On 25 June, Catholic News Agency published an article about an interview with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, which was originally conducted on 27 May 2016 by the German veteran journalist and EWTN Rome correspondent, Paul Badde. The German archbishop currently serves Pope Francis as Prefect of the Papal Household, but he has also maintained his duties as the secretary for the retired Pope Benedict XVI.
The full interview was first aired yesterday, 27 June, on EWTN, in German.
The significance of this interview lies in two areas. First, Gänswein corrects here the somewhat confusing comments he had recently made at the Gregorian University in Rome, pertaining to what he had described as an “enlarged Petrine ministry,” with Pope Francis serving as the “active” and Pope Benedict serving as the “contemplative” member. Secondly, in his new interview, Archbishop Gänswein makes some striking comments about certain prophetic understandings of the Church. He shows that he believes in some prophecies (such as the one by St. Malachy concerning the last pope) as well as certain seemingly supernatural phenomena — such as the significant lightning that struck St. Peter’s Dome on the very day of Pope Benedicts’s abdication.
In the following account, therefore, I shall present and translate parts of this German EWTN interview, in trying to deal with some of the more informal language and way of expression of an oral interview. As an introductory comment, I would like to add that, in reading it, the Catholic observer might notice not only what is actually said, but also what is not said. Especially striking to me are the words Gänswein uses to insist that Pope Benedict is at peace with his decision to abdicate. One might ask how Pope Benedict can be at peace with his decision even while he now has to watch how the life and thought of the Catholic Church are crumbling apart. Even the greatly learned French Oratorian priest, Father Louis Bouyer, himself a reformer at the time of the Second Vatican Council, once surprisingly wrote, shortly after the council, in his brief, incisive, and candid book, The Decomposition of Catholicism, how he had noticed many principles of disorder to have been planted and already spreading throughout the Church. And things have come a long way since that time.
Here now are selected parts of the Gänswein interview, in my own English translation, as taken from my own transcript of the EWTN interview, which was conducted in German.
First, Paul Badde asks Archbishop Gänswein what he thought about the lightning that struck St. Peter’s Dome on the day of Benedict’s abdication. Gänswein answers that he, at the time, only heard the noise but did not see the lightning itself. He adds:
I only saw it then later on in some photography, with my own eyes. […] The impression was that there was a reaction from above, a sign that one can put it into a connection with the morning [Benedict’s own announcement to resign], and that one has thus to put it into that connection. Thus, some form of a reaction. I did not then know exactly whether this was a reaction in the sense of a good reaction – or is this a “Watch-Out! Reaction.”
The German archbishop also describes how Pope Benedict, when he first showed him pictures of the lightning, asked whether this is a photo-montage. “Is this true or is this a photo-montage,” Benedict asked. Gänswein concludes: “In that way, no, truly, here nature has spoken, and prettly clearly so.” Paul Badde himself then comments on this same phenomenon with these words: “That was a thunder of the underworld.” Both Badde and Gänswein then proceed to reflect together on the fact that, when Pope Benedict – during his visit to Auschwitz in Poland (in the midst of a horrendous rain) – started to give his speech, the rain stopped and a most beautiful rainbow appeared. Gänswein saw this phenomenon also as a sign from heaven, and more clearly.
When asked about his own feelings at the moment of leaving the Papal Palace on 28 February 2013 in order to retire to Castel Gandolfo for a while, Gänswein admitted that he was in tears. To Badde’s question, as to why he later then defended the step taken by Pope Benedict to resign, the German archbishop responds, as follows:
In the meantime, three years have passed, and in these three years, many things have happened, much of reflection has taken place. Things happened from the outside, and since I see that Pope Benedict not only still lives with his own [decisive] step, but, also, that he is fully at peace with it and that he still – and perhaps even more so than ever before – is convinced that this was the right step. This has helped me, too, to let go inwardly of my resistance at the beginning and to simply accept what Pope Benedict – after much struggle, after much wrestling, and after really intense prayers – has recognized, realized and then also decided as being the right thing. [emphasis added]
Archbishop Gänswein tells Paul Badde that the moment of his 2005 papal election was the happiest moment in his life with Pope Benedict. He also admits that he knew – months before the public announcement of Benedict’s abdication – of his decision, and that he had to keep silent about this confidential matter. When asked what was the saddest moment of his time with Pope Benedict, Gänswein responds:
Regret? It was a day when I myself was sick and in bed and when I saw the whole difficulty, connected with the name [Bishop] Williamson, so to speak rolling like an avalanche down upon the pope. It came, and one did not know where to go. There was no escape. Because there was no exit. This was one of the hardest and also the saddest, but also the most painful days of my life as the secretary of Pope Benedict.
