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The Vatican's Most Dashing Man, But Can Don Giorgio Stay Among Its Most Powerful?

He was Benedict XVI's right-hand man, and now runs daily operations for Francis, but it's still not clear where German-born Georg Ganswein fits into other power struggles in Rome.

Dashing and devout Georg Gänswein
Dashing and devout Georg Gänswein
Gernot Facius and Lucas Wiegelmann

VATICAN CITY - In Nov. 2011 the press got wind of the fact that the Catholic Church in Germany owned Weltbild, a publishing company that had some 2,500 erotic and esoteric titles in its range.

Shortly after the story broke, a memo in Italian by the former Pope’s private secretary, German-born Georg Gänswein, read: "The Holy Father has decided this needs to be dealt with immediately." That same November, the German bishops announced their intention to sell the company “without delay.”

Gänswein’s memo is part of the documents released publicly in conjunction with the "Vatileaks" scandal. It is how most of the public and even many insiders learned of Gänswein’s extraordinary position within the church. Many of the letters written to the Vatican by priests the world over weren’t addressed to the pope but to Monsignore Gänswein.

The fact that Gänswein wasn’t able to protect his mentor Pope Benedict XVI from the most embarrassing scandal in recent church history is the biggest setback in his church career. Heavy speculation is still swirling with regard to the Vatileaks scandal, however it is said that some Vatican string-pullers set out to hurt Gänswein deliberately because he had become far too powerful for their taste.

There is no doubt about the fact that, after Benedict XVI, Georg Gänswein was the most influential man in the Catholic Church.

And it’s for just that reason that the 56-year-old now presents such an awkward dilemma, particularly as not long before his retirement Pope Benedict made him archbishop and prefect of the Pontifical Household – a position that means he’s responsible for Pope Francis’s official agenda, audiences and state visits.

Gänswein remains the former pope’s private secretary, however, and he was to move into the former pope’s quarters. Yet a situation where he would continue to go back and forth between pope and pope emeritus as he is presently doing is hardly imaginable.

So something’s got to happen with "Don Giorgio," as he is known – half admiringly, half mockingly – in church circles. But what?

Three possibilities can be envisaged: he gets a new job in Rome; he’s sent back to Germany to head an archdiocese; or he becomes a papal nuncio – a Vatican diplomat with ambassadorial status – in some prestigious world capital. In Germany the pros and cons of these options have been the stuff of discussion for weeks, particularly behind the scenes among church hierarchy. But many other folks are interested too – it’s what separates Gänswein from the faceless run-of-the-mill Vatican apparatchiks.

Almost became a monk

And what holds their interest is this – Gänswein is cool. Because he’s so exceptionally good-looking. Because of the effortless way he skis and plays tennis. Because he always looked so smooth dealing with Benedict’s visitors: Gänswein with German soccer great Franz Beckenbauer, Gänswein with Obama, Gänswein with Merkel.

His blue eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, and elegant body inspired Italian fashion designer Donatella Versace to design a menswear collection after him. The Jan. 2013 issue of the Italian Vanity Fair features his face on the cover and the words: “It’s not a sin to be gorgeous.”

Yet Gänswein has more to him than just being the Vatican’s George Clooney. He owes his ascension to the top of the church more to his intelligence than his looks. He comes from a village called Riedern am Wald in the Black Forest, in southwestern Germany. After graduating high school Gänswein attended a seminary in Freiburg and spent his first year abroad in Rome. His brainy doctoral thesis on church law earned a “summa cum laude.” He flirted with the idea of joining the Carthusians, an order of enclosed monastics.

But instead of becoming a monk, he became Joseph Ratzinger’s assistant and by 2005 was ensconced in the Apostolic Palace in Rome: Benedict on the third floor, Gänswein a half-floor above him. Such is the close relation between the two men that Gänswein’s new coat of arms features a reference to his patron – St. George on one half, and Benedict XVI’s coat of arms on the other.

Church liberals don’t like Gänswein because of his close connection to Benedict, and because he’s a conservative with a penchant for the traditional. In the Italian paper Il Sole/24 Ore, famous writer Giancarlo Zizola even linked him to the archconservative Society of Saint Pius X. Some members of the German Church hierarchy view Gänswein as a ruthless careerist, and some also resent his interference in German Church matters from Rome, like some papal watchdog. The Weltbild scandal is a case in point.

Against that background, nominating Gänswein to a high position in the German Church – assuming he’s even interested – opens up the question of whether or not these differences could be settled. Another issue is finding an archdiocese important enough for him, and while the archdiocese of Cologne would fit the bill – and Archbishop Cardinal Joachim Meisner is approaching 80 and thinking of retirement – according to Die Welt’s information the incumbent favors another as successor, and the 1929 Prussian Concordat would make it difficult although not entirely impossible for the Vatican to impose its own candidate.

Right now it looks as if Pope Francis will keep Don Giorgio in Rome, where he may well eventually make some changes in Curia staffing. That would open up the option of making Georg Gänswein prefect of one of the nine congregations in the Roman Curia. After that, sooner or later, Gänswein can expect to be made a cardinal. The only rank higher than that is pope.

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