In a lengthy interview with EWTN’s German television branch, Benedict XVI’s closest aide describes how the retired pontiff is doing as he turns the milestone age of 90, giving a rare look into what life is like for the Pope Emeritus.
Archbishop Gänswein has been Benedict’s personal secretary since 2003, while the latter was still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He has remained close at Benedict’s side throughout his papacy, resignation and his life of retirement.
In anticipation of Benedict XVI’s 90th birthday, which this year falls on Easter Sunday, April 16, Gänswein gave a lengthy interview to EWTN.TV in German, sharing insights into how the Pope Emeritus plans to celebrate his birthday and highlights and personal memories of his pontificate.
Among other things, the archbishop recalls how Benedict handled his election, the frequently negative media-firestorm that enveloped much of his pontificate, his hope for what people take from his papacy as well as how he spends his days in retirement.
Please read below for the full interview with Archbishop Gänswein, conducted by the head of EWTN.TV Martin Rothweiler, and translated from the original German by EWTN’s Silvia Kritzenberger:
EWTN.TV: The question everyone’s interested in is, of course: How is Pope Benedict? The Psalm says: “Our lives last seventy years or, if we are strong, eighty years.” That happens to be psalm 90. And now on the 16th of April, Pope Benedict will celebrate his 90th birthday! How is he?
Gänswein: Yes, indeed, on Easter Sunday he will turn 90! Considering his age, he is remarkably well. He is also in good spirits, very clear in his head and still has a good sense of humor. What bothers him are his legs, so he uses a walker for help, and he gets along very well. And this walker guarantees him freedom of movement and autonomy. So, for a 90-year old, he is doing pretty well – even though, from time to time, he complains of this or that minor ailment.
EWTN.TV: How will he celebrate his birthday?
Gänswein: On Easter Sunday, priority will of course be given to liturgy. On Easter Monday, in the afternoon, we will hold a small celebration. He wanted something not too exhausting, appropriate to his strengths. He didn’t want to have a big celebration. That was never an option for him. A small delegation from Bavaria will come, the Mountain troops will come… The Bavarian Prime Minister will come to the monastery, and there we will hold a small birthday party in true Bavarian style!
EWTN.TV: Have you any idea if Pope Francis will come to see him?
Gänswein: That is quite likely. He will surely do so.
EWTN.TV: No one knows Pope Benedict better than you – apart from his brother Georg Ratzinger. How did you get to know Pope Benedict?
Gänswein: Actually, through literature. Back in the day, when I was just about to finish gymnasium, my parish priest gave me Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, urging me: “You absolutely have to read this! That’s the future!” I said: “Okay, but have you read it?” “No,” he replied, “but you have to read it!” And I did. Later, when I started to study theology in Freiburg, and then in Rome, and then again back in Freiburg, I had practically read everything the then-professor and cardinal had written. But it was only 21, or maybe 22 years ago, that I finally met him in person here in Rome, when I was asked to become a collaborator of the Roman Curia … More concretely, I met him in the Teutonic College, that is, in the chapel, where Cardinal Ratzinger used to celebrate Mass for the German pilgrims every Thursday, joining us for breakfast. That was how the first personal contact with Cardinal Ratzinger came about, and since then we never lost that contact.
EWTN.TV: At some point, he decided to call you to his side. Why did his choice fall on you?
Gänswein: Well, you must know that I didn’t come directly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; my first employment was at the Congregation for Divine Worship. But when, in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a German priest left after a certain period of time in order to go back to Germany, Ratzinger asked me to come. “I think you are suitable for the post, and I would like you to come,” he said to me. “If you agree, I would like to speak with the respective authorities.” And he did. That was how it came about that, in 1996, I entered the staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a post I held until 2003. Afterwards, he made me his Personal Secretary – which I still am, to this very day.
EWTN.TV: What was your first impression of him? What did you think when he called you to work closely with him?
Gänswein: My first thought was: Have I done something wrong? Don’t I have a clean record? So I examined my conscience, but my conscience was clear. And then he said: “No, it is something that concerns your future. Something I think might be a good task for you. Consider it carefully!” Of course, I was very pleased that he thought I was capable of working in his entourage. It is indeed a very demanding task, one that requires all your strength.
