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In a lavish ceremony in Saint Peter’s Basilica on January the seventh 2013, on the Feast of Epiphany, His Holiness Pope Benedict, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City State, ordained four new archbishops. One of them was his long-term partner and fellow Bavarian, Georg Gaenswein, who has served as his personal live-in secretary since 2003.
Benedict, (at the time named Josef, and a mere Cardinal) and ‘Gorgeous Georg’ (or ‘il bello Giorgio’ as he is called in the Italian tabloid press due to his striking good looks and athletic build) first met in 1995 over breakfast at the Teutonic College inside the Vatican, where the former used to say Mass for his German compatriots once a week. Canon Georg was 39 at the time and had just started working for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome. The Cardinal was 30 years older. Their meeting was momentous.
“From some time ago he had been my Pole Star, because I had studied his books, with which my priest’s life was impregnated,” confessed Georg. “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.”
It seems Georg had obviously made a strong impression on Ratzinger too, for hardly a year later (1996) the future Pope took the extremely rare step of having the the blue-eyed, sandy haired young priest transferred from Divine Worship to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition) over which Ratzinger was then prefect, because he “needed a collaborator who spoke German.”
While working at the doctrinal office, Gänswein also taught canon law at the Opus Dei-run University of the Holy Cross in Rome. In the meantime Ratzinger worked on politely ditching his previous long-term partner, handsome but aging Monseignior Joseph Clemens, whom he rewarded for his services by making him a bishop and giving him the prestigious post of Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. When the proposal was made that he might now fill the vacant secretarial position in 2003, Gaenswein willingly accepted and moved in to share Ratzinger’s apartment and life. Just a year and half later Ratzinger was elected Pope and together he, (now Benedict), and Georg, (now Papal secretary), moved into the Apostolic Palace, where they have lived ever since.
“It was like an avalanche,” said Georg. “As if lightening struck me, although at first I did not understand fully what had happened. On the one hand, I was shocked and on the other hand I felt deep gratitude.”
Along with the Masses and prayers and meditations, and the examining and discussing of documents relative to the government of the Church, the two men share conservative views, breakfast, lunch and dinner together, nap at the same time, and take walks in the Vatican Garden. Georg is Benedict’s first collaborator and his shadow.
“Some say that I am in ‘a golden cage,’” Gaenswein is quoted as saying. “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.”
One position in the small exclusive ‘papal family’ is that of the Pope’s personal butler, who helps him dress and bathe, serves is meals, and rides with him in the Popemobile. Until recently that place had been filled since 2006 by the trusted ‘Paolito’, Paolo Gabriele, a pious 46 year old married Italian man with 3 children. However, he was arrested early in 2012, accused of leaking confidential letters and documents to a journalist, many of them concerning allegations of corruption, abuse of power and a lack of financial transparency at the Vatican. Police seized thousands of papers from his home, some concerning “the private life of the Holy Father,” carrying the pope’s handwriting with a note to destroy them written in German. Books filled with newspaper clippings on the occult, secret services, Masonic lodges, yoga, political scandals in Italy, scandals involving the Vatican bank and other subjects were also found.
Charged with “aggravated theft”,at his trial in October 2012 the clean-cut, black-haired Gabriele said he had acted for the good of the Church, in which he saw “evil and corruption everywhere”.
“I was sure that a shock, perhaps by using the media, could be a healthy thing to bring the Church back on the right track,” he said. He was found guilty of theft and jailed in the Vatican prison, but released on December 22nd after being pardoned by the Pope, virtually stifling a scandal that could have rocked the holy city.
The leak of papers from the papal secretariat was a blow to Father Georg Gaenswein, who had worked with Paolo Gabriele for years, but it had been the job of the Prefect of the Papal Household, American James Harvey to supervise the butler. Gaenswein was ultimately strengthened by the so-called ‘vatileaks’. In November the Pope made Hardy a Cardinal and archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, giving the position of Prefect of the Papal Household instead to his beloved and esteemed Georg. However, it is obligatory that the role of Prefect be filled by an archbishop. Hence the inclusion of Gaenswein amongst the others at the solemn ordination ceremony of bishops on the Feast day of Epiphany this year.
“I want to renew my trust in and encouragement of my closest collaborators and all those who every day, with loyalty and a spirit of sacrifice and in silence help me fulfill my ministry,” said the Pope.
In his new role as Prefect, Georg will remain living with Benedict, but will essentially run the Apostolic Palace with more authority than before, managing his household in the Vatican and that of Castel Gandolfo, where the pope spends his summers, coordinating the papal secretariat, supervising the planning of papal visits, managing access to papal audiences and helping to set the Church’s agenda.
No-one spends more time with the Pope or has more influence on him than Gaenswein. They are close together practically all day, and have been for years. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s not uncommon for visitors hear him refer to the Pope and himself as “us”.
As papal secretary Gaenswein once said: “I have to keep out of everything, I must not appear, and I must keep silent about the slightest thing, because anything that I say is inevitably also the word of the Pope .” He even compared his role to that of a pane of glass: “I need to let the sunlight in, and the less the glass is visible the better. If it cannot be seen at all it means it is fulfilling its task”.
Transparency, indeed! But perhaps with his new position of power Father Gaenswein will instead decide to stain the ecclesiastical glass a little further in order to blur the shapes of “evil and corruption in the Church” that ex-butler Paolo Gabriele claimed to have witnessed. After all, as the English priest and writer Monsignor Ronald Knox once famously advised: “He who travels in the Barque of Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room.”
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website.