Power behind the papal throne
Profile of Archbishop-elect Georg Gänswein Robert Mickens
- 15 December 2012
The Pope has promoted his personal secretary to archbishop and put him in charge of the Papal Household. Here, our Rome correspondent profiles Mgr Georg Gänswein and traces his route from Germany to Benedict’s right hand
He’s been called Gorgeous George, il Bel Giorgio and even the Black Forest Adonis. And ever since making his world debut in the spring of 2005 as the 48-year-old personal secretary of the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, Mgr Georg Gänswein has been one of the most talked about personalities at the Vatican.
Never in recent memory has a papal aide been such an obsession for tabloid writers, and adoring women. His fans have even erected several websites on the internet, mythologising the Pope’s strikingly handsome secretary as a former ski instructor, tennis player and helicopter pilot.
Currently aged 56 and with grey creeping through his sandy-coloured hair, he is still a youthful and attractive figure compared to the old men with fleshy jowls and balding heads who are more commonly associated with the Roman Curia. And now his admirers have something much more substantial to celebrate in the dashing German monsignor than merely his enduring good looks and proximity to the papal throne. Last week, Pope Benedict announced that he was making his personal assistant the prefect of the Papal Household and was elevating him to the senior rank of archbishop.
It was a surprising move that undoubtedly delighted Don Georg’s friends and fans, but one that also left many others – especially some inside the Vatican – perplexed and troubled. “The naming of Gänswein as prefect and archbishop is a scandal,” complained one church official. “The Renaissance papacy lives,” he said, clearly accusing the Pope of promoting favourites.
Many reports said Pope Benedict gave Mgr Gänswein the important new post so he could shore up an Apostolic Palace left in disarray in the wake of the VatiLeaks scandal. They suggested the previous prefect of the Papal Household, the (recently created) Cardinal James Harvey, was responsible for hiring the papal butler who was eventually convicted for stealing the Pope’s personal papers and leaking them to the press. In their scenario, the new appointment of the meticulous and regimented papal secretary, especially because of his closeness to the Pope, would be the best guarantee against future security breaches. That may be true. But they overlooked the glaring fact that Mgr Gänswein had a more immediate supervisory role over the butler and spent much more time in his presence than did Harvey.
Nonetheless, Pope Benedict made Mgr Gänswein prefect and catapulted him to the second-highest rung of the Church’s hierarchy in order to strengthen his role as “gatekeeper”. Although the prefect of the Papal (or Pontifical) Household works with the Secretariat of State in deciding who has access to the Pope and who doesn’t, because of his intimacy with Benedict, Archbishop-elect Gänswein will have effective power to make the final decisions. The reason is simple. As the Pope grows older and frailer, he will need to rely increasingly on this man whom he deeply trusts to protect him from being manipulated by others.
It is an even greater preventive measure than the one Pope John Paul II took in 1998 when he named his own personal secretary, Mgr Stansilaw Dziwisz, as adjunct-prefect and bishop (five years later as archbishop). The move was unprecedented at the time and it caused lots of grousing in the Curia. “Don Stanislaw”, who is now the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, shrewdly filtered a constant flow of visitors to private audiences, morning Masses and meals with the extrovert Pope.
Archbishop-elect Gänswein, on the other hand, is working with the much more introverted Pope Benedict. Unlike Dziwisz, he will be admitting many fewer people into see the pontiff, but will likely have the same influence – if not more – on the important decisions Benedict will make as he ages. And this is what makes those unhappy with the new appointment most nervous.
Georg Gänswein, despite his athletic and youthful appearance, is extremely conservative. But he has been careful to tone down his “traditionalist” side. Shortly after the election of Benedict XVI in 2005, all references to the papal secretary’s life prior to his new-found fame disappeared from the internet. Only later did any personal information about him gradually find its way back into the public forum. One reason for this, it appears, is that he initially began his seminary training at the international seminary in Ecône (Switzerland) run by the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), or Lefebvrists. This was finally reported in 2009 by French magazine L’Express and repeated on numerous, mostly Vatican-friendly internet sites. No one at the Vatican has ever officially denied it.
A two-year gap in the biography of Archbishop-elect Gänswein suggests this earlier seminary training was certainly a possibility. The new prefect of the Papal Household has said in interviews that he decided to become a priest in 1974 when he was 18. But it was not until two years later, at the age of 20, that he began his seminary training for the Archdiocese of Freiburg, the local church for which he was ordained in 1984 at 28. Gänswein earned a doctorate in canon law in 1993 at the University of Munich, and after two years working in the archdiocese, he was hired in 1995 by the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome to an initial five-year term as a staff member.
It was during this time, while living at the Teutonic College inside the Vatican, that he got to know the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Gänswein, who was then 39, obviously made a strong impression on the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), for hardly a year later (1996) the future Pope took the extremely rare step of having the young German priest transferred from Worship to the CDF.
While working at the doctrinal office, Gänswein also taught canon law at the Opus Dei-run University of the Holy Cross in Rome. In 2003 Cardinal Ratzinger asked him to be his personal secretary. He replaced Mgr Josef Clemens, another German nine years his senior, who was named bishop and No. 2 official at the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Then, just a year and half later, Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope and he took Mgr Gänswein with him to the Apostolic Palace.
There is a widespread conviction among officials in the Roman Curia that the personal secretary has had an unusually strong influence on Pope Benedict’s governance of the Church, especially on his personnel appointments. And the outcome has not always been happy. One particular case worth noting happened in early 2009 when the Pope named the little-known Fr Gerhard Maria Wagner, apparently a friend of Mgr Gänswein, as an auxiliary bishop in Linz, Austria. Shortly after his appointment was announced, however, it was reported that Fr Wagner had written articles calling Hurricane Katrina “God’s punishment” for the sins of a sexually permissive society and condemning the Harry Potter books for “spreading Satanism”. The uproar among Catholics in Austria spread throughout Europe and became so intense and embarrassing that the Vatican eventually convinced the priest to “resign” before he was even ordained a bishop.
It is also widely believed that Archbishop-elect Gänswein serves as one of the Pope’s chief advisers for Curia appointments and governing decisions. But perhaps more than influencing Pope Benedict, the personal secretary serves to confirm, reinforce and encourage the pontiff’s already conservative leanings. No one more than he has consistently spent long periods of time in conversation with the Pope. And he likes to let people know that they are very close. Visitors are often somewhat taken aback to hear Mgr Gänswein refer to the Pope and himself as “us”.
Now as prefect of the Papal Household he will add even broader institutional powers to his already more intimate duties of sharing the Pope’s living arrangements and looking out for his health. Georg Gänswein will essentially run the Apostolic Palace, as it were, and supervises the planning of papal visits in Rome and throughout Italy. And, naturally, he will continue, with more authority than before, to help Pope Benedict set his and the Church’s agenda.