Between Two Popes: Father Georg Gänswein Redefines Vatican Diplomacy

It is the most delicate of roles right now, as Father Georg continues to serve his original boss, retired Pope Benedict XVI, while also heading the Papal household of Pope Francis.

Gänswein and Francis in St. Peter's Square
Gänswein and Francis in St. Peter's Square
Giacomo Galeazzi

VATICAN CITY — During the morning audience, Father Georg sits smilingly beside Pope Francis. In the afternoon, he returns to play guardian angel to — and be the eyes and ears for — Benedict XVI.

Jockeying between two worlds has never scared Georg Gänswein.

As a young man, he wore his hair long and listened to Cat Stevens. At 47, in a decidedly non-delicate maneuver, he muscled aside Josef Clemens, the longtime secretary to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, just in time to accompany the German theologian's ascension to the throne of Peter.

Then, in a whirlwind: there were the 2012 Vatileaks allegations of widespread corruption within the Holy See, from which Gänswein emerged surprisingly strengthened; the surprise abdication of Benedict XVI; and the election of Francis.

It is thus that Archbishop Georg Gänswein found himself serving two popes. To the reigning pontiff he is prefect of the Papal House (a post with real power). To the 92-year-old emeritus pope he is both shadow and link to the outside world.

Acrobatic talent and a gift for resistance (demonstrated more concretely on the tennis court and in the pool at the Castel Gandolfo papal palace) have rendered the handsome 63-year-old monsignor an éminence grise of the Curia, almost a "third pope."

He was only supposed to serve as a bridge, a reassuring factor of normalcy during the slippery season of the "Double Pope."

Instead he has been described by the media, perhaps inevitably, as being constantly in the eye of many storms, plots, and other poisons of the Roman Curia.

No one dares touch him, at least not while Ratzinger is alive.

On Jan. 16, it was Gänswein who removed Benedict XVI's byline from the explosive pamphlet on priestly celibacy that, like the pronouncement on sacraments for remarried divorcés at the last Synod on the family, has inevitably catapulted the retired pontiff into the role of shadow-guide to the traditionalist branch of Catholics — this time together with co-author Cardinal Robert Sarah, on previous occasions with other anti-Francis cardinals such as Gerhard Müller and Raymond Burke.

"The pope emeritus had not approved any plan of a co-authored book, this has all been a misunderstanding," Gänswein declared.

In the ultraconservative galaxy, this pronouncement was enough to fuel suspicions of a double game being played by the servant of the two popes: he who has so deftly restricted and controlled access to Benedict XVI, in the face of much internal opposition, and who now presents this public disavowal in response to Francis's indignation.

"As far as his role and his power, it's the black box of Vatican mysteries of the past decade. No one dares touch him, at least not while Ratzinger is alive," sums up one Curia insider.

One who doesn't doubt his loyalty is Benedict XVI, at whose side Father Georg has never hidden an emotional attachment. It says much of Georg's personality and his stated desire to "be transparent as glass so as not to conceal Benedict XVI in any way." 

He was crying openly on Feb. 28, 2013 when he and the abdicating pope (like father and son) vacated the papal residence of Terzia Loggia, the Apostolic Palace.

Gänswein watching over Benedict's shoulder in 2007 — Photo: Marek Kośniowski

Equally emotional, three weeks later, don Georg returned with the new Argentinian-born pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, ceremonially removing the seals on the doors of the Papal apartment, helping him push the door that wouldn't open, turning the light back on.

And while the new Pope Francis said that the Holy Spirit had inspired his predecessor's resignation, for the good of the church, Father Georg appeared truly moved.

Under the global spotlight, he accompanies Francis. Behind the scenes he puts at his disposal the knowledge and secrets of Ratzinger's eight years in power, including pending dossiers and muddy financial situations.

He is the go-between for the two pontiffs, a position virtually never seen before in ecclesiastical history: point of contact and clearinghouse between reigning and emeritus popes.

He has retained the role of personal secretary to Ratzinger, while at the same time running the Papal household, the "pontificalis domus," of his successor.

Outside any established protocol, Father Georg acts essentially as a private information channel during this insidious era of the two popes.

It was he, on Ratzinger's behalf, who managed the handover of the thorniest issues.

Indeed, it had been Benedict XVI's intent to have the German prelate's presence and counsel act as a guide to help and protect Francis through the maze of papal governance. It was Father Georg who handled the report of the three cardinal investigators looking into the Vatileaks scandal. In this unprecedented period of two popes, history will show that Gänswein had a unique and powerful role — even if most of the details will never be known.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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