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Interview with Msgr. Gaenswein, Secretary to Pope Benedict XVI

by Msgr. Georg Gaenswein

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  • Description:
    This interview with Msg. Georg Gaenswein, the papal secretary, to the German magazine, Sueddeutsche Zeitung dated July 26, 2007, gives an insight into the daily life of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. The interviewer was Peter Seewald. Msgr. Gaenswein discusses tidbits such as the Pope's exercise bike to important issues like the speech in Regensburg. The interview was translated and made available by Gerald Augustinus on The Cafeteria Is Closed blog.
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Cafeteria Is Closed, July 27, 2007

Peter Seewald (PS): Herr Praelat, how is the Pope?

Msgr. Gaenswein (MG): He's well, feels very good, works a lot and is in "high gear".

PS: Does he use the exercise bike that his physician, Dr. Buzzonetti, told him to?

MG: The bike is in our Appartamento Privato.

PS: What does that mean?

MG: It's being a good bike, ready to be used.

PS: When he was a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger wanted to retire, stating he was exhausted.

MG: With his election as Pope something happened that he neither strived for nor wanted. But I am convinced that, as he by and by surrendered to God's will, the grace of the office in his person and his actions has shown effect and still is.

PS: How did he react to the election results?

MG: I entered as the cardinals were kneeling before the Pope in the Sixtine Chapel, swearing him fidelity and obedience. His face was almost as white as his soutane (cassock). He looked pretty stirred.

PS: What was going through your head at that time?

MG: It was like a hurricane, coming up with a clear thought was entirely impossible. The days afterward were still like a tsunamI

PS: When did you know that your life was about to fundamentally change?

MG: It happened like this: When I came to pledge my loyalty after the cardinals, I said, "Holy Father, I promise you my obedience, my fidelity, my effort in all that you demand of me. I am at your disposal with all my powers, without reservation."

PS: The reply?

MG: He looked at me, nodded and thanked me.

PS: Has your salary changed?

MG: I don't make more or less than before. The only thing that's changed is the address on the salary slip.

PS: The son of a blacksmith from a 450 people village in the Black Forest who now travels with the Holy Father in a helicopter and shares the concerns of the global Church (Weltkirche) — does one ask oneself: Why me? What does God want from me?

MG: I asked myself this very question, and not just once. It is a task that you cannot plan. In promising the Holy Father fidelity and obedience, I tried to answer that question. In that, I see a message from God, to face this task without reservations.

PS: You're probably the first Papal secretary in history that's also in the spotlight next to the Pontifex: People Magazine swoons over the "Sunnyboy in the cassock", the Swiss Weltwoche calls you the "most handsome man in a soutane". Donatella Versace dedicated a fashion line to you. Does this image as a "ladykiller" (ie someone who looks like one) bother you?

MG: It didn't make me blush, but it irritated me a bit. It doesn't hurt and it was flattering, and it's no sin. I'd never been confronted like this with my "shell". Then I noticed that it was largely an expression of sympathy — a bonus, not a malus; I can handle that well. But, I don't want that people don't just look at me but also acknowledge the substance.

PS: Do you get love letters?

MG: Yes, once in a while.

PS: You once mentioned "clerical envy".

MG: I said that in connection with statements that people were talking badly about me — "He wants to gain power, he wants to be in the foreground" and so forth. There was, there is, stupid talk, in part people simply lie. But I don't care about that anymore.

PS: Even from inside the Vatican?

MG: The Vatican is after all a courtly state. And there's court chatter. But there are also "arrows" that are aimed on purpose and directly. I had to learn how to handle that.

PS: It's said that you are available as bishop for the vacancy in Munich.

MG: Those are "unlaid eggs". Completely made up.

PS: Nobody thought that after a "millennium Pope" like Karol Wojtyla a successor could be successful this quickly. Now, everything has changed. Not only that Benedict XVI draws twice as many people. That his books are printed by the millions. Pope Ratzinger is viewed as one of the most important thinkers of our time. And, as opposed to his predecessor, he's rarely criticized. What does he have that others don't?

MG: With being Pope there comes a greater accessibility, a greater sphere of influence and a greater power of assertion. Someone very familiar with the goings-on in Rome said during the Bavaria trip last fall, "John Paul II opened the hearts of the people. Benedict XVI fills them." There is a lot of truth in that. The Pope reaches the hearts of the people, he speaks to them, but he doesn't speak of himself, he speaks of Jesus Christ, of God, and that in a descriptive, understandable and convincing manner. That is what people are looking for. Benedict XVI gives them spiritual nourishment.