EWTN.TV: Which personality traits and characteristics did you discover in him?
Gänswein: The same I had already discovered in his writings: a sharp intellect, a clear diction. And then, in his personal relations, a great clemency, quite the contrary of what he has always been associated with and still is, of what has always been said about him, when he was described as a “Panzerkardinal” (army tank Cardinal), someone rough – which he is not. On the contrary, he is very confident when dealing with others, but also when he has to deal with problems, when he has to solve problems, and, above all, in the presentation of the faith, the defense of the faith. But what moved me most, was to see how this man managed to proclaim our faith with simple, but profound words, against all odds and despite all hostilities.
EWTN.TV: What were the main issues on his agenda when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Gänswein: When I joined the Congregation, he was dealing with the encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, and then with Dominus Jesus, documents which date back to years when I was already part of the Congregation. Later, of course, it was also about religious dialogue – a subject he revisited and deepened also after he’d become Pope. And then the big issue of faith and reason. A whole chain of subjects, so to say, I could witness in person. And it was all highly interesting, and a great challenge, too.
EWTN.TV: It was Pope John Paul II who nominated Cardinal Ratzinger Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What kind of relationship did they have? What kind of relationship did Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, have with the Pope who was, as we now know, a holy man?
Gänswein: Cardinal Ratzinger, that is to say, Pope Benedict, had contributed with a relatively long essay to a small, but beautiful little book that was published on the occasion of the canonization of John Paul II. An essay, in which he describes his relationship with the holy Pope John Paul II – after all, they had worked closely together for 23 years – and the great admiration he has for him. He spoke of him very often. It is of course a great gift, an immense grace, to work for so long, and so intensely, side by side with a man like John Paul II, facing also many a storm together! And the then Cardinal Ratzinger had to take many blows for John Paul II, since the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clearly cannot be everybody’s darling: He has to offer his back, so that he can take the blows that are actually meant for the Pope.
EWTN.TV: How strong was his influence on the pontificate of John Paul II?
Gänswein: I am convinced of the fact that the pontificate of John Paul II was strongly influenced and supported not only by the person of the then Prefect of the Congregation of Faith, but also by his thoughts and his actions.
EWTN.TV: Pope Benedict once said that he had learned and understood much of John Paul II when he watched him celebrate Mass; when he saw how he prayed, how very united he was with God, far beyond his philosophical and mental capacities. What do you think when you watch Pope Benedict celebrate Mass, when you might be present while he is praying?
Gänswein: In fact, that is something I see every day, but especially since the moment I became secretary to Pope Benedict. Before, I was already his secretary, but we didn’t live together. It did happen that we celebrated Mass together, of course. But from the very moment of his election, it was no longer a work communion, but also a communion of life. And the daily Mass has become part of this life, then and today. It is moving to watch Pope Benedict during Mass simply abandon himself to what is happening, even now, in his old days, with all the physical handicaps that come with it; to see how intensely he enters the depths of prayer, but also afterwards, during the thanksgiving in front of the tabernacle, in front of the Most Blessed Sacrament. As far as I am concerned, it makes me enter the depths of prayer. That is highly motivating, and I am very thankful that I was given the chance to have an experience like this.
EWTN.TV: 2005 is the year that marked the end of the long and public suffering and death of John Paul II. How does Pope Benedict XVI remember this moment today? After all, with his resignation, he has chosen to let his own pontificate end in a different way…How does he remember the suffering and the death of John Paul II?
Gänswein: I remember very clearly what he said to me when he made me his secretary. He said: “We two are interim arrangements. I will soon retire, and you will accompany me until that moment comes.” That was in 2003. Time passed by…and then came 2005. The interim arrangement lasts and lasts. And he was really looking forward to having some time off in order to be able to finish writing his book about Jesus. But then things turned out differently. And, well, I think that after the death of Pope John Paul II he had other plans, hoping that the new Pope would let him take his leave, entering his well-deserved retirement. But once again, things turned out differently: he became Pope himself, and the Lord took him up on his promise once again. He had plans, but there was another who had different plans for him.
EWTN.TV: Did he expect – or fear – that in any way?
