A gentle pope, but rock solid in the execution

Bild publishes an interview with Msgr. Georg Gänswein today. The topic: Pope Benedict XVI. Msgr Gänswein reflects on the past, the media, the abuse crisis and the Holy Father’s personality. 


Five years ago, a German Catholic was elected head of the Catholic Church. Next week Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate his official anniversary. 

Bild speaks to the man who knows the pope best: his private secretary, Monsignor Georg Gänswein. 

Possibly my favourite photo of the pope with Msgr. Gänswein at his side.


Bild: Msgr. Gänswein, you accompanied the pope every day for the past five years. What was the best moment to be at his side? 

Msgr. Gänswein: There has been a string of beautiful moments. I especially remember the early days: the election in the Sistine Chapel, the procession into the Apostolic Palace, the first audiences and travels – they are all unforgettable. And every day there are new beautiful moments. 

Bild: Have there also been difficult moments for you? 

Msgr. Gänswein: For me personally the start was a great challenge: the mass of letters, requests for audiences, invitations were almost too much for me. The whole world knocks at the door, and I asked myself: How do I deal with that? What do I send on, what not? I felt as if I were in the shower and could not find the lever to stop the water. My inner tranquility was at risk, but I had to maintain it to the outside. 

Bild: Has the pope been able to successfully implement what he wanted? 

Msgr. Gänswein: A pope does not begin with a program of government which he then works to implement. Above all he is a witness of faith, he places himself in the line of successors of St. Peter, and he has to fulfill the task he is given. He has clearly formulated this task in the homily in St. Peter’s Square when he took office: He is concerned with God, with the faith in Jesus Christ, with the Church, with people. Faith, hope and love are the pillars of his preaching. He who believes is not alone.  He who has hope, lives differently. God is love. This trinity runs like a thread through  the pope’s work in the past five years. In that the pope is not affected by either  loud objections from the media or intimidation. 

Bild: Has there been a moment which you consider a defeat? 

Msgr. Gänswein: I wouldn’t speak call it defeat, but rather disappointment. I have experienced times when decisions or statements from the Holy Father were wrongly presented or even deliberately twisted. These have disappointed, even hurt me. I think of the case of Bishop Williamson: just when the pope had lifted the excommunication of the four bishops consecrated by Bishop Lefebrve, and then one of them denied the Holocaust. The one had nothing to do with the other, but it was a painful coincidence. The good intentions of the Holy Father were not just misheard, but totally  misunderstood and used against him. 

Bild: Is the Holy Father affected by the criticism from Germany, that he is silent on the current abuse crisis? 

Msgr. Gänswein: Criticism that helps the matter is always justified. I doubt that criticism really has that intention in this case. Let it be noted: any form of sexual abuse is abhorrent and should be condemned. No one has done that as clearly as the Holy Father and the Catholic Church. And not just since yesterday, and not just with words. Benedict XVI has met with victims of abuse in America and Australia. The recent letter from the pope to the Catholics of Ireland takes as clear a position against the facts as never before. It is neither useful nor helpful if the pope makes personal excuses for every single case. The fact that individual bishops and bishops’ conference also bear responsibility is too readily overlooked. There are clear responsibilities to be taken into account and to be respected. Those who wish for papal words may read the very detailed pastoral letter to the Irish. 

 Bild: In Germany the number of Catholics has been dropping since the 1970s. Does that affect the Holy Father, even though as shepherd of the World Church he must look out for all countries in the world? 

Msgr. Gänswein: Of course he is affected by what happens in Germany, and especially in Bavaria. Both the good and the bad. Additionally, he is also concerned about the crisis in faith. But on the other hand, one must not overlook the good which also in Germany grows and flourishes in the foundation of faith. As shepherd of the World Church he meets with bishops from all over the world every day, who report about their dioceses, and there he hears – thanks be to God – many good things. The bishops from Africa especially, speak of faith flourishing and many vocations to the priesthood and religious life there. To hear that is good for the soul. 

Bild: The Holy Father once said that he experienced his election as a ‘guillotine’. How is he doing now in his office? 