PS:Did John Paul II want Cardinal Ratzinger to become his successor?

MG: There's been a lot of speculation about that. I don't know.

PS: After all, despite Ratzinger's asking several times to be dismissed as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he did not let him go. Do you view that as an argumentum e silentio, as a conclusion out of silence?

MG: That may be. Pope John Paul II said to his close aides many times: I want to keep Cardinal Ratzinger. I need him as the head of theology. You can deduce some things from that.

PS: It has become quieter in the Palazzo Apostolico. Benedict XVI has reduced the number of audiences considerably and rarely has guests at his table. Of all things, there's less work under a German?

MG: There isn't less work being done, work is done in a more concentrated manner. The Pope is an effective and quick worker. For this he needs time — to read, to study, to pray, to think, to write. That's only possible, if you tighten a lot of things, modify some or eliminate them, for the sake of what's more important.

PS: Does this mean that his predecessor was by design overwhelmed?

MG: Not at all. With John Paul II, everything became superlative compared to prior pontificates. Just think of the number of audiences, the travels, the documents, the liturgies, or the early morning Masses in the private Papal chapel to which people were always being invited. That costs time, day after day, that has to be taken from somewhere else. For Benedict XVI, such a rhythm would be unthinkable. And, after all, John Paul II became Pope not at 78 but at 58.

PS: Towards the end of the Era Wojtyla, a lot of things remained unfinished.

MG: It's an open secret that Pope John Paul II didn't look much after the Roman Curia. That's not a criticism but simply a fact. The current Pope worked in the most important position of the Curia for 23 years. He knows it like no one else. That's an unparalleled experience and a huge advantage.

PS: A Pope can have trouble with the Curia?

MG: A look at history says yes, that can happen. A weak spot in this context is certainly indiscretion. There are always "porous" spots when it comes to appointments, work on documents, disciplinary measures etc. That's not only irritating, it also means the danger that it is done on purpose, to a certain purpose which can cause troubles. Another point: wherever there is, like in the Curia, an international staff, there are different mentalities, styles of work, views, tempos and personalities that meet. Sometimes that can create friction.

PS: Is the Pope in charge of the procedures?

MG: Do you doubt that? The Pope receives his most important aides/colleagues in his audiences on a regular basis. Day after day, week after week. In addition, the heads of the congregations come to the audiences in regular intervals. This doesn't just guarantee the necessary personal contact and flow of information, but also an exchange that is invaluable for both sides. The Pope listens, gets counsel, thinks it through and decides.

PS: Joseph Ratzinger studies documents quickly.

MG: At lightning speed, and he has the memory of an elephant.

PS: Some criticize that he is in a kind of splendid isolation, a golden cage, that it's impossible to get near him.

MG: That's nonsense. Every morning there are private audiences, in the afternoon the work meetings with his closest aides — and that six days a week. In addition, there are many meetings within and without the walls of the Vatican. Golden cage? Hah! I guess it might be criticism of me, that I shield the Pope too much. Entirely exaggerated.

PS: He is basically a shy man. But at the same time he's always had something "inconvient" about him, a resistance against everything that's too common, against stupidity.

MG: That the Holy Father isn't an impetuous but a more reserved person is plain to see for everyone.

PS: The Pope writes all important texts himself, including the speech in Regensburg with the controversial quote from a historical book on a dispute with Muslims. Why did nobody edit the text?

MG: I find the Regensburg speech, as it was given, to be prophetic.

PS: Was the shock great when the angry attacks from the Islamic world became known?

MG: We only heard of the crude reactions after we'd gotten back to Rome from Bavaria. It was a big surprise, to the Pope as well. The mighty trouble had started due to newspaper reports which had taken one quote out of context and presented it as the Pope's personal opinion.

PS: In Islam, where it is in charge of state and society, human rights are being constantly violated. ("kicked with feet") The persecution of Christians has increased drastically. The President of Iran announced again that the countdown to the destruction of Israel had begun. Is the condept of a real dialog with Islam not a bit too naive?

MG: The attempts at Islamization of the West cannot be put aside. The danger for the identity of Europe that is connected to it must not be ignored for reasons of a wrongly understood respect. The Catholic sides sees it very clearly and talks about it. Especially the Regensburg speech should counter a certain naivete ("blue-eyedness"). One thing has to be pointed out — there is no Islam as such, no voice that ties all Muslims together and leads them. There are many different currents, often at war with each other, up to extremists that claim the Koran for their actions and go to work with guns. On an institutional level, he Holy See tries to make contacts and lead dialogs via the Papal Council for Interreligious Dialog.