Gänswein: He certainly did not expect it – but, at a certain point, he might have feared it. In this context, I always remember his first press conference (as Pope), where he described the 19th of April, the day of his election when, in the late afternoon, the ballot was so clear that it became obvious that he would be elected. Well, the image he used, the one of the guillotine, was a very strong one, and full of tension. And later, in Munich, referring to the image of the bear of St. Corbinian, he said that the bear was actually supposed to accompany the then-bishop Corbinian to Rome, and then return to where he had come from, whereas he, unlike the bear in the legend, couldn’t go back, but has remained in Rome to this very day.
EWTN.TV: How was your first encounter, after he had become Pope? What did he say to you?
Gänswein: We had our first encounter in the Sistine Chapel, right under the Last Judgement. The cardinals had approached him and sworn obedience to him. And since I had been allowed to be present at the Conclave – Ratzinger, being the Deacon of the Cardinals, had the right to take a priest with him, and his choice had fallen on me – I was the last in the queue. There were others before me, I was the last. And in this very moment…I remember it so well…I can still see him, for the first time all dressed in white: white pileolus, white cassock, white hair – and all white in the face! Practically a whole small cloud of white…He sat there, and in this moment I granted the Holy Father my unconditional availability, promising him that I would always gladly do whatever he might ask of me; that he would always be able to count on me, that I would back him, and that I would gladly do so.
EWTN.TV: What were the joys of this pontificate? Usually, the burden of the Petrine ministry is what first comes to mind. But are there also moments, events, when you could feel the joy Pope Benedict experienced in carrying out his ministry?
Gänswein: There were, without any doubt, moments in which he felt utter joy, and also manifested it. I think, for example, of various encounters, not only during his travels. Encounters with the Successor of Peter are always special encounters; even here, during the General Audiences or the Private Audiences – and, in another, very special way, when he acts as officiant, that is, during the celebration of the Holy Mass or other liturgical celebrations. There were indeed moments full of joy, fulfilled with joy. And afterwards, he never failed to remark on it. It made him really happy.
EWTN.TV: Are there any events you remember particularly well, especially in connection with Pope Benedict’s visits to Germany, which we all remember vividly, for example the first World Youth Day?
Gänswein: Yes, well, the first encounter hadn’t been brought about by Pope Benedict himself, but by John Paul II. And so, in 2005, as we all know, it was Benedict’s turn to travel to Cologne. It was surely something great, something really moving. It was the first time in his life he met such an immense crowd of young people, who were all waiting for him! How will it go? Will the ice break, will the ice melt? Or will it take some time? And how will we get along with one another? But there was no ice at all! It simply worked, right from the start! And I think, he himself was more surprised by it than the young people he met.
EWTN.TV: What are the key messages of his Pontificate? His first encyclical letter was Deus Caritas est, “God Is Love.” The second one was dedicated to hope; his third encyclical, the one on faith, was passed on to his successor who completed it. Don’t you think that especially Deus Caritas est, so full of tenderness and poetic language, was something many didn’t expect?
Gänswein: Yes, one has to say, he published three encyclical letters. And we must not omit Caritas in veritate, which is very important. In fact, the one about the third theological virtue, faith, fides, was then published under his successor: Lumen fidei. But these four encyclicals clearly contain a fundamental message that has moved him his whole life long; a message he wanted to bequeath to men, to the Church.
Another constant of Pope Benedict is a very important word, a very important element: joy, “la gioia,” in Italian. He always spoke of the joy of faith, not of the burden, the hardship, the weight of faith, but of the joy that comes with it. And he said that this joy is an important fruit of faith – and also the one thing that gives men wings; that this is how faith gives human life wings: wings which, otherwise without faith, man would never have.
Another important thing for him is – obviously – liturgy, that is to say the direct encounter with God. Liturgy does not represent something theatrical – it means to be called into a relationship with the living God. And then, in theology, we have the person of Jesus Christ: not a historical “something,” a historical person long lost in the past. No, through the scriptures and liturgy, Jesus Christ comes into this world, here and now, and above all: he also comes into my own life. These are the pearls Pope Benedict has bestowed upon us. And we should treat these pearls very carefully, just as we do with precious jewelry.
