Benedict XVI’s Personal Secretary: ‘The Proclamation of God Was the Center of Benedict XVI’s Pontificate’
Archbishop Georg Gänswein discussed at length the final years of the pope emeritus in a wide-ranging interview with EWTN last month.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein has known Pope Emeritus Benedict in an official capacity since being appointed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1995. Since Benedict’s election as pope in 2005, his startling resignation in 2013 and his final years at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican, Archbishop Gänswein, 66, has been Benedict’s personal secretary, and the pope emeritus has rarely been publicly seen without him.
The archbishop has had a unique perspective of Benedict’s last years, which he says were primarily devoted to prayer.
On Nov. 22, a little over a month before Pope Emeritus Benedict died Dec. 31 at 9:34am Rome time at the age of 95, Archbishop Gänswein was interviewed by EWTN Vatican Bureau Chief Andreas Thonhauser. The transcript follows.
Your Excellency, how had Pope Emeritus Benedict been doing toward the very end of his life?
Contrary to what he thought, he had lived to a ripe old age. He was convinced that, after his resignation, the Good Lord would grant him just one more year. No one was probably more surprised than he was to see that this “one more year” turned out to be quite a few more years.
Towards the end, he was physically very weak, very frail, of course, but — thanks be to God — his mind was as clear as ever. What was painful for him was to see his voice become quieter and weaker. He had depended his whole life on the use of his voice, and this tool had gradually become lost to him.
But his mind was always clear; he was serene, composed, and we — who were always around him, who lived with him — could feel that he was on the home stretch and that this home stretch had an end. And he had this end firmly in sight.
Was he afraid of dying?
He never spoke about fear. He always spoke of the Lord, of his hope that, when he would finally stand before him, he would show him mildness and mercy, knowing, of course, about his weaknesses and his sins, his life. ... But, as St. John said: God is greater than our heart.
You spent many years by his side. What were the key moments for you?
Well, for me, everything started when I became a staff member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when he [Cardinal Ratzinger] was the prefect. I then became the secretary. That was supposed to last a few months, at most, but, in the end, it lasted two years.
Then John Paul II died, and Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI; I spent all those years as secretary by his side, and then, of course, also during his time as pope emeritus. He had been longer a pope emeritus than a reigning pope.
What always impressed, and even surprised, me was his gentleness; how serene and good-tempered he was, even in situations that were very exhausting, very demanding — and, at times, even very sad, from a human point of view.
He never lost his composure; he never lost his temper. On the contrary: The more he was challenged, the quieter and poorer in words he became. But this had very good and benevolent effects on those around him.
He was, however, not at all used to large crowds. Of course, as a professor, he was used to speaking in front of a large, even a very large, audience of students. But that was him as a professor speaking to students. Later, as pope, all these encounters with people from different countries, their joy and enthusiasm, were, of course, a very different experience.
He had to get used to it, and it wasn’t easy to find the right way. But he didn’t let some media coach tell him what to do; he simply and naturally took on the task, and, finally, as I can say, grew into it.
We were talking about his mildness, how he dealt with those around him. Can you give us an example?
I remember a meeting with bishops and cardinals, during his time as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. The topic was such that things got heated relatively quickly, both in terms of content and also verbal statements. Italian had to be spoken, since it was the common language. And I could see that the Italian native speakers were, of course, quicker and stronger, showing even slight spurts of aggression.
In his very simple, somewhat quiet manner, he first toned down the aggressive atmosphere, trying to get from tone to content. He simply said: “The arguments are either convincing or they are not convincing; the tone can either be disturbing or helpful. I suggest we help each other to take down the tone and strengthen the arguments.”
Can you tell us more about him as a human being? How did he understand the papal office? After all, he was a human being having to deal with that task …
Well, surely the last thing he wished for or desired, was to become pope at the age of 78. But he became pope, he embraced it, he saw it as the will of God, and he took this task on. At the beginning, there was some initial, momentary insecurity: TV cameras and photographers were just everywhere, and a private life, a normal life, was no longer possible.
But I could feel how he simply put himself in this situation, trusting firmly in the help of God that he would give him the gifts he had been lacking and he now needed; trusting that, with his natural gifts, but also with the help of God, he would be able to carry out the office entrusted to him, managing it in such a way that it would indeed be for the benefit of the whole Church and the faithful.
At the beginning, you said that the word — the spoken, but also the written word — was his tool, so to speak. Which of his writings, his encyclical letters, his books are important for you personally?
