Pope Benedict XVI’s secretary, advocate and confidant: What you need to know about Georg Gänswein

Archbishop Georg Gänswein is publishing a memoir of his years with Pope Benedict. But the archbishop is a compelling figure in and of himself.

By Jim McDermott

One of the central figures in the days surrounding Pope Benedict’s wake and funeral has been Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the pope’s longtime private secretary. It was Archbishop Gänswein who was at Benedict’s bedside when he died and reported that a nurse had heard Benedict say, “Jesus, I love you,” a few hours earlier; he also greeted mourners who came to visit Benedict’s body when it lay in state at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Later this week, he will be publishing a memoir of his years with Pope Benedict, Nothing But the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI. And while the book promises to tell the story of Benedict’s papacy from behind the scenes, Archbishop Gänswein is a compelling figure in and of himself. He has an amateur pilot’s license, loves the outdoors and plays tennis. As a young man he had long hair and listened to Cat Stevens and Pink Floyd. Working for Benedict, he aspired to be a “pane of glass,” allowing the “sunlight” of Benedict in without becoming visible himself. Yet his own good looks inspired fashion shows, magazine covers and stories around the world. After Benedict’s resignation, he worked simultaneously for both Benedict and Pope Francis in key positions, leading La Stampa to suggest he was “almost a ‘third pope.’” But in 2020, he was relieved of most of his Vatican duties after seeming to use Benedict to publicly undermine Francis.

Who is this paradoxical, controversial figure?

A childhood spent mining for meaning

Georg Gänswein was born in 1956 in a village in southwestern Germany. The oldest son of a blacksmith active in local politics, Gänswein saved for college by working as a mailman and dreamt of being a stockbroker. “My idea was that there was a lot of money being made and that you had to be bright and fast,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2007. But the more he considered that career, the more he wondered about what kind of meaning it would offer him. “I thought, O.K., if I can do all that and have money, what happens then?”

“Suddenly, existential questions took center stage,” he told the German magazine, leading him to the study of philosophy and theology. And the more he dug in, the more he came to believe that only as a priest could he fully enter into the deeper investigations of theology. “At some point I felt that I couldn’t drive at half speed, either I’d do it completely or I’d quit,” he said. “A little theology, that’s not possible. So, step by step, I approached the priesthood.” In 1976, he entered the seminary for the Archdiocese of Freiburg.

Gänswein: ‘The study of canon law felt to me as dry as working in a dusty quarry where there is no beer.’

After being ordained in 1984, Father Gänswein worked for a time as an associate pastor in his diocese before being assigned to get a doctorate in canon law at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He initially hated it. “I had always studied gladly and easily,” he told Süddeutsche“but the study of canon law felt to me as dry as working in a dusty quarry where there is no beer. You die of thirst.” With the help of a good director, he produced a dissertation in 1993 on the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council.

Father Gänswein’s predecessor, then-Archbishop Stanislaus Dziwisz, had warned him that his most important job was as the pope’s gatekeeper, and in the early going, Father Gänswein admitted that navigating “the countless requests for private audiences and other encounters” was difficult. But a more unexpected and complex challenge for Father Gänswein was the massive media attention that he found himself receiving.

Almost from the start of Benedict’s papacy, commentators made a point of remarking on Father Gänswein’s good looks.

Almost from the start of Benedict’s papacy, commentators and others made a point of remarking on Father Gänswein’s good looks. The Italian press dubbed him “Gorgeous Georg”; in 2007, fashion icon Donatella Versace used him as an inspiration for her 2007 Clergyman Collection. And his handsome features frequently became a focus of stories during papal visits.

In describing a papal visit to the United Kingdom, John Hooper at The Guardian describes Father Gänswein as “A tall, athletically built man wearing a broad pink sash over his priestly black garb…the pope’s good-looking private secretary, who will no doubt become one of the stars of the four-day visit.” That same year, the Irish author Colm Tóibín called Father Gänswein “remarkably handsome, a cross between George Clooney and Hugh Grant, but, in a way, more beautiful than either.” When consecrated bishop early in 2013, the Italian edition of Vanity Fair put him on the cover of their January 2013 issue, with the headline “Father Georg—it’s not a sin to be beautiful.”

