VATICAN CITY - The last few days before he was ordained archbishop at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, "Don Giorgio" Gänswein was without his iPhone or PC, and also well away from the landlines and fax machines and the Vatican’s old-fashioned pneumatic and courier mail systems that are still so much a part of his daily life.
The Pope’s private secretary was unavailable, off inside the labyrinth that is the Vatican preparing spiritually for the most spectacular step in his life so far. His thoughts may have turned to the Carthusians, the Church’s most radical monastic order that as a young man he had considered joining, and with some wonder to the turns his life has taken – a path that has him living in a sun-splashed "appartamento" overlooking St. Peter’s Square instead of the hermit’s cell in a charterhouse, and communicating extensively in any number of different languages as opposed to a life lived largely in imposed silence.
Like his boss, Gänswein is German and he is considered even by the standards of the Eternal City to be a man of exceptionally deep faith. This he attributes to his mother’s influence; her death three years ago affected him profoundly. Growing up in the Black Forest, he was the eldest of five children. The senior Gänswein was a blacksmith – an occupation that hardly exists any more, even in small towns and villages, so in that sense a forgotten world in today’s digital cosmos.
Much ink has been devoted to Georg Gänswein’s extraordinary good looks. He appears a good ten years younger than his 56 years. Women express admiration for his smile, blue eyes, easy elegance, in fact fashion designer Donatella Versace was so taken by the “Vatican‘s George Clooney” she named a male collection after him.
Many have made the mistake of assuming that because of his looks the fit, athletic man -- a former ski instructor reputed to be an excellent tennis player – is an intellectual lightweight despite his degrees in theology and philosophy and a doctorate in canonical law. But not Joseph Ratzinger, who two years before he became Pope asked Gänswein to be his personal assistant. And when Ratzinger became Pope, Gänswein followed him to be part of the Pope’s inner circle at the Palazzo Apostolico.
Here he has become more essential than ever to the Pontiff, the papacy being not a whole apparatus but a single figure – the Pope – around whom everything revolves. So in the papal secretariat it is the private secretary who keeps the Pope shielded from being overwhelmed by work and mountains of paper. Gänswein is a kind of physical, psychological and spiritual body guard. It is up to him to determine the issues and events he thinks the Pope must be apprised of.
With the greatest discretion and reserve he has to be able to think ahead, filter, with great rapidity while holding a steady course. Incorruptibility even in the face of the most tempting offers is one of the major job requirements – some people will go to great lengths to get a prized audience with the Pope.
Leaks and dragons
Within the Church, when one considers how many times he has had to turn away men with ranks far higher than his – bishops, cardinals – it is unsurprising that he has made some enemies and this quite apart from the "invidia clericalis" (clerical envy) so pervasive at the Vatican.
Indeed many were ready to point the finger at Gänswein after the so-called "Vatileaks" affair broke for failing to see that the Pope’s butler Paolo Gabriele was taking secret papal documents from Benedict's desk, and passing them to journalists.
The Pope, however, was not one of the finger pointers, as his having named Gänswein archbishop – and promoting him as well to prefect of the papal household – amply demonstrates. As prefect, he succeeds American James Harvey and his responsibilities include the Pope’s official agenda, the schedule for papal audiences, and management of state visits, all the while maintaining as private secretary closer proximity to the Pope than anyone else.
As private secretary he has of course played a key role at the Vatican for years. Now he has clout as well, and ironically Gänswein’s enemies were more than a little instrumental in that. It is not too much to say that both de facto and de jure he is the most influential man in the Catholic Church worldwide after the Pope himself.
A few days ago Gänswein told Die Welt that he was looking forward to serving the Pope in 2013, and added that he has for several years been surprised at how few people in Germany have so far understood what a unique boon for the Church – “also for humanity, including my dear compatriots" -- Benedict XVI is.
He hoped, he said, “that also in Germany ever more people come to understand how lucky we all are to have a Pope like this one.”
Eight years ago, Die Welt wrote about then "Monsignore Gänswein" that while playing "guardian angel is an ideal role for him...in the last few years he has come increasingly to resemble his patron saint George the dragon slayer." Developments since that was written certainly bear the observation out.
For his episcopal coat of arms, Archbishop Gänswein has chosen the motto "Testimonium perhibere veritati" ("to bear witness to the truth"). But the heraldic design on the escutcheon, which hangs from a patriarchal cross, is more telling. Divided in two, on the left are the arms of Benedict XVI, with the scallop shell of St. Augustine and all pilgrims of St. James the Great, the Moor of Freising and the Corbinian bear.
On the right, a dragon depicted on a blue ground spits fire in the direction of the papal house. But the dragon is pierced through vertically with a lance placed underneath the Star of Bethlehem. Some might call this choice by "Pater Georg" audacious, even a tad undiplomatic. But George the dragon slayer knows that the beast keeps growing new heads.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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