As pope, he wrote three encyclical letters; the fourth was written together with Pope Francis and then also published by Pope Francis: Lumen Fidei, on the faith. I must confess that Spe Salvi is the encyclical that has given me personally the most spiritual nourishment, and I also believe that, of all his important encyclical letters, this one will ultimately “win the race.”
I started reading his work when I was still a student and seminarian in Freiburg; I read all of it, and that, of course, influences one’s spiritual growth. I think that one of the things that will remain is certainly the “Jesus Trilogy.” Originally, it was supposed to be only one volume. He started it when he was a cardinal, and he finished the first volume as Pope. And he thought that the Good Lord would only give him strength enough for the first book.
He wanted that, among the writings that were published under his name — besides the official texts he wrote as pope, of course, his encyclical letters for example — the “Jesus Trilogy,” his “Jesus Book” in three volumes, would be seen as his spiritual and intellectual testament. He started writing it as a cardinal and then continued as pope. At the beginning, he said, “It's now time for me to finish; who knows how long my strength will last?”
His strength did last; he started the second volume, and so on. These three volumes contain his whole personal being as a priest, a bishop, a cardinal and a pope, but also all of his theological research, his whole life of prayer — in a form which, thanks be to God, can be easily understood; a form which is written at the highest academic level, but will also, for the faithful, be his lasting personal testimony. And exactly that was the intention. With this book, this form of proclamation of faith, he wanted to strengthen people in faith, lead them to faith and open doors to faith.
Which of these thoughts will you embrace personally; which ones have helped you the most?
When I look at the book on Jesus, the crucial thing is that this book doesn’t describe something from the past — this one Person, even if he is the Savior — but it talks about the present. Christ lived, but he is still alive. Reading this book helps to make the connection, so to speak, with today, with Christ. I don’t just read something that happened. Something happened, yes, but what happened has meaning for me, for everyone who reads it, for my personal life of faith. And that, I think, is decisive, in the sense that Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, does not minimalize, take away or skip anything from what the Church professes as to faith. And that, for me, is something that remains. I have read the first volume several times; I have read it over and over again in order to accompany certain seasons of my life. I can only recommend it; it’s very helpful, a true spiritual nourishment.
How did you perceive him? How did he live his faith?
The faith was transmitted to him by his parents, in a very natural, very normal way, and it had a very strong influence on him. What he received from his parents and later from his teachers, his spiritual teachers, was then deepened in his own life, above all through his studies, but also through his lectures. And what he had deepened in such a way became his own life of faith. I always had the impression — and I don’t think I’m the only one — that what professor Ratzinger, Bishop Ratzinger, Archbishop and Cardinal Ratzinger or Pope Benedict said, was not something to be recited because it was part of the office: It was, so to speak, “flesh of his flesh.” It was what he believed and what he wanted to pass on, so that he could pass on this flame to others and make it burn brightly.
Does a pope have time for prayer, for silence?
It depends on how you manage your time. If something is important to me, I try to find the necessary time. And not just the time I might have left, but time that I already schedule for when I plan my day.
What I experienced with him as a cardinal, but also as pope — after all, I lived with him — was that we always had fixed prayer times. There were exceptions, of course; for example, when we were traveling. But prayer times were sacrosanct.
In concrete, that meant: Holy Mass, breviary, Rosary, meditation. There were fixed times, and it was my task to stick to them and not to say: “This is important now; this is very important; and this is even more important.” He said: “The most important thing is that God always comes first. First, we must seek the kingdom of God; everything else will be given in addition.” It’s a simple phrase, and it sounds good. But it’s not so simple to stick to it. “But that’s the reason why it is true, and why you must help to ensure that it remains that way.”
Saints serve as role models for our Christian life. Who was Pope Benedict’s favorite saint?
His favorite saint was St. Joseph, but he was soon joined by St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure. And that is simply because he had studied these two great figures of the Church very intensively and could see how they fertilized his spiritual and intellectual life.
Of the women — in order not to mention only men — the Virgin Mary is No. 1, of course. And then I would say St. Teresa of Avila, who, in her intellectual and spiritual power and strength, gave a testimony that he found very impressive. And then — you won’t believe it — there’s also little St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
Of the more contemporary ones, I believe we can also include Mother Teresa, thanks to her simplicity and conviction. In fact, what she lived was more than just a lecture in theology, in fundamental theology or whatever subject. She lived the Gospel; and that, for him, was decisive.
He knew Mother Teresa personally, didn’t he?