EWTN.TV: This joy of faith is something Benedict never lost, despite often even heavy media criticism. He never really was the media’s darling, at least not as far as the German media are concerned. How did he account for that?
Gänswein: Well, I have to say, to me that is still a mystery. Whoever defends the truth of faith – to say it with Saint Paul – be it convenient or not, cannot always trigger joy. That is clear. Some essential things just aren’t for sale, and then there’s always a hail of criticism. But he has never answered to provocation, nor let himself be intimidated by criticism. Wherever the substance of the faith is at stake, he had no doubts, and always reacted explicitly, without any inner conflict whatsoever.
On other points, I have to say, there was a mixture of incomprehension, and also aggression, aggressiveness, that became like a clustered ball that consistently hit at the person of the Pope. The incomprehension of many, and especially the media, is still a mystery to me, something I have to take note of, but cannot sort out. I simply have no answer to it.
EWTN.TV: Pope Benedict was never shy about talking to journalists. In the introduction you wrote to the book Über den Wolken mit Papst Benedikt XVI. (Above the Clouds with Pope Benedict XVI), published to mark his 90th birthday – above the clouds, because it contains interviews often given during Papal flights – you state that these conversations reveal his particular cordiality, his often not understood or underestimated humanity…
Gänswein: Pope Benedict has never shunned away from personal contact with the media, with the journalists. And one great gift was that everything he says is well-worded, ready for printing. He was never shy about answering questions, even questions that were embarrassing – well, not embarrassing, but difficult. And that made it even more incomprehensible that it was exactly this corner from where the arrows came, where the fire was set – and for no clear reason at all. He, too, took notice of it. Of course, there were also things which offended, hurt him. Especially when it was clear to see that there was no reason at all, when you couldn’t help asking yourself: why this snappish remark, this acrimonious presentation? Things like that would hurt anyone, that’s only normal. But, on the other side, we also know that our measure is not the applause we get; our measure is inner righteousness, the example of the Gospel. That thought has always comforted him; it was the line of reasoning he has always pursued, until the end.
EWTN.TV: But was he also aware of the value of the media in the process of evangelization? After all, he has awarded the Medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice to Mother Angelica, founder of our television network, which means he must really appreciate her! How did he judge the role of the media in the concrete work of evangelization?
Gänswein: The media are an important means; a means that will become ever more important, especially in our time. He has never failed to recognize the value of the media, of the work done by the media and those who are behind it. Because media work is done by people, not by “something.” Behind every camera, every written word, every book, there is a person, there are people he appreciated, whose work he appreciated, regardless of what sometimes had been used or said against him.
EWTN.TV: One cannot think of Pope Benedict without rekindling the memory of his resignation. That is not about to change, and will continue to be a subject that stirs people’s interest. So I would like to ask you again: Did you see it coming? Was it clear to him that he would go down that road one day?
Gänswein: Well, as far as I’m concerned, I didn’t see it coming. If and since when he started to nurture this thought, is something I don’t know. The only thing I know is that he told me about it when the decision was already made. But I definitely didn’t see it coming – and that made the shock for me even greater.
EWTN.TV: In his latest memoirs – I refer to the interview-book Last conversations with Peter Seewald – Benedict XVI makes it very clear that external pressure or adversities would never have made him resign. So this cannot have been the case…
Gänswein: That’s right.