Benedict’s papacy suffered through a number of significant controversies—his citation in a speech at Regensberg of a 14th-century emperor who argued that the only thing that the prophet Muhammad “brought that was new…[were] things evil and inhuman”; clergy sexual abuse scandals; and the Vatileaks scandal, which would reveal that the pope’s own butler had for years been stealing correspondence between Benedict and Father Gänswein and then sold some of it to the press, out of a concern that Benedict himself was being kept in the dark about “evil and corruption” in the church. And Father Gänswein was always at his side.In 2007, he called the Regensberg speech “prophetic” and the protests that ensued around the world “crude reactions.” In recent days, he has said that Benedict was the “father of transparency” and “the decisive figure” in matters of sexual abuse.

And in his new book he describes Benedict’s papacy as frequently attacked by the devil. In an excerpt from La Reppublica about the Vatileaks scandal, he writes, “It’s obvious, as Pope Francis would say, that the bad guy, the evil one, the devil doesn’t sleep.”

Pope Francis: divided and dividing loyalties

In December 2012, Father Gänswein was appointed the head of the papal household and appointed to the rank of archbishop. This brought with it an even larger role in the Vatican—responsibility for every public papal audience in Rome, papal visits with heads of state and bishops, any papal travel within Italy and care for many of the Vatican’s buildings. It seemed to signal an ever deeper trust on the part of Benedict.

But behind the scenes Father Gänswein had been privy to a secret that no one else yet knew: Benedict was planning to resign. Over the last week, Archbishop Gänswein has begun to reveal details of Benedict’s last few months and how he pleaded with Benedict not to resign. “Holy Father, it’s impossible,” he recalls telling the pope. But Benedict would not be swayed. “This is a decision I’ve made…it’s not a thesis to be discussed,” the late pope said.

For some, that cast Archbishop Gänswein’s promotion into a different light. John Cornwell wrote in Vanity Fair that the appointment was a way for Benedict to be able to remain informed on what was going on in the Vatican. “Since this was one of Benedict’s last big appointments before his resignation,” Mr. Cornwell notes, “it would be difficult for the new Pope to countermand it without seeming disrespectful.”

In his early years working with Francis, his opinion of him seemed generally positive.

As it turns out, upon his election Pope Francis decided not to live in the papal apartments or to hold his normal meetings there, but instead took a room at the Casa Santa Maria guest house. And while Archbishop Gänswein remained the head of the papal household after Benedict’s resignation, he moved with the pope to the converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens that served as Benedict’s retirement home.

In his early years working with Francis, his opinion of him seemed generally positive. In 2015, while noting “a degree of unpredictability in [Francis’] action…the surprises at the last moment that are never lacking,” Archbishop Gänswein praised Francis’ work ethic, saying: “He is an extraordinary phenomenon. He works for two, and is 78 years old.” He also praised his spiritual life; “the coherence between his very active life and the time he dedicates to prayer is impressive; it is a contemplative life.”

A year later, Gänswein gave a talk at the Pontifical Gregorian University in which he argued that Francis and Benedict represented a new vision of the papal office, “a de facto extended Petrine ministry—with an active member and a contemplative member.” When questioned about this, Francis corrected the idea, telling reporters, “There is only one pope.”

That moment captured well the apparent conflict within Father Gänswein in his new position. As Pope Benedict’s private secretary, Father Gänswein made it his mission to “be transparent as glass so as not to conceal Benedict XVI in any way.” He came to identify with Benedict so intimately that when meeting a writer critical of Pope Benedict, he said, “Oh, you don’t like us.” Now he was being asked to serve a new pope with his own vision while also being the main caretaker of the well-being and legacy of his predecessor.

Archbishop Gänswein has spoken critically of the pope’s Synod on Synodality, saying he believes the texts generated “will not be fruitful.”

In 2017, he read a letter from Benedict at the funeral of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who had criticized Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” praising Cardinal Meisner’s faith “even if the boat [of Peter] has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” It was widely interpreted as an attack on Francis. Some wondered whether it and other moves like it truly came from Benedict at all. Just a year earlier, Benedict had reaffirmed “my obedience to my successor” and said he felt “a sense of deep communion and friendship” with Francis.

Speaking to the puzzling contradiction of this, David Gibson recently noted in Slate that Benedict “continued to write, to send letters. But how much of that was Gänswein? Especially in the last couple years, it’s hard to tell how much of that was Gänswein pulling the strings.”