Yes, he met her in 1978, at the “Katholikentag” [Catholic Day] in Freiburg. I happened to be there, too. He had just been archbishop for a year, and I had been in the seminary for a year. Mother Teresa was there, in Freiburg’s cathedral, and so was the cardinal of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger.
How did Joseph Ratzinger, how did Pope Benedict shape the Church?
As he pointed out in the homily that marked the beginning of his pontificate, when he took up his office, he had no program of governance, no ecclesiastical program. He was merely trying to proclaim God’s will, to face the challenges of our time according to God’s will. And he wanted to put his whole heart into it. A program wouldn’t have been helpful because back then events moved at an unprecedented speed, even in difficult situations. And to be able to adapt to that was certainly one of his greatest strengths. He was quick in detecting problems, and he knew that they had to be answered with an answer of faith: not only an answer that had, so to speak, a theological basis, but one that went deeper, stemming from faith itself, being both theologically justified and also convincing.
And that is why I think that his great contribution, his great support for the believers, was the word. We have already spoken about the word being his greatest, his best “weapon” — how “martial” that sounds! The word he could handle, and with the word, he could inspire people and fill their hearts.
Looking back on his pontificate, what were the greatest challenges he had to face?
It was very clear from the beginning that the greatest challenge was what he called “relativism.” The Catholic faith and the Catholic Church are convinced that, in Jesus Christ, the truth was born and became flesh: “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life.”
And relativism ultimately says: The truth you proclaim is against tolerance. You do not tolerate other convictions — that is, within Christianity, as far as the question of ecumenism is concerned — you do not tolerate other religions; you think little of them. And that’s not true, of course. Tolerance means that I take everyone seriously in his or her faith, in their convictions, and accept them. But it doesn’t mean that I then simply devalue my own faith: the faith I am convinced of, the faith I have received in order to pass it on. Quite the opposite! … That was relativism — and then we had the question of the relationship between faith and reason. That was one of his strong points.
And then, when he was pope, came — unexpectedly, but very powerfully — the whole question of abuse, a challenge that came in such a powerful way, one would never have expected. In fact, in this respect, he had already played an important role as a cardinal, when the first questions, the first communications, the first difficulties, the first reports of abuse reached us from the U.S.A. At the time, I had already served in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for two years, and so I remember very well how he tackled this, and also how he had to overcome a certain resistance from within. It wasn’t easy, but he handled this challenge very well, and in a decisive and courageous manner, which would later also have proven helpful in his pontificate.
He always used to say, “There are important topics, but the most important one is the faith in God.” That is the center, around which his preaching, his papacy and his papal ministry evolved: the conviction that I must proclaim my faith in God. That is essential. Others can do other things, but the main goal, the main task of the pope is precisely that; and for that testimony he is and always will be the first witness.
So the proclamation of God was at the center of his pontificate.
Exactly, if I may summarize it like that. … The proclamation of faith, the justification of the Gospel. For us, God is not an idea, a mere thought: God is the goal of our faith. In fact, at a certain time, the center of our faith was incarnate, became a man: Jesus of Nazareth. And all we know from that time was then condensed in the Gospels and in the Scriptures, in the New Testament. And to proclaim this, to proclaim it in a credible and convincing way, was the center and the goal of his papal ministry.
Talking about abuse: Not long ago, Pope Benedict was mentioned in the report on abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. How did he react to these accusations, which were later refuted but nevertheless brought to his attention? How did that go down with him, especially in the light of all the efforts he had made in order to investigate abuse and fight it?
We already mentioned how, as a prefect, he had to deal with the accusations coming from the U.S.A., at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, and that he took a strong stance against internal and external resistance. And the same clear and unambiguous stance was taken when he was pope; there are plenty examples of that.
When he was then personally accused of mishandling sexual-abuse cases during his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising, from 1977 to 1982, it really came as a surprise to him.
He was asked whether he would agree to answer questions regarding the investigation, which reviewed the management of a succession of archbishops, from Cardinal [Michael von] Faulhaber to the actual archbishop.
And he said, “I’m in; I’ve nothing to hide.” Had he said, “No,” one could have thought he was hiding something.
They sent us many questions; and he answered them. He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. He stated everything he could remember; it’s all in the report. During the drafting of our statement, we made a little mistake: It was not a mistake on Pope Benedict’s part, but an oversight of one of our collaborators, who immediately apologized to him [Benedict]. He said that it was his mistake, that he got a date wrong regarding the presence or absence at a meeting.