EWTN.TV: …So this is the final word that puts an end to the discussion on possible motives…
Gänswein: In another book – the penultimate project carried out with Peter Seewald in Castel Gandolfo – he had already answered the question whether or not a Pope could resign, in the affirmative. I don’t know in how far he had, already then, considered resignation, stepping back from his office, an option for himself. When you start to have thoughts like that, you do it for a reason. And he has named these reasons very openly…and very honestly, too, one has to say: the waning of his forces, spiritual and physical. The Church needs a strong navigator, and he didn’t have the feeling that he could be that strong navigator. That’s why he wanted to put the faculty bestowed upon him by Jesus back into His hands, so that the College of Cardinals could elect his successor. So obviously, the pontificate of Benedict XVI will also go down in history because of his resignation, that is clear, inevitable…
EWTN.TV: I found it really moving to watch him deliver his last speech to the priests of the diocese of Rome, the one on the Second Vatican Council. In that moment, I couldn’t help asking myself: Why does this man resign? There was clearly a spiritual force! It was an extemporaneous speech in which he exposed one more time his whole legacy, so to say, on the Second Vatican Council, expressing his wish it might one day be fulfilled…
Gänswein: In fact, that was in the Audience Hall. There was this traditional encounter, established many years ago, where the Pope, every Thursday after Ash Wednesday, met with the clergy of Rome, the clergy of his diocese. There were questions and answers, or even other forms of encounter. And in 2013, he was asked to talk about the Second Vatican Council, which he did. He delivered an extemporaneous speech in which he described, one more time and from his point of view, the whole situation and development of the Council, giving also his evaluation. It is something that will remain; something very important for the comprehension of the Second Vatican Council and Ratzinger’s interpretation of it. As far as I know, up to this day there is no other theologian who has defended the documents of the Second Vatican Council on so many levels, and so intensely and cogently as he did. And that is very important also for the inner life of the Church and the people of God!
EWTN.TV: And I think it is safe to say that he contributed to the shaping of the Council…
Gänswein: In fact, being the consultor, the advisor of Cardinal Frings, he did have a part in it. Many of the theological contributions of the Cardinal of Cologne had actually been written by Professor Ratzinger. There are lots of documents where you can clearly see that. And there are also dissertations on this subject which investigate into the possible influence of the then-Professor Ratzinger.
EWTN.TV: Let’s come back to the moment of his resignation, the very last hours. Whoever watched it on TV, was surely moved to see the helicopter departing for Castel Gandolfo. You, too, were visibly moved…And then, the final moment, when the doors in Castel Gandolfo closed. That was the moment when I – and I guess, many others – thought that we might never see Pope Benedict again. But then things turned out quite differently…
Gänswein: Yes, indeed, the farewell: the transfer to the heliport, the flight in the helicopter over the city of Rome to Castel Gandolfo, the arrival at the Papal Villa. And indeed, at 8 p.m. the closing of the doors. Before, Pope Benedict had delivered a short speech from the balcony, his farewell speech. And then? Well, the works in the monastery Mater Ecclesiae hadn’t been finished yet, so the question was: where could he stay? And the decision was quickly taken: the best option would be Castel Gandolfo. There he will have everything he needs, since no one knows how long the works will last; so he can stay there as long as necessary.
And so two months later, he returned to Rome, and has been living in the monastery Mater Ecclesiae ever since. He himself had said that he would withdraw, going up to the mountain in order to pray. He didn’t mean a withdrawal into private life, but into a life of prayer, meditation and contemplation, in order to serve the Church and his successor. His successor often told him that he shouldn’t hide. He invites him often to important public liturgies, consistories like – I remember it well – the inauguration ceremony of the Holy Year on the 8th of December 2015.
He is present, even when no one sees him. But often he has been seen. He simply wants to be present, as much as possible, while remaining all the same invisible.
EWTN.TV: Many people wish to meet him, and he allows them to. Does he enjoy these encounters? I myself had the chance of a brief encounter with him. There are still many people who ask to see him.
Gänswein: Yes, there are many people who ask to meet him; and many are sad when this is not possible. But those who come, are all very happy, very glad. And the same goes for him. Every encounter is also a sign of affection, a sign, so to say, of approval. And human encounters always do us good.
EWTN.TV: Do some of these people also ask him for advice?
Gänswein: Definitely. I’m convinced of that. I’m never there, though; these encounters are private. Of course, he sometimes talks about it, we talk about those visits. There are indeed people who seek his advice on personal matters. And I’m convinced that the advice they receive is indeed good…
EWTN.TV: Does he still receive many letters? Who writes to him?
Gänswein: People he has known in the past. And also people I don’t know, and he doesn’t know, but who have clearly re-discovered him through literature. They express their gratitude, their happiness, but also their worries: people from all around the world. The people who write to him are very different; they do not belong to the same category, no: it’s people of different ages, of different positions, from all walks of life, a complete mixture.
EWTN.TV: We have talked about “seeking advice:” Pope Francis, who is of a certain age himself, has always said that we should ask our grandparents for advice. Has Pope Francis ever asked Benedict for advice? What kind of relationship do they have?
