VATICAN CITY (CNS) — On July 30, Archbishop Georg Gänswein celebrates his 65th birthday. For most bishops, this is not a particularly special day, since normally they only must submit their retirement at 75.
All the same, Archbishop Gänswein has a feeling similar to what many retirees feel: of falling into a kind of a hole when turning 65. In an interview with Germany’s Catholic news agency, KNA, he said he is still interested in taking on fresh tasks.
“Holy Father, give me counsel: What should I do?” was the German archbishop’s appeal in mid-January 2020 to Pope Francis. At the time, there was a worldwide uproar about a book by Cardinal Robert Sarah about the priesthood, which included a contribution from retired Pope Benedict XVI. Many observers saw it as a rejection of Pope Francis’ reform ideas. Some of this interpretation is attributed to how the French publisher presented the book, but Archbishop Gänswein’s role also was discussed.
Pope Francis’ response struck the archbishop like a thunderbolt, KNA reported. Archbishop Gänswein was to remain at home and was told that he no longer needed to come to the prefecture.
“I want you to have more time for Benedict,” Pope Francis was said to have told him. Since then, Archbishop Gänswein formally remains prefect of the papal household, but is tasked with tending exclusively to the retired pope.
Archbishop Gänswein told KNA he feels he is being punished for something that others stirred up, although Pope Francis denies any intent to punish him . After all the controversy, the pope is said to have wanted to get the German archbishop out of the firing line.
“Those were difficult months,” Archbishop Gänswein acknowledged. He added that “Francis is and remains a mystery to me.”
“The matter of the Sarah book was perhaps clumsy, but I did nothing wrong,” he told KNA.
The archbishop continues to appear as energetic as people have known him to be for decades, though he does seem somewhat more thoughtful and reserved. “I am trying not to dwell on my situation anymore and am doing what my mission is,” he said.
He has been in Rome now for 26 years. The young man from the Black Forest region who became a priest with the aim of caring for a rural community is now private secretary and contact man for a retired pope.
Initially, in 1995, he worked in the Congregation for Divine Worship, handling, among other tasks, the laicization applications of priests. After a year there, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger brought him into the teaching department of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“It was a challenge for me in terms of the subject matter,” Archbishop Gänswein recalled.
In 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger was hoping finally to go into retirement. Because his private secretary at the time got another post, Archbishop Gänswein became the successor. It was to have been a “provisional arrangement,” he said. “But as is well known, provisional arrangements last the longest,” the archbishop said with a chuckle.
What came next is well known. With Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope in April 2005, Archbishop Gänswein moved to the Apostolic Palace. In December 2013, about three months before Pope Benedict’s resignation, he appointed Archbishop Gänswein to the position of prefect of the papal household. In this position, Archbishop Gänswein became responsible for the official appointments of the pope — meetings with statesmen, cardinals and other guests.
Pope Benedict’s resignation came as a shock to Archbishop Gänswein, who later admitted that he wanted to talk the pope out of the decision.
The archbishop is a man who often says aloud what he is thinking, which is why he regularly comments on church policy issues and on the situation of the Catholic Church, including in Germany. Often as not, his views run counter to the mainstream church thinking.
His daily routine is largely oriented to the needs of the 94-year-old retired pope. Now and then, Archbishop Gänswein does travel — to lectures, for example, and the ordination of priests. In August he will be taking a vacation and belatedly celebrating his 65th birthday in his Black Forest home region.