It was immediately published and immediately corrected. But the narrative that the Pope had lied, unfortunately, remained. And that was the only thing that really shocked him: that he was called a liar.
It’s simply not true. He then wrote a personal letter. He said that this would be the last word on the matter and that, after that letter, he would no longer comment. Who doesn’t believe him, or doesn’t want to believe him, doesn’t have to do so. But whoever looks at the facts honestly and without bias, has to say: The accusation of being a liar is simply untrue. And it is infamous!
It was an accusation that really shocked him, especially since it came from a side that doesn’t exactly stand out for doing great things in the moral sphere, but quite the opposite. It was so moralizing that one has to say: It is and remains shameful! But that was not the last word. Pope Benedict said, “I didn’t hide anything. I said what I have to say. I have nothing more to add; there’s nothing more to say.”
He could only appeal to reason, goodwill and honesty; there really was not much else to do. And that’s exactly what he wrote in his letter. For everything else, he would have to answer to the Good Lord.
In fact, what you say is all there, in the documents and in the files. Anyone who acts without malicious intent can reconstruct it and bring the truth to light.
As I said, impartiality is a prerequisite.
Not only in this case, but in principle, but especially in this case. And who is willing to act with impartiality, has recognized that or will recognize that.
Was Pope Benedict happy? Was he satisfied, fulfilled in his personal journey through life?
Of all the adjectives you just mentioned, I would say the last one is true: fulfillment. I perceived him as someone who was really fulfilled by what he was doing. He decided to dedicate his life to priesthood. His first vocation, his first love, was teaching, of course. And that’s why he became a professor. It was simply his destiny.
And then he became a bishop, and, finally, he came to Rome. It was all in line with his nature, his intellectual structure. That he became Pope was — as I already said — the last thing he ever expected or wanted. But he accepted it, and in all his tasks — as far as I could see — he was really fulfilled and prepared to give everything.
I noticed that he gave something of himself; he gave what was most important to him. What he was passing on wasn’t something he had picked up somewhere, sometime: He was passing on something of himself, something that came from his own life, his intellectual honesty, his faith. Going back to the image of the spark: in order to make it sprinkle and spark a fire.
How did he talk about his family?
Considering all the things you can read, all the things he said and which I heard myself, I have to say he only spoke really lovingly and with great respect about what his parents did, especially for their three children. His father was a police officer, they didn’t have much money, and yet all the children had a very good education — and that was expensive! But what was really decisive was the example of faith they gave them. He always said that this was and remained the basis for everything that came later.
Which of the words he said will you remember? What will remain?
Well, at this point, let me just spill the beans: Time and again — especially during his time as emeritus — I found myself in difficult situations; moments when I said: “Holy Father, this cannot be! I cannot cope with it! The Church is running against a brick wall! I don’t know: Is the Lord asleep; is he not there? What’s going on?” And he said, “You know the Gospel a little, don’t you? The Lord was asleep in the boat on the Sea of Galilee, so the story goes. The disciples were afraid: A storm was coming; waves were coming. And they woke him up because they didn’t know what to do. And he just said, ‘What’s going on?’ Jesus only had to speak a few words to the storm, in order to make it clear that he is the Lord, even over the weather and the storms.” And then Benedict said to me: “Look, the Lord doesn’t sleep! So, if, even in his presence, the disciples were afraid, it’s quite normal that the disciples of today can be afraid, here and there. But never forget one thing: He is here, and he remains here. And in all that’s troubling you now, that’s difficult for you now, that weighs on your heart or on your stomach, that is something you must never forget! Take that from me; I act accordingly.”
That is something that, among other things, has really sunk into my heart, and it remains firmly anchored there.
Can you share another anecdote from your time with Pope Benedict?
Pope Benedict was a man with a fine sense of humor. He liked it when, even in difficult questions, humor was not totally shelved, since it can provide a sort of grounding, and also a sort of “wire” that leads us “upwards.” Thus, I could notice here and there, how, in difficult situations, be it as a cardinal or as pope, he tried — not to bring about some sort of “funny turn,” that sounds too superficial — but to bring in an ounce of humor, an element of humor that could “detoxify” things.
And that has proven very precious for my own life in some difficult situations. And I am very grateful for that.
Santo Subito — “saint right away”?
That was the message we could read at the funeral of John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. I remember it all too well: There were many signs and also large painted posters with the caption Santo Subito. I believe it will go in this direction.
Excellency, thank you very much for the interview.
Thank you for having me.
- archbishop georg ganswein
- benedict xvi