Gänswein agreed with Paul Badde’s comment that he, Gänswein, was paralyzed and that he could not intervene. The archbishop adds: “I could not, no, because it was just too late, and Pope Benedict has said much about this whole event – or about all these events – but he has also written this famous letter to the bishops, which is unique. I will not forget it. It was on 10 March 2010 – there was this famous letter, and there he said what needed to be said, and I absolutely agree with it.
Paul Badde then proceeds to ask Gänswein about the power of prayers and whether it was palpable that, after his own abdication, Pope Benedict did not receive any more all these prayers from the Holy Masses offered worldwide and from the prayers of the individual faithful. The secretary of Benedict answers:
Yes, in this question, there is a little detour. I do not know whether, indeed – when you spoke about the prayers being removed – I do not know whether they really were taken away at one blow. Of course, the official prayers went with the election of Pope Francis over to him, correctly – that is how it should be and that is how it was with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I only can say that, because of the many letters and the many contacts, the amount of prayers – the promises of prayers – are enormous and, due to the letters that I see, I would even say they [these prayers] have increased.
When asked to confirm that the prayers have increased, Gänswein confirms it and continues: “Yes, and I am convinced that Pope Benedict, when it comes to prayers, has – with certainly – not been forgotten and that unbelievably many people still pray for him.”
Badde reports in his interview that he knows of cardinals in the Vatican “who are still shocked that the Catholic Church has right now two living successors of Peter.” He continues: “You yourself have recently spoken about an enlargement of the Petrine ministry, of an exponentiation, I believe. Could you explain this a little more?”
Gänswein answers, as follows:
Yes, you refer here to the book presentation of an Italian professor, Roberto Regoli, who has written a book about the first evaluation of the pontificate [of Pope Benedict]. He is professor at the Gregorian University and that is where the book was presented, as well. I was one of the two persons who presented it, and indeed, I spoke about a exponentiated [enlarged] pontificate. It is clear – to say it clearly, because I have seen in some of the reactions how people insinuated things that I never said. Of course: Pope Francis is the lawfully elected and lawful pope. That is to say, there are not two popes – the one lawful, the other unlawful, that is simply not correct. And I simply said – that is also what Pope Benedict said – that he, after all, is still present with his prayers, with his sacrifices, in the “Recinto” of Saint Peter [within the walls and precincts of the Vatican], and that, through these prayers, through these sacrifices, there shall come forth spiritual fruit for his successors and for the Church. That is what I meant to say, and now we have had for three years two popes and I have the impression that the reality that I perceive is covered by what I have said.
Paul Badde then sums up how he understands what Archbishop Gänswein tries to say:
If I understand you aright, he [Benedict] remained in the office, but in the contemplative part, without having any authority to decide. Thus we have – as you said – now an active and a contemplative part which form together an enlargement of the Munus Petrinum [primacy and office of Peter]?
That is what I have said, indeed, that – if one wishes to specify it – it is very clear, the Plena Potestas, the Plenitudo Potestatis [full power, incarnate authority] is in the hands of Pope Francis. He is the man who has right now the succession of Peter. And then there are no difficulties left, as I also have said it. These two are also not in a competitive relationship. That is where one has to make use of common sense, as well as the Faith and a little bit of theology. Then one does not have at all difficulties to understand properly [sic] what I have said.
