VATICAN CITY: Just one week after the funeral of Pope Benedict 16th, his closest aide released a much-trailed memoir on Thursday, revealing details of tensions between the late pope emeritus and his more liberal successor Pope Francis.
Archbishop Georg Gaenswein’s book reveals private conversations with both popes in charting the German ex-pontiff’s rise to power and the decade spent in retirement following his shock resignation in February 2013.
The Vatican has not officially responded, but Pope Francis called Gaenswein into a private meeting on Monday, following days of prepublication interviews in which the 66-year-old German aired years of grievances.
In one, he claimed it had “pained Benedict’s heart” when Francis effectively reversed his predecessor’s decision to relax restrictions on the use of the traditional Latin Mass.
Up until his death on December 31 at age 95, Benedict had remained a figurehead for the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, which views Pope Francis as too liberal.
As his secretary since 2003,
Gaenswein was a constant presence at Benedict’s side, and during his final years living in a monastery on the Vatican grounds, his gatekeeper.
After Benedict’s death, Gaenswein led the mourners, greeting visitors to his mentor’s lying in state and kissing the coffin in front of tens of thousands at St. Peter’s Square during the January 5 funeral led by Pope Francis.
He was a key figure in the recent funeral but has raised eyebrows with the extraordinary memoir in which he settles old scores and reveals palace intrigue about the decade-long cohabitation of the two pontiffs.
In “Nothing But the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI,” Gaenswein describes Benedict’s perplexity at some of Francis’ decisions, and the latter’s apparent attempts to keep his predecessor in check.
After resigning in 2013 — the first pope in six centuries to do so — Benedict promised to live “hidden from the world,” but broke that pledge to speak out on several explosