Tell-all memoir by Pope Benedict XVI’s secretary rattles the Vatican

‘The great gossipmonger is the devil,’ said Pope Francis before meeting in private with Georg Gänswein, who is set to release a book revealing secrets of the pope he served for so long

Libro del secretario de Benedicto XVI
Pope Francis talks with Archbishop Georg Gänswein during the Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican.MAX ROSSI (REUTERS)
Daniel Verdú

It has been less than a week since Benedict XVI was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, but his long-time personal secretary is already at the center of another Vatican controversy. Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the trusted personal secretary who guarded the private thoughts of Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) for the last 20 years, is set to release a memoir on January 12 that apparently settles some old scores with the Vatican and its treatment of the pope emeritus in recent years. Gänswein doesn’t hide his poor relationship with Pope Francis, and says he was disappointed when Francis dismissed him from his duties.

Pope Francis met with Gänswein on January 9, perhaps a little fed up with all the commotion caused by his book. During his weekly Angelus Address the day before, the pope sent a subtle but clear warning. “The great gossiper is the devil, who always goes around recounting bad things about others, because he is the liar who seeks to divide the church, to distance brothers and sisters and not to create community.”

Pope Francis and Archbishop Gänswein, a German national like Benedict XVI, never had a harmonious relationship, and Gänswein’s tell-all memoir will likely make things worse. The book has been at the printers and ready for publication, waiting for the death of his spiritual mentor. “I ask you to make an effort not to gossip,” said Pope Francis in his weekly address. “Gossip is a plague uglier and worse than Covid. Let us make an effort – no gossip, none.”

But it was too late, because Gänswein’s book, Nient’altro che la verità. La mia vita al fianco di Benedetto XVI (or Nothing but the Truth: My Life Beside Benedict XVI), which EL PAÍS obtained prior to its official release, points fingers at the current pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and describes the profound individual and theological differences between the two pontiffs. “The differences in the way the two popes work, and the nuances of their theological judgment are there for all to see. But Benedict has never made any interpretations or assessments of Francis’ approach,” writes Gänswein.

Gänswein, a theological conservative, expresses dismay in his surefire bestseller about the ways in which the traditionalist and progressive factions of the church have exploited the two popes. He says the problem is not the reality of two living pontiffs, but “the birth and development of two partisan groups, because over time it became clear that there are two distinct visions for the church. And these two groups have created a tension that has been echoed by others who were unaware of the ecclesiastical dynamics.”

“The Sarah Mess”

One of the most difficult moments of the two popes’ coexistence was when Cardinal Robert Sarah, a staunch opponent of Francis, published a book listing Benedict XVI as coauthor that was seen by many as a critique by the former pontiff of Pope Francis’ allowance for questions of married clergy to be discussed in the 2019 synod on the Amazon. In a chapter titled, “The Sarah Mess,” Gänswein berates the cardinal for including the retired pope as coauthor when he had merely agreed to serve as an advisor for the book.

The book also reveals details about how Benedict XVI’s resignation came about. “Benedict’s initial idea was to communicate the resignation at the end of his Christmas address to the Roman Curia on December 21 [2012]. He wanted to inform them of his intention to resign the papacy on January 25, 2013, on the occasion of the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. When he told me this in mid-October, I replied, ‘Holy Father, let me say that if you do it this way, no one will celebrate Christmas this year, neither in the Vatican nor anywhere else. It will be like a cold shower.’ He understood and ultimately chose February 11.”

“Don’t come back to work tomorrow”

Many people assume Gänswein’s relationship with Francis began to sour when the pope relieved him of his duties as prefect of the pontifical household, a post he had held under Benedict. “He looked at me seriously, and to my surprise said, ‘From now on, stay home. Be with Benedict, who needs you, and protect him.’ I was shocked and speechless. When I tried to reply, he ended the conversation with, ‘You will remain a prefect, but don’t come back to work tomorrow’.” Gänswein writes that he did not agree with the decision, but was committed to obeying the papal order. When he told Benedict, Gänswein writes that the retired pope replied: “It seems that Pope Francis no longer trusts me and wants you to be my keeper.”

The question on everyone’s minds is whether Gänswein will be disciplined for his book or allowed to resign gracefully. For now, there is no talk of dismissal after his recent meeting with Pope Francis. It doesn’t seem likely that he will return to Germany, where he is still an archbishop. Georg Bätzing, the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, has already hinted, “That depends on him and the people making these decisions in the Vatican Curia.”

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