pontiff that one who was educated in the Bavarian religious environment had. In this sense for him to serve “the Pope” was a very great gift.
Q: From your position, how did you see this relationship of friendship between John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger?
Monsignor Xuereb: I took part only once in the meetings that Cardinal Ratzinger had with John Paul II and in fact on the occasion of the Plenary Audience of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which he was Prefect. I can only confirm what was already noticed by all, and that is that John Paul II had very great trust in Ratzinger, he turned to him to ask for his views or to draft and correct important documents. The very fact that John Paul II had not accepted, many times, the resignations of Cardinal Ratzinger, who had already celebrated for some years his 75 years of age, means that he didn’t want to lose a man of trust, such a valid collaborator. Here I see another aspect of John Paul II’s holiness and that is his farsightedness. He looked far ahead and perhaps foresaw also that Ratzinger might be his Successor.
Q: How did you live John Paul II’s beatification?
Monsignor Xuereb: Pope Benedict was very happy about this. One could see it also at the Mass, when he pronounced during the homily the phrase “Now he is Blessed!” Suffice it to watch the film again to understand how happy he was!
Monsignor Alfred Xuereb is from Malta. His service for the Holy See began under the Pontificate of John Paul II in 2001, in the first section of the Secretariat of State. Then he became a collaborator of Monsignor James Harvey in the Prefecture of the Papal Household and from September 2003 he assumed the function of Prelate of the papal anti-chamber, that is, the prelate responsible for introducing to the Pope the guests received by him in private audience in the Apostolic Palace. During this time Don Alfred Xuereb had the opportunity to know John Paul II more closely. From September of 2007, together with Georg Gänswein, he carried out the function of second secretary of Benedict XVI. Before him, was the Pole Don Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, now Metropolitan Archbishop of Lemberg, in Ukraine. After the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the Chair of Peter, he became the first private secretary of Pope Francis.