Gänswein: Yes, indeed, in one of his interviews, Pope Francis is said to be happy about having a grandfather like Benedict – a “wise” grandfather: an adjective not to be omitted! And I am convinced that, as far as this is concerned, one thing or another will come up, or come out, from their contacts and encounters.
EWTN.TV: Your relationship with Benedict is a very close, very personal one. I don’t know if it would be appropriate to talk about a relationship between father and son. Have you ever talked with him about your future?
EWTN.TV: It is known that you would love to engage in pastoral care, that you already do engage in pastoral care.
Gänswein: It was always like that: we didn’t talk about it. Only the very moment he said that he would resign, he asked me to accept the office I still hold. It was his decision, and he hadn’t talked with me about it beforehand. I was very skeptical, and remarked: “Holy Father, that might not be my thing. But if you think it is right for me, I will gladly and obediently accept it.” And he replied: “I do think so, and I ask you to accept.” That was the only time we talked about me and my future career.
EWTN.TV: What are the subjects you talk about? What are the issues that concern him in our world full of crises; what worries him about the situation of the Church?
Gänswein: Well, of course, Pope Benedict takes an interest in what happens in this world, in the Church. Every day, as the conclusion to the day, we watch the news on Italian TV. And he reads the newspapers, the Vatican press review. That is a large range of information. Often we also talk about actual issues that concern our world, about the latest developments here in the Vatican, and beyond the Vatican, or simply common memories regarding things happened in the past.
EWTN.TV: Is he very worried about the Church?
Gänswein: Of course, he has noted that the faith, the substance of the faith, is about to crumble, above all in his homeland, and that inevitably worries, troubles him. But he is not the kind of man – he never was and never will be – who will have the joy taken away from him! On the contrary: he brings his worries to his prayers, hoping that his prayers will help to put things right.
EWTN.TV: He brings them to his prayers and surely also to Holy Mass. On Sundays, he delivers homilies, and is also keeping notes. What happens to these notes?
Gänswein: Well, it is true that Pope Benedict comments on the Gospel. He does so every Sunday, and most of the time only in the presence of the (consecrated laywomen of) “Memores Domini” and myself. Sometimes there might also be a visitor, or – should I not be there – a fellow priest who will then concelebrate. His homilies are always extemporaneous. It is true, he has a sermon notebook, and he takes notes. And I have been asking myself the same question: what happens to these notes? Of course we will keep a record of them. I would like to ask him one day if he could take a look at the notes we have, in order to approve them. I don’t know, though, if that day will ever come.
EWTN.TV: Pope Benedict is undoubtedly one of the greatest theologians…as far as of our century is concerned, he surely is! He has been referred to as the “Mozart of theology.” In your introduction to the already mentioned book Über den Wolken mit Papst Benedikt XVI (Above the Clouds with Pope Benedict XVI) you wrote: “Pope Benedict XVI is a Doctor of the Church. And he has been my teacher up to this day.” What have you learned from him, maybe even in the last weeks?
Gänswein: As I already said, my theological thinking started with the reading of Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. The theological teacher who accompanied my theological studies, and the time that followed, has always been the theologian Ratzinger, and still is. Being given the chance to meet him in person, to learn from his personal example, is of course an additional gift, something unexpected, and I am very grateful for that. I know it is a grace – a grace for which I will thank the Lord every single day.
EWTN.TV: So what could be, in your opinion, the lesson Pope Benedict would like us to learn from his pontificate?
Gänswein: His great concern was that the faith could evaporate. And it is surely his greatest wish that every man be in direct relationship with God, the Lord, with Christ, and that we might dedicate to this relationship our time, strength and affection. Whoever does that, will prove the same sentiment Benedict has in mind when he talks about “joy.” I think the greatest gift would be, if men allowed his proposal or what moved him, to become part of their lives.
EWTN.TV: Our wish to you: could you please assure Pope Benedict also in the name of our viewers, of our thankfulness, our sentiments of appreciation, and convey him our heartfelt best wishes for his 90th birthday! And thank you so much for this conversation!
Gänswein: Thank you. I will gladly convey your wishes, and thank you for having me!
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!