PS: The Papal "family" in the Palazzo Apostolico is the most famous and influential "commune" of the world: four women that belong to the "memores" of Communio e Liberazione, two secretaries and the Pope. They pray together, eat together and in the evening they watch tv together in the Papal living room. How is Pope Benedict XVI as a roommate?

MG: The Papal family truly is a happy international "commune": two Germans, a Pole and four Italian women, who hadn't known each other too well before. The first important step was to find a modus vivendI— the right word, the right give and take, silence, non-silence. After only a short while, a cordial familial atmosphere had developed. The language is Italian. The Pope is after all Bishop of Rome. A little correction as far as Papal tv goes: that's pure fantasy; the Holy Father and the two secretaries watch the evening news at the most. The days are determined by the audience and work rhythm of the Pope, but we try to insert some little personal "highlights" once in a while.

PS: Highlights?

MG: Well, highlights is maybe a little exaggerated — I simply mean that personal events, name days and other important personal dates are celebrated accordingly.

PS: When you watch tv at night, does the Pope wear private clothes?

MG: No, the Pope wears white. Always.

PS: Does a Pope have to wear Prada shoes?

MG: Not at all. Journalists have a lively fantasy.

PS: Is he wearing them?

MG: I'll have to owe you that answer.

PS: Like the Pope, you grew up in modest circumstances, you both grew up in small villages. What is the heritage of such a background?

MG: Certainly a good portion of a healthy, fresh natural way of being, which is an untouchable filter for everything unhealthy, no matter in what disguise. An instinct that helps to tell genuine from fake.

PS: Growing up, you were five children, the father a blacksmith, the mother a Hausfrau (housewife).

MG: My father ran a smithy in the seventh generation, later he haded a store for agricultural equipment, but it wasn't a whole lot of money. Until I was six, we also had a little farm going. Sometimes we had to make the money last. My father was also very active in local politics, in many clubs and associations. Because of that, he was rarely home at night. Our mother had to do all the more, bear the burden and duty of bringing up the children. Us five had a childhood without worries, but of course we also fought.

PS: Because everything didn't always go the way the firstborn wanted it?

MG: As the oldest, you're supposed to be the wisest and give in — but giving in isn't exactly my strength.

PS: Born to be wild — was that you?

MG: At times maybe, between 15 and 18. I listened to Cat Stevens, Pink Floyd and some others, among them the Beatles. I had pretty long curly hair then, which my father didn't like, so there were fights at times about going to the barber. But that phase came to an end pretty unspectacularly.

PS: Where did you stand politically?

MG: I was never very political. My interests outside of school were more sports — soccer, skiing.

PS: Which is how you earned money for college.

MG: No, not as skiing instructor, I only worked as that for the skiing school of my local ski club. I worked as a mailman. At first on the bike in a little village in the Black Forest, then later by car.

PS: You once said, "I had good senses, and when you have good senses, you use them." Sounds like a lot of experience with girls.

MG: I have two sisters, several cousins, who helped me to have no troubles with the female sex. I grew up completely normal, entirely without hang-ups.

PS: Did you have a steady relationship?

MG: No, there were a few smaller romantic youthful friendships.

PS: You wanted to become a stock broker.

MG: Inititally, I was, as the oldest, supposed to take over my father's agricultural appliances business but the happenings at the stock exchange interested me more. My idea was that there was a lot of money being made and that you had to be bright and fast. Later, a bit more mature, when I thought about it more intensively, I thought, ok if I can do all that and have money, what happens then? Suddenly, existential questions took center stage. So I started to search and ended up, completely unplanned, coming across philosophy and theology.

PS: A long process.

MG: And a difficult one. At first, the world of theology drew me close very strongly, the priesthood was added as a second step. Of course celibacy was also a question. At some point I felt that I couldn't drive at half speed, either I'd do it completely or I'd quit. A little theology, that's not possible. So, step by step, I approached the priesthood.

PS: A quote from one of your homilies, on the occasion of some ordinations: "You are granted to know that you have a dignity that distinguishes you from all who aren't priests. You are allowed to have the consciousness that you are doing something great, that you are allowed to do something great." Pretty aloof.

MG: I'd say that again without ifs ands or buts.

PS: You take it seriously.

MG: Yes, I do.

PS: It also sounds a bit romantic.