When the journalist asks Gänswein, whether he could imagine that “there would be two papa emeriti [retired popes], two retired popes in the gardens, or three, or an office of four,” Gänswein’s answer is:
Indeed, because Pope Benedict has made this step, there has been now a door opened. Whether other popes will go through this open door – there, I am not a prophet. But, I personally have no difficulties to consider this to be realistic. [emphasis added]
Badde then humorously adds that one might thus have to make some space free for Pope Francis, to which Gänswein adds, in a serious tone: “Whether this is localiter [with regard to the local place] at the same place, or at another one, that is, then essentially secondary or tertiary.” Paul Badde also informs us that Archbishop Gänswein’s own father had been a blacksmith and that he was “a tree of a man,” in Gänswein’s own words. Badde then asks the archbishop how he would describe Pope Benedict, who himself was not a “tree of a man.” Gänswein proceeds to praise Pope Benedict for his “unbelievable intellectual presence, combined with a disarming mildness” for which he has become Gänswein’s enduring model and great person of reference. (I know from someone who was at a private audience at the time with Pope Benedict how caring and attentive Archbishop Gänswein acted toward his superior, Pope Benedict. – MH)
Later on, he also says he would sum up Benedict’s papacy with the word Veritas. He says: “It is about the fact that truth became man in Christ, that is for him [Benedict] the great theme of his life which reappeared again and again throughout his life in different variations and in different forms.” Gänswein adds that Benedict’s pontificate had “strengthened the Church in her foundations,” concluding with the words: “That will remain.”
With regard to the famous “secret dossier” which Pope Benedict had handed over to Pope Francis when they first met at Castel Gandolfo at the beginning of Francis’ pontificate, Gänswein indicates that it did not mainly deal with the topic of the reform of the Curia. He says, rather, that it dealt with the Vatileaks and its manifold causes. Three cardinals had worked on it and then presented a dossier to Pope Benedict, “with all the documents included” which then was passed on by Benedict to Francis, on 23 March 2013. As to the proposed curial reforms, Gänswein himself seems to be doubtful as to whether the current depiction of the Curia as being itself in a “disastrous situation” is at all realistic, For, he himself thought that those critics do not themselves know the Curia well, nor even from the inside. Gänswein thus plays down its problems and indicates that Pope Francis’ reform has not changed very much at all so far.
To sum up the last three topics of the interview: Archbishop Gänswein agrees with Paul Badde that the prophecy of St. Malachy, according to which Pope Francis is apparently to be the last pope, is quite probable. He admits that, by studying this question, also in relation to historical facts, “I get a little bit afraid.” Gänswein even describes this prophecy as a “wake-up call.” He also admits that he still misses seeing the lights in the papal apartment at night when he walks by on St. Peter’s square. When he sees the darkness in the upper floors, “I have a heavy heart,” Gänswein admits. “I had to get used to it, but do not know whether I ever will get used to it,” he adds.
When speaking about his possible dreams – for he had once had the dream of actually becoming a Carthusian monk – for his own life now, Gänswein admits that there are few dreams left. However, he says, he would like to get more of the “smell of the sheep” by doing more pastoral work, which is, right now, not possible. “Therefore, I try to adapt and to pass on the smell which is spreading here [in the Vatican].”
Somewhat surprisingly, Pope Francis himself – during his own very recent papal trip to Armenia – made his own corrective comments concerning the debate of the “two popes.” His words, as reported by the Austrian Catholic website Kath.net (and now also available in the English transcript from CNA) seem to be in complete accordance with Archbishop Gänswein’s own words to Paul Badde in his recent interview. On his flight back to Rome on 26 June, Pope Francis said: “He [Pope Benedict] is the retired pope. I have thanked Pope Benedict publicly for that, inasmuch as he has opened the door for retired popes. […] In the future, there can be perhaps two or three, but they are retired.” Pope Francis said these words with direct reference to a question put to him by a journalist who referred to Archbishop Gänswein’s own words about the two popes and the allegedly “enlarged” Petrine Office. Francis also said: “I have not read these explanations. Benedict XVI is the retired pope. He said it on that 11 February  that he will retire from his office on the following 28 February. […] Benedict is in the monastery and prays.” Later on, Francis added: “He is for me the retired pope, a wise grandfather. He is the man who covers my shoulders and my back with his prayers.” Francis then reminded the journalists of the fact that Benedict had promised “unconditional obedience to his successor.” [emphasis added] Francis added: “And he did it!” Francis went on:
Then, I heard – I do not know whether it is true – rumors about some who supposedly went to him [Benedict] in order to complain about the new pope, and he threw them out of his house in the Bavarian style. If this is not true, it is well invented, because he is a man who is loyal to his word, an upright man. […] I will say [at the upcoming 65th anniversary of his priesthood] something about this great man of prayers and of courage, who is the retired pope and not the ‘second pope’, and he is one who is loyal to his word and who is very wise.
At one point, Francis made his view on the matter clear: “there is one single Pope” he said, “and the other… maybe they will be like the bishops emeriti, I’m not saying many but possibly there could be two or three. They will be emeriti… They are emeriti.”