Solving the Archbishop Gänswein Suspension Puzzle

In late January, Pope Francis asked Archbishop Georg Gänswein to step away from his duties as prefect of the Pontifical Household and devote more time to his role as personal secretary to Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis speaks with Archbishop Georg Gänswein during the Wednesday general audience inside the Vatican's Paul VI Hall on Jan. 15, 2020.
Pope Francis speaks with Archbishop Georg Gänswein during the Wednesday general audience inside the Vatican's Paul VI Hall on Jan. 15, 2020. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

The curious case of Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s disappearance from papal duties is coming together after what appeared to be conflicting messages emanating from press reports and the Vatican Wednesday.

A Feb. 5 article in the German newspaper Die Tagespost claimed that Pope Francis had placed Archbishop Gänswein on indefinite leave from his position as prefect of the Pontifical Household after his handling of the Pope Emeritus Benedict-Cardinal Robert Sarah book launch on the priesthood and priestly celibacy — a fracas that attracted worldwide media attention.

This move would seem to parallel this pontificate’s handling of other collaborators who have caused the Holy Father difficulties and challenges in the past: removing them from their duties but not assigning them new ones, and therefore leaving them in a kind of abeyance without end.

Cardinals Raymond Burke and Gerhard Müller are other examples who, after being removed from their positions, have yet to be given new curial or episcopal roles.

The ostensible reason, Die Tagespost reported, was to care for Benedict XVI who, according to speculation from Luis Badilla of the semi-official Vatican news aggregator Il Sismografo, may be unwell.

But Wednesday afternoon the Vatican tried to restrain the story by issuing a statement saying “no leave” had been granted.

“We have no information in that sense,” a spokesman said. “If you refer to Bishop Gänswein’s absence during certain audiences in recent weeks, it is due to an ordinary redistribution of the various commitments and duties of the prefect of the Papal Household, who, as you know, is also the personal secretary of the Pope Emeritus.”

But various reliable sources have confirmed to the Register that what happened most closely accords with what Vaticanist Marco Tosatti reported yesterday, which is that about two weeks ago, Pope Francis called Archbishop Gänswein into his office to tell him he would appreciate it if he would work for the time being for the Pope Emeritus and spend his time looking after him, rather than serving as prefect.

For the past two weeks, the archbishop has not been seen assisting Pope Francis at his audiences.

Archbishop Gänswein, although quite shocked by the decision, inside sources say, and curious to know how the job of prefect would be managed without him, agreed to the instruction.

The Pope also later refused to reinstate him, saying it would be better if he continued assisting the Pope Emeritus for the time being, and that the role of prefect would continue to be carried out in his absence by Msgr. Leonardo Sapienza, regent of the Pontifical Household.

The Vatican’s statement is therefore partially correct in the sense that Archbishop Gänswein has not been given total leave from his duties as he continues to assist Benedict and there is still a possibility he could return as prefect.

But at the moment he appears to have been given an indefinite leave from the latter, which would appear to amount to more than just an “ordinary redistribution of the various commitments and duties.”