MG: I don't think so. They are words that were made true by life, and life wasn't romantic. The sentences quoted by you may sound a bit ceremonious on paper but behind them there is a lot of personal experience and I did not want to keep it from the new priests that there is something grand ahead of him, that it costs something and that he has to be willing to pay that price.

PS: In 1984 you were ordained a priest, then you spent two years in the Black Forest. In 1993, you wrote your dissertation in Munich, about "Ecclesiology according to the Second Vatican Council." Did you have moments of great doubt?

MG: After two years as Kaplan (assistant pastor), I was sent back to Munich for more studying — of something that's not really my preference — Canon Law. After half a year I was so fed up I said to myself, now I'm going to the archbishop and ask him to take me back into the diocese because I can't stand it anymore.

PS: That bad?

MG: I'd always studied gladly and easily, but studying Canon Law I felt to be as dry as work in a quarry where there's no beer — you die of dryness. I was saved by my professor, Winfried Ayman who later made me his assistant. He helped me greatly to get out of this situation by showing me new perspectives. That helped me a lot and kept me from quitting. I am very grateful to him.

PS: Time and again these "verdicts" surface: dutiful, pious, conservative; a man of form and strictness.

MG: In the sense of "mild in form, strict in content" I can't let that stand. When I think something to be right, I stick to it. Admittedly, patience is not my strength. Sometimes I get pretty "in your face" (literally "I drive up pretty close"), which can irritate people.

PS: What abilities does the private secretary of the head of a Church with 1.1 billion members have to have?

MG: In a way, he has to be a jack of all trades ("generalist"), but he also has to acknowledge that he can't do everything, and he shouldn't demand it from himself. He has to do what the Pope tells him to do, and that with all his force, heart and mind.

PS: Was there some kind of introductory training, like a school for Papal etiquette?

MG: Not at all. The only thing there was was a private conversation with my predecessor, Monsignore Stanislaus Dziwisz, the current Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow. That was about two weeks after the Conclave and the move into the Appartamento. He handed me an envelope containing some papers and a key for a safe. An ancient safe, German precision work. He only said, "You now have a very important, very beautiful but also a very, very difficult task. The only thing I can tell you is that the Pope must not be "suffocated" by nothing and no one. How to go about that, you have to find out for yourself." Period, the end. More he didn't say. That was the entire school for Papal etiquette.

PS: And what was in the envelope?

MG: That I won't tell you. They are things that are given from Papal Secretary to Papal Secretary.

PS: Your initial mistakes?

MG: I realized soon that the speed I demanded of myself was too high. To start in the pole position is one thing, to get through the laps and arrive at the finish line quite another. Starting at full speed, so to speak. So I had to find out the right speed. Another difficult point was the handling of the countless requests for private audiences and other encounters which were all tied to noble motivations. Requests without end — "just for a minute", "just once, as an exception", "the Pope has known me for a long time, he'd be very happy". Here, the right "filter system" was needed. I had to put in a stronger filter.

PS: What do you keep from the Pope?

MG: Nothing important. All important official letters and documents, everything coming from bishops and cardinals, from the world of politics and diplomacy, I present to the Holy Father in the daily briefing. Apart from that there is a huge pile of letters, pleas, requests, proposals that he doesn't get to see, because he simply doesn't have the time. There, the Pope has given me room for my own judgment.

PS: Do people try to instrumentalize you?

MG: It happens, but I know how to defend myself.

PS: Does one "take off" in your position at times?

MG: The opposite is more the case, that you're being suffocated, pressed down. If there is a danger, it's isolation. At one point friends said that I wasn't around anymore and was withdrawing. That was an alarm signal, and I immediately tried to make free time to better take care of personal relationships and existing friendships. It's important for one's psychological health.

PS: What impact can this pontificate have?

MG: A strengthening of faith and an encouragement of faith — and the consciousness that the Catholic Faith is something great, a gift from God, that's however not forced on people but is supposed to be accepted freely. In that, there are great challenges that the Church has to face.

PS: For example?

MG: The "God question", the engaging of various forms of Relativism, the dialog with Islam, the strengthening of our own identity. The fact that a continent like Europe cannot live when its Christian roots are cut, because that means taking away its soul.

PS: The announcement of a desired "full and visible union" with the Orthodox churches was the first sensation of the "Ratzinger government". Isn't that a rather illusory concept?