In 2020, Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Benedict together put out a book pushing for clerical celibacy at exactly the time Francis was publicly considering the possibility of married clergy in discussions at the Amazon synod. When the publication of this book made waves, Archbishop Gänswein insisted Benedict was not a co-author; he had simply contributed a chapter to the book. But in fact, other than a preface and conclusion, the book had only two chapters, the first of which was by Benedict.

Almost immediately, Archbishop Gänswein vanished from public functions of the papal household. This was explained at the time as “due to an ordinary redistribution of the various commitments and duties of the prefect of the Papal Household.” Later Archbishop Gänswein revealed that Francis had effectively removed him from the job, asking him to devote all his energy to caring for Benedict, which Archbishop Gänswein said “pained” him and felt like a “punishment.”

In February 2022, Archbishop Gänswein spoke critically of the pope’s Synod on Synodality, saying he believes the texts generated “will not be fruitful,” and implied that the concept behind the synod was not Catholic. “If I want a different Church that is no longer based on revelation, so to speak, if I want a different structure of the Church that is no longer sacramental but pseudo-democratic, then I must also see that this has nothing to do with Catholic understanding, with Catholic ecclesiology, with the Catholic understanding of the Church.”

In his new book—advance copies of which began to be sent out just hours after Benedict’s funeral—Archbishop Gänswein seems ready to issue more criticism of Francis alongside defending Benedict’s legacy. He told the German paper Die Tagepost that Francis’ restrictions on the Latin Mass hit Pope Benedict “very hard”: “I think it broke Pope Benedict’s heart to read that motu proprio.” He also writes that Benedict did not agree with the way that Francis answered questions on abortion and homosexuality in his 2013 interview with La Civiltà Cattolica editor in chief Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and said that he himself was never able to achieve “a climate of trust” with Francis.

The theologian Massimo Faggioli said of Archbishop Gänswein’s decision to do a tell-all book and publish it within days of Benedict’s death “[at] the very minimum, it’s very bad taste.” Mr. Gibson, who has written a book about Pope Benedict, agrees: “He’s being incredibly divisive. But Benedict took a lot of flak, and he’s going to defend his man.”

Source: Pope Benedict XVI’s secretary, advocate and confidant: What you need to know about Georg Gänswein | America Magazine

Theologian Matthew Fox on Pope Benedict XVI’s complicated legacy

History will remember Pope John Paul II as the person who brought back the Inquisition and who handpicked Cardinal Ratzinger to be its chief Inquisitor as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, CDF, formerly known as the Office of the Sacred Inquisition.

The name was changed after the Second Vatican Council under Pope Paul VI.  Though the Council had called for freedom of expression and opinions among theologians, all that came to an abrupt halt under JPII and Benedict XVI who as head of CDF and then as Pope Benedict XVI, managed to silence, suppress or expel 107 theologians from countries all around the world, myself included.

I list the names of these persons in my book on Ratzinger, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved. 

As I know from my experience with him, Cardinal Ratzinger was a bully of the first order.  His brother, who was a priest in Germany, admitted to physically abusing boys in his choir though denied he was part of the sexual abuse of the boys that also occurred in that same choir.

NBC News’ Joshua Johnson and Boston Globe former Spotlight editor Walter Robinson discuss Benedict’s admission of presence at a 1980 meeting on priestly pedophilia.

Yale psychology professor Young Shin Kim, an expert on bullying, says 85% of bullying cases happen for the benefit of an audience.  That is clearly a big part of the raison d’etre for Benedict’s actions against Leonardo Boff in Brazil, Eugene Drewermann in Germany and myself in North America.  This same psychologist observes that “bullying is often used to maintain the social pecking order” and there was plenty of that going on in JP II and Benedict’s Vatican.

Criminologist William Black tells us that Bullies play a well known game.  Their strategy is to intimidate…They must be confronted….Bullies are cowards…Giving in to bullies guarantees that they will act ever more abusively…An adult who repeatedly gives in to a bully is a coward. 

Matthew Fox’s archival records, packed up to go to the University of Colorado. Photo by Matthew Fox.

