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.
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.