Msgr. Gänswein: The guillotine is a very harsh image. Cardinal Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had a primarily defensive role; before anything else, he had to defend, deflect, take the coal out of the fire. As pope he has a lot more opportunities to also act offensively. The Holy Father is an excellent teacher, he has to gift of the word,  he loves writing. He speaks clearly and intelligently. With his words he fills the heart. 

Bild: If you had to name three characteristics that you appreciate in the pope, which would they be? 

Msgr. Gänswein: Unyielding faith, humble strength, disarming mildness. His style is gentle, but he is rock solid in the execution. 

Bild: You work very closely together. Is there anything that annoys you about the Holy Father? 

Msgr. Gänswein: A close working relationship does not lead to annoyance. On the contrary, it removes it. Of course there are moments when the Holy Father needs to take a break because of great external pressure. I try to create space so he can catch his breath, to hold the pressure at bay, so that he can collect his strength. I must admit that I have never seen him in a bad mood, not as a cardinal and not as pope. He is always courteous and gentle towards people.


Church publishes guide to legal procedures of abuse

Yesterday the Vatican released a guide to the procedures followed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in case of accusations of sexual abuse of minors. It is a rather transparent document about the rules as they are now. I think it’s very important that this is made public. The Church must be transparent in how she deals with the crisis, certainly when the media continue to fail in objective reporting.

From various other blogs I gather that the emphasis placed by the Congregation on the reporting of allegations to civilian authorities is a new one. I’m pleased to see it. The Church can only do so much regarding penalties; she does not have to power to convict or lock up. Civilian courts do.

Read the guide here or, in Dutch, here.

Cardinal Bertone and the importance of formation

A not-so-clever comment? A slip of the tongue? Or a grain of truth?

Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, Secretary of State of the Vatican, who is visiting Chile this week, addressed the abuse issue yesterday. On of the things he said is that there is a link between pedophilia and homosexuality:

“Many psychologists and psychiatrists have shown that there is no link between celibacy and pedophilia but many others have shown, I have recently been told, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia.”

Now, I have no background in anything resembling medicine or psychology, and neither, it seems, does the cardinal (“I have recently been told”). I can’t say anything with any certainty about the truth of this matter. But it is striking that the majority of abuse cases in Catholic institution involve young boys. There are some homosexual elements there, it would seem. But that’s for smarter minds to figure out.

I don’t believe that Cardinal Bertone is correct here, and what’s worse, he has not been clever in making this connection while admitting that he does not really know what he is talking about. It is statements like this that get picked up by the media, torn out of context and used to further damage the Church. You would think that an experienced man like Cardinal Bertone would be smart enough to realise this. Media training would not seem to be a luxury, even on the highest levels of the curia.

Candidates for the priesthood are, if things are done correctly, thoroughly psychologically tested, not only to see if they really have a vocation to the priesthood, but certainly also to judge if they are suitable for a priestly life, which includes living celibate. It is problematic when a  man is unable to not act upon his sexual desires, be they hetero- or homosexual (or pedophiliac, for that matter). And in my uninformed opinion, that is where the problem lies: in the past decades men have been accepted into seminaries and formation houses who were not ready or suitable for that. And now we are faced with the results of that. Not to say that all men who are not able to live celibate go on to abuse minors, of course (there have also been cases of priests entering into sexual relations with adult women (or men) on a basis of mutual consent).

But imagine this: you are a priest and the Church asks that you live celibate. But you can’t: for various reasons you are unable to refrain from acting upon sexual desires. You can’t go out and find a girlfriend because you’re a priest. So what do you do? You keep it secret, find hidden ways to satisfy your sexual urges. Some men will target the easily available: people, children, under their care…

And that is why it is so very important to be as certain as one can (both the candidate and those responsible for their formation) about the psychology and suitability of the candidate for the priesthood. It is tough, difficult, but then again, that is what formation is. Christ calls some men to be priests, to represent Him in the Eucharist and the other sacraments, to transcend their human nature. That is no easy task, and we can use all the help we can get.