MG: That's nothing sensational, that's always been the declared goal. That a Pope who's especially influenced this area theologically over the last years and decades formulates this explicitly should go without saying. Let's not forget that the orthodox churches stand in Apostolic succession and therefore have a valid institution, the Eucharist and also the seven sacraments. What still needs to be clarified is the question of the primacy and the jurisdiction of the Pope. But it is a scandal that Christianity is still fractured. The restoration of the full unity of faith is certainly a great goal of the theologian-Pope.

PS: Will Pope Benedict rebuild the Papacy in favor of this unity?

MG: The question is asked wrongly. Ecumenism cannot be undertaken at the expense of the truth. A Pope can't just rebuild, reorganize the Papacy to achieve certain goals faster. The important thing is that the Papacy helps to stay true to the demand of truth as regards this unity.

PS: A change in the relationships of the Catholic Church to Moscow, Constantinople and especially Beijing would dramatically alter the religious map of the world.

MG: The ecumenical dialog with the various orthodox churches is in full steam and there has been considerable progress. But ecumenism is a difficult struggle. This has to do also with tensions within the Orthodox world. Constantinople and Moscow are two precarious points. The whole world could observe the meeting of the Pope with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul last November. A meeting with the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow has still to happen.

PS: Do you already picture the Pope with the Russian Patriarch in Moscow?

MG: I hope that there will be a meeting wherever.

PS: In the West, the Roman Church is in a monumental change. The Viennese Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn spoke, as an alternative of the old "people's Church", of a "Church of confession" (decision), a Church that the faithful truly call their own and to whom they profess allegiance. Is the time of the pseudo-Christianity approaching its end?

MG: "Pseudo-Christianity" sounds unfair and derogatory and doesn't do justice to reality. We can perceive that these people-church (meaning...a Catholic country by tradition) elements are vanishing, being melted off and that "nuclear" communities appear; this process has been underway for years. Cardinal Schoenborn calls this the "confessional/decision Church". A person who is a Christian today wants to be a Christian, has decided to be one, is resolved, maybe more resolved than in past years. And someone who doesn't want to be a Christian, simply isn't one, without suffering any personal, social, political or other disadvantages.

PS: It's plain to see that so many priests of the new generation discover the spiritual, cultural and aesthetical treasures of the handed-down liturgy. With the new Motu proprio "Summorum Pontificum", an Apostolic letter of the Pope it has been stated that every priest may celebrate the Holy Mass also according to the earlier, Tridentine Rite. Will this bring new conflicts?

MG: The opposite is the purpose and goal. Conflicts are supposed to be ended, existing fractions and schisms overcome. With the Motu proprio a spiritual home has been opened to a lot of the faithful. I am convinced that the letter of the Holy Father to the bishops which was released together with the Motu proprio and in which the Pope explains the goals and motivations of the document at length is the right key to its proper understanding.

PS: The French philosopher Rene Girard, member of the Academie francaise, is predicting a decisive Christian Renaissance. According to him, we are at the "eve of a revolution of our culture." This change is supposed to make the Renaissance of the 15th century pale by comparison.

MG: The religious element enjoys an attention it hasn't had in years. After a phase of indifferentism, people once more concern themselves with religion, questions of faith. I see that especially young people who have everything or could have everything, realize: One can do anything, one can even destroy the world — but one can't win the soul, when the essential is missing. The Catholic Church has treasures to offer that no one else can offer. Greater and more enduring than all politicial offers of "salvation." But, that doesn't happen automatically. Faith comes from being heard, as Saint Paul says, it has to be proclaimed.

PS: Just six weeks after its relase the Pope's book "Jesus of Nazareth" had been printed 1.5 millikon times. One feels that the Pope "puts on" this Jesus from scratch.

MG: The Jesus book is the quintessence of a man who has concerned himself with the person of Jesus of Nazareth his entire life — as priest, theologian, bishop, cardinal and now as Pope. It is his great spiritual testament.

PS: What do you like about this work in particular?

MG: I'm just reading it once more. It is written in a manner that it is as deep as it is understandable. It is the sum of the life of an important person. The book takes its place in the tradition of the great Church Fathers. I am convinced that this book will strengthen many people in their faith and will lead them to faith — and not just a particular group of intellectuals, but people of all backgrounds and education.

PS: The theologian Joseph Ratzinger delivers a forceful logic: This Jesus is the one who has all powers, who is Lord of the Universe, God Himself, who has become man. Jesus of Nazareth would seem bound to start a revolution.

MG: Yes, but without bloodshed.

Translated by Gerald Augustinus, The Cafeteria Is Closed

Sueddeutsche Zeitung Magazin July 26, 2007

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