When it comes to Ratzinger and myself, a big synchronicity occurred for me last Friday.  On the exact day that Cardinal Ratzinger died, I finished a major task of sorting my papers and loaded them up in a U Haul for shipping to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where they will be digitized and made available for future generations to study.

A relative of mine who is a practicing Catholic pointed out the special synchronicity of that day because a chunk of my papers (two boxes of 36) holds correspondence twixt Rome, my provincial and myself.  Also, thousands of letters of support written to the Vatican or to Dominican headquarters by Catholics and people of other and no faith traditions supporting my work.

That that journey happened on the same day that Pope Benedict’s soul took its journey is, well, surprisingly synchronistic.

Source: Pope Benedict XVI’s Legacy, continued – Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox

The Problem with Christianity in a Nutshell

By Carl McColman

We all know that so many people today prefer to remain spiritually independent, intentional about cultivating their interior life but unencumbered by affiliation to a faith community. In other words: “spiritual but not religious.”

We know that this annoys some religious people, while others seem to roll with it. Even though I remain engaged with Christianity-as-religion, I also try to understand and appreciate the perspectives of those who say “no thank you” to institutional religion.

Yesterday morning, this insight came to me, and if you identify yourself as spiritually independent, I’d love to hear from you to see if this resonates with your experience of spirituality and religion. I’m speaking specifically about Christianity, since that is the religion (and spiritual tradition) I know best. I’ll leave it to others to reflect on how other religions come across to the spiritually independent.

Here’s the thought that occurred to me:

You know what’s wrong with Christianity? It’s like learning that someone truly beautiful and wonderful has fallen in love with you  — but all of your mutual friends keep busy telling you how you must act or behave or what you must do in order to be “worthy” of that love. All their advice, instructions, demands, etc. create such a din that it’s easy to forget that this was all about love to begin with.

I suppose it’s human nature. We want to give each other advice. We want to “help” each other out. Even those with the best of intentions often end of creating a worse mess because our attempts to shape each other’s actions end up coming across as controlling rather than liberating.

Christianity is a religion, and I believe at its heart, religion is simply a complex story about what it means to be human.

The story of Christianity is the story of a Divine Creator God who is Love, and who loves us, and essential that love is how God wants us to love one another — something we fail at spectacularly, pretty much all the time. So this God-of-Love has encouraged us to become, ourselves, embodiments of Love — in other words, to become saints, and prophets, and theologians, and mystics, and pastors, and preachers, and priests — all with the same end in mind: to love each other, serve each other, and help each other to respond more fully to the God-who-is-Love.

But ironically, even all these spiritual masters end up, often as not, making things worse rather than better.

Eventually, this Loving God becomes human to live and die as one of us, showing us the way to live and to love. This inspires an entirely new type of spiritual community, which of course leads to more saints, mystics, and so forth. Generation after generation, we keep telling each other the story, and countless people become inspired to embrace a fully mystical life, a life of union with this Divine Lover. But others just get caught up in the rules and the regulations.

As we approach the two thousandth anniversary of the death and resurrection of Jesus, for so many people it feels like the “story” has become so caught up in the “rules” that its mystical heart has been all but lost.

I, for one, remain plugged in to Christianity as a community because for me it’s the way I keep working on the “love your neighbors” bit. But I also understand that “love your neighbors” has to extend beyond any visible institution. Meanwhile, I try to be sympathetic to those who have been hurt by the institution, or rejected by it, ignored by it, or even just bored to death by it. Sometimes, leaving a situation that is death-dealing rather than life-giving is itself a profoundly prophetic act.

I hope that those who feel called to engage with the adventure of mystical Christianity, whether functioning inside or outside of Christianity-as-a-religion, can find ways to understand that, in the eyes of Love, we all remain one. So let’s act like it.

Hmmm, did I myself just indulge in that tendency to tell other people what to do? I’m afraid so. Forgive me. Maybe it can’t be helped. So, facing the irony of this-is-what-Christians-do, allow me to try again: I hope that everyone whose eyes encounters these words, myself included, will simply take some time today and every day to embrace the Divine Love that is already present in all our hearts. Embrace that Love, and listen to Love’s call to you. Truly find the voice of Love, deep radical self-giving Love, and it will not lead you astray.

