VATICAN CITY - The last few days before he was ordained archbishop at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, "Don Giorgio" Gänswein was without his iPhone or PC, and also well away from the landlines and fax machines and the Vatican’s old-fashioned pneumatic and courier mail systems that are still so much a part of his daily life.
The Pope’s private secretary was unavailable, off inside the labyrinth that is the Vatican preparing spiritually for the most spectacular step in his life so far. His thoughts may have turned to the Carthusians, the Church’s most radical monastic order that as a young man he had considered joining, and with some wonder to the turns his life has taken – a path that has him living in a sun-splashed "appartamento" overlooking St. Peter’s Square instead of the hermit’s cell in a charterhouse, and communicating extensively in any number of different languages as opposed to a life lived largely in imposed silence.
Like his boss, Gänswein is German and he is considered even by the standards of the Eternal City to be a man of exceptionally deep faith. This he attributes to his mother’s influence; her death three years ago affected him profoundly. Growing up in the Black Forest, he was the eldest of five children. The senior Gänswein was a blacksmith – an occupation that hardly exists any more, even in small towns and villages, so in that sense a forgotten world in today’s digital cosmos.
Much ink has been devoted to Georg Gänswein’s extraordinary good looks. He appears a good ten years younger than his 56 years. Women express admiration for his smile, blue eyes, easy elegance, in fact fashion designer Donatella Versace was so taken by the “Vatican‘s George Clooney” she named a male collection after him.
Many have made the mistake of assuming that because of his looks the fit, athletic man -- a former ski instructor reputed to be an excellent tennis player – is an intellectual lightweight despite his degrees in theology and philosophy and a doctorate in canonical law. But not Joseph Ratzinger, who two years before he became Pope asked Gänswein to be his personal assistant. And when Ratzinger became Pope, Gänswein followed him to be part of the Pope’s inner circle at the Palazzo Apostolico.
Here he has become more essential than ever to the Pontiff, the papacy being not a whole apparatus but a single figure – the Pope – around whom everything revolves. So in the papal secretariat it is the private secretary who keeps the Pope shielded from being overwhelmed by work and mountains of paper. Gänswein is a kind of physical, psychological and spiritual body guard. It is up to him to determine the issues and events he thinks the Pope must be apprised of.
With the greatest discretion and reserve he has to be able to think ahead, filter, with great rapidity while holding a steady course. Incorruptibility even in the face of the most tempting offers is one of the major job requirements – some people will go to great lengths to get a prized audience with the Pope.
Leaks and dragons
Within the Church, when one considers how many times he has had to turn away men with ranks far higher than his – bishops, cardinals – it is unsurprising that he has made some enemies and this quite apart from the "invidia clericalis" (clerical envy) so pervasive at the Vatican.
Indeed many were ready to point the finger at Gänswein after the so-called "Vatileaks" affair broke for failing to see that the Pope’s butler Paolo Gabriele was taking secret papal documents from Benedict's desk, and passing them to journalists.
The Pope, however, was not one of the finger pointers, as his having named Gänswein archbishop – and promoting him as well to prefect of the papal household – amply demonstrates. As prefect, he succeeds American James Harvey and his responsibilities include the Pope’s official agenda, the schedule for papal audiences, and management of state visits, all the while maintaining as private secretary closer proximity to the Pope than anyone else.
As private secretary he has of course played a key role at the Vatican for years. Now he has clout as well, and ironically Gänswein’s enemies were more than a little instrumental in that. It is not too much to say that both de facto and de jure he is the most influential man in the Catholic Church worldwide after the Pope himself.
A few days ago Gänswein told Die Welt that he was looking forward to serving the Pope in 2013, and added that he has for several years been surprised at how few people in Germany have so far understood what a unique boon for the Church – “also for humanity, including my dear compatriots" -- Benedict XVI is.
He hoped, he said, “that also in Germany ever more people come to understand how lucky we all are to have a Pope like this one.”
Eight years ago, Die Welt wrote about then "Monsignore Gänswein" that while playing "guardian angel is an ideal role for him...in the last few years he has come increasingly to resemble his patron saint George the dragon slayer." Developments since that was written certainly bear the observation out.
For his episcopal coat of arms, Archbishop Gänswein has chosen the motto "Testimonium perhibere veritati" ("to bear witness to the truth"). But the heraldic design on the escutcheon, which hangs from a patriarchal cross, is more telling. Divided in two, on the left are the arms of Benedict XVI, with the scallop shell of St. Augustine and all pilgrims of St. James the Great, the Moor of Freising and the Corbinian bear.
On the right, a dragon depicted on a blue ground spits fire in the direction of the papal house. But the dragon is pierced through vertically with a lance placed underneath the Star of Bethlehem. Some might call this choice by "Pater Georg" audacious, even a tad undiplomatic. But George the dragon slayer knows that the beast keeps growing new heads.