The priest who became the Pope’s secretary

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Msgr. Georg Gänswein about his life and service to Benedict XVI

On 2 April 2005, the Vatican Press Office issued an alarming communiqué about the bad health condition of John Paul II. I ran to St Peter’s Square to join those masses of people who were praying, looking at the window of the papal apartment. I stopped at the stairs of the basilica, just next to the monumental statue of St Peter. Rev. Msgr. Georg Gänswein, the German priest who I had known a little, was standing in front of me. We lived close to the Vatican, in neighbouring streets and so I used to meet him when he was walking to the building of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where he worked as the secretary to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. At about 9:45 pm I saw a car with the Vatican registration leaving the Gate of the Bells. Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, substitute of the Secretary of State, got out of the car and walked fast towards the stairs of the basilica where a microphone was placed. He announced in a trembling voice, ‘Our Holy Father John Paul II returned to the Father’s house.’ Then I did not think – being too much depressed because of the death of ‘my’ Pope – that the man who was standing next to me when John Paul II died would be the personal secretary to the new bishop of Rome. I reminded Msgr. Gänswein of that dramatic moment when we began our conversation about his life and service to Cardinal Ratzinger and Benedict XVI.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – Did you think that your boss would succeed John Paul II on that April evening in 2005?

Rev. Msgr. Georg Gänswein: – No, I didn’t. Then we all were very much moved by the great loss the Church experienced. Although the Pope’s death was in a way expected, emotions and the need of prayer that would accompany him on his last way overshadowed all other matters.

– Was it true that Cardinal Ratzinger wanted to finish his career in the curia ‘among books’ as he wanted to become the Librarian of the Holy Roman Church, which Cardinal Raffaele Farina, the present Librarian, admitted in one of his interviews?

– It, it was true. But there is no need to refer to other people’s interviews as the Pope himself confessed that to Peter Seewald. As one can see – man plans, God decides!

– What did you tell the newly elected Pope when you first met him?

– When we met I promised to offer all my strengths at his disposal. Since that moment every minute and every hour of my life, all my thoughts have been to serve the mission to which the Divine Providence called Cardinal Ratzinger.

– On 19 April 2005, you were appointed the Pope’s personal secretary. When did you realise that you were going to be the closest collaborator of the Vicar of Christ and what were your feelings then?  

– I realised it gradually. It was like an avalanche, as if a lightening struck me although at first I did not understand fully what had happened. It is not easy to describe my feelings then. On the one hand, I was shocked and on the other hand, I felt deep gratitude.

– In the year of Cardinal Ratzinger’s election to the papacy you celebrated your 21st anniversary of priesthood. Now I would like to talk about your priesthood. In Germany, like in others Western countries, the 1970s were a period of upheaval – authorities, including the authority of the Church, and power were opposed. People protested against the ‘traditional’ morality. Sexual revolution was developing. How did a priestly calling originate in a handsome young German in that unfavourable atmosphere?

– I felt a priestly calling when I was in the second grade of gymnasium and then it matured step by step. In my school, thank God, there was no atmosphere of protesting. As far as I can remember there was no hostility towards faith and the Church. It was rather indifference. Most people were not interested in faith and the Church.

– What could you tell about your family? Did it play any role in your vocation?

– I come from a family with many children. I am the oldest of five children. Our house did not differ much from other houses in the town. My parents, like my grandparents, were practising Catholics, people of faith. So we were growing up in an atmosphere of faith and trust in God. We celebrated all ecclesiastical feasts with great internal and external involvement.

– You studied canon law in Munich but once you admitted that you did not like this field…

– After my ordination I worked in a large parish for two years and then my bishop sent me to study in Munich. It is true that at first I did not like my field of studies but with time, fathoming this discipline I discovered true canon ‘pearls.’ Finally, I was grateful to my archbishop for this experience of overcoming ‘dryness,’ thanks to which I matured.

– When were you called to work in the Vatican? What were your first impressions of your stay in the Eternal City?

– I was summoned to work in the Roman Curia in January 1995. I had already known the city because in the 1980s I studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University for one year. And I visited Rome several times on various occasions.

– What did you do in the Roman Curia?

– At first I worked for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. After some half a year Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asked me to work for his Congregation because he needed a collaborator who spoke German.

– Let’s return to the year 2005 when you moved to the papal apartment. What did the ‘change of guard’ between the old and new secretaries look like?

– Very harmoniously. I met Don Stanislao (all people in the Vatican used this name to call Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz) who communicated certain things and briefly explained the functioning of the papal apartment. It was a very cordial meeting and until now I have nice recollections of it.

– How have you organised your work to fulfil all the duties you are responsible for as the Pope’s secretary?

– The biggest problem was not to be overcome by the mound of correspondence and how to protect the Holy Father against it as well. At first it was very hard to find proper remedies. With time, having concrete experiences, things started being dealt with better and in a more orderly way.

– Don’t you feel the burden of being a ‘prisoner’ of the Apostolic Palace? Can you leave the Vatican without any problems, e.g., can you go for a trip or to a restaurant?

– Some say that I am in ‘a golden cage.’ Sometimes it is true in a way but on the other hand, we have very many meetings and visits that counterweigh this ‘prison.’ From time to time I visit my friends and colleagues outside the Vatican. I am trying to practise some sport. Besides, we should not forget ‘the papal family,’ which is of great help and personal support for me.

– Do you manage to keep in touch with your family and friends despite all your countless daily duties?

– At first I had to overcome certain problems but currently I have managed to keep vivid relationships with my family and friends.

– Do you miss your family Schwarzwald (the Black Forest)?

– I miss big Schwarzwald spruce trees and their smell…

"Niedziela" 15/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
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