Source: The Problem with Christianity in a Nutshell – Anamchara: Carl McColman

On Human Nothingness and Extinction, continued – Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox

To meditate on one’s own mortality is not always an easy thing to do—but it is very necessary in order to live life fully and gratefully.  To meditate on our own species’ possible extinction is even harder to do—but probably even more necessary.

It is not an easy meditation to undertake.  But it may reap dividends.  I used to tell my students to add one year to your age and then meditate on that year, the time that preceded your existence, the time before you were born–when you were nothing.  Meditate on your pre-existence when you were not yet.

Meister Eckhart urges us to return to our “unborn selves” to recover our freedom when we were not yet and that we can do this by way of meditation and letting go.

One meditation on our extinction would be to project ahead to a time when humans are no longer on the earth.  That time will come eventually.  What can it tell us about how to live now, while we are still here and thereby prolong our time as a species?

Even if we stumble through our current crises by hook or by crook, still there will come a time eventually we know when the earth will no longer be hospitable to the animals, plants and biosphere that makes our living possible.  Five or six billion years from now and our earth will be turned to a crisp by the sun we are told.

So some might say, “well, whether we last a billion years or five billion or a million years or just a few hundred years, what’s the difference?  What’s it all about anyway?”

All those questions are worth considering in a meditation on the future nothingness of our species.  Can we look back and ask, “Might we have done things differently?  How might we have responded to the teachings of a Jesus or Buddha or Isaiah or Mohammad or Black Elk differently?  More generously?  With greater gratitude for our existence after 13.8 billion years of gestation on the part of the universe?”

Might compassion, for example, which all the spiritual traditions we have inherited urge us to practice, have been woven more deeply into the fabric of our communities and cultures, our education, law, science,  business, economics, politics, media and religion?  What if we had lived lives more committed to compassion and to justice?  How would human cultures evolved if that were the case?  Might we have prolonged the lifetime of our species?

Source: On Human Nothingness and Extinction, continued – Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox

Recommended Reading

Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart

Matthew Fox’s comprehensive translation of Meister Eckhart’s sermons is a meeting of true prophets across centuries, resulting in a spirituality for the new millennium. The holiness of creation, the divine life in each person and the divine power of our creativity, our call to do justice and practice compassion–these are among Eckhart’s themes, brilliantly interpreted and explained for today’s reader.
“The most important book on mysticism in 500 years.”  — Madonna Kolbenschlag, author of Kissing Sleeping Beauty Goodbye.  

A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice

In A Spirituality Named Compassion, Matthew Fox delivers a profound exploration of the meaning and practice of compassion. Establishing a spirituality for the future that promises personal, social, and global healing, Fox marries mysticism with social justice, leading the way toward a gentler and more ecological spirituality and an acceptance of our interdependence which is the substratum of all compassionate activity. “Well worth our deepest consideration…Puts compassion into its proper focus after centuries of neglect.” –The Catholic Register

Jesus messed up

In today’s Gospel:

“Now there was a herd of many pigs feeding at a distance from them. And the demons begged Him, saying, “If You are going to cast us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” And Jesus said to them, “Go!” And they came out and went into the pigs; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.”

Two thoughts about this:

First, why did Jesus need to send the demons into the poor little piggies? They didn’t do anything wrong. I love pigs.
Second, imagine the poor pig farmer the next day: “Who the hell drowned all my piggies? What is my poor family gonna do for money this year? I’m ruined!”

So – I think Jesus really messed up here. Uncharacteristically.

Say Amen, somebody.

A brief history of ‘O Holy Night,’ the rousing Christmas hymn that garnered mixed reviews

“It might be a good thing to discard this piece whose popularity is becoming unhealthy,” one early critic wrote.

Twenty-six years ago, George W. Hunt, S.J., then editor in chief of America, wrote that “O Holy Night” was one of his favorites among Yuletide songs, modestly adding: “I’ve sung it countless times in choir (the dull second tenor part).”

Our fond memories of “O Holy Night” are closely associated with the familiar English words translated from the original French by the Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight. Former director of the school at the 19th-century Brook Farm commune in Massachusetts, Dwight witnessed the conversion to Catholicism of a number of his fellow commune members, including Isaac Hecker—later a Roman Catholic priest and founder of the Paulist Fathers, the first religious community of priests created in North America. Continue reading “A brief history of ‘O Holy Night,’ the rousing Christmas hymn that garnered mixed reviews”