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Gerard O’ConnellApril 11, 2024
Pope Francis meets Archbishop Georg Gänswein, personal secretary to the late Pope Benedict XVI, in the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican in this May 19, 2023, file photo. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Francis is a pope of surprises but also mercy. Both attributes have shaped the pope’s complex and difficult relationship with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, 67, the former private secretary to Pope Benedict XVI. After his predecessor’s death, Francis sent Archbishop Gänswein back to his home diocese in Germany, an unwelcome move for the former private secretary who wished to receive a new position in Rome. But the pope has now decided to appoint him as a nuncio, or ambassador, in the Vatican diplomatic corps.

The unexpected news was first broken this afternoon, Rome time, by Elisabetta Piqué (my wife) in an article in La Nacion, the Argentine daily for which she is the correspondent in Italy and the Vatican.

“Notwithstanding the tensions between the two,” she reported, “Pope Francis has decided to clean the slate and give a new start and assignment to the former private secretary of Benedict, the German archbishop Georg Gänswein, who will soon be designated as nuncio in some part of the world.” She based her report on “indiscreet remarks circulating in the Vatican” that she has found to be credible.

She recalled that when Archbishop Gänswein came to Rome to celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 31, the first anniversary of the death of Benedict XVI, he was received in an audience by Pope Francis. It appears that on that occasion, the German archbishop expressed his unease at being without any role or assignment in his home diocese or in the church and conveyed his desire to be given one. Then, “in what some [in the Vatican] interpret as a form of pardon,” she said, Francis decided to assign him to a nunciature in an as yet unnamed country.

This news will certainly surprise many in Rome and elsewhere in the world who had come to the conclusion that Archbishop Gänswein had torpedoed his career in the church with his book Who Believes Is Not Alone: My Life Beside Benedict XVI.

In that publication, Archbishop Gänswein claimed that Francis never really trusted him and suggested that Benedict had disagreed with some of Francis’ decisions.

According to many in the Vatican, his book revealed a lack of trustworthiness, loyalty and reserve on the part of a man who was meant to be serving two popes. In that book, he also lamented the fact that Francis suspended him from his role as prefect of the papal household in 2020 and instructed him to give his full attention to caring for the ailing Benedict XVI, a move he saw as a demotion.

Suggestions that Francis might assign him to another position in the Roman Curia were also ruled out after Benedict’s death, informed sources who did not wish to be named told America, because, among other reasons, the archbishop had published private correspondence between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis in his tell-all book.

The book was published on the day of Benedict’s funeral, with excerpts released at the time of his death. Referring to that event, Pope Francis in a recent interview book, El Sucesor, mis recuerdos de Benedicto XVI (The Successor: My Memories of Benedict XVI), told Spanish journalist Javier Martínez Brocal, that he “felt pain” that Benedict “was being used” in this way and described the publication of the book at that time as “a lack of nobility and of humanity.” Moreover, he said, “To publish a book that lays into me on the day of the funeral, telling things that are not true, is very sad.”

In El Sucesor, Francis revealed that Benedict’s secretary “at times made difficulties for me.” Citing one such incident, he said he asked Archbishop Gänswein to take “a voluntary leave” from his role as prefect of the papal household following the publication of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book, From the Depths of our Hearts, which was initially published with Benedict XVI listed as a co-author; Pope Benedict later asked the Guinean cardinal to have his name removed. The book sought to prevent any change to the obligation of celibacy for priests in the Roman Catholic Church, which was being discussed at the Amazon synod. Benedict later distanced himself from the book, and Francis placed the blame for the debacle on Archbishop Gänswein. Francis also said that, having observed the influential role that Benedict’s collaborators played, he decided “to dissolve the papal secretariat,” the position Archbishop Gänswein had held, because “it is not good to have an all-powerful secretary.”

Last year, media outlets reported on unconfirmed rumors that Pope Francis might send Archbishop Gänswein to Costa Rica or some other country to serve as the papal nuncio. But at that time America learned from informed Vatican sources who were not authorized to speak on the record that this proposal had been dismissed by the pope.

Notwithstanding all this, Pope Francis has now decided to not only forgive the German archbishop but also assign him to a nunciature.

Archbishop Gänswein was ordained a priest in Freiburg, Germany, in 1984, and came to Rome in 1993 where he studied canon law. He began to work in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 1995. In 1996 he transferred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and became the cardinal’s secretary in 2003.

When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope on April 19, 2005, he became Benedict XVI’s private secretary, a role he held until Benedict’s death. On the eve of his resignation in 2013, Benedict ordained Gänswein as archbishop and named him prefect of the papal household, in a move that was widely seen in Rome as a way of protecting him. As prefect, he exercised much influence in the Vatican. Francis retained him in that role until January 2020, when he asked him to take a leave of absence to care for his predecessor. Francis never brought him back to his former role, even after Benedict’s death, and instead told him that he should return to his home diocese, as previous papal secretaries had done.

Pope Francis’ decision to appoint him as nuncio, which the Vatican has yet to announce, opens a whole new chapter in the life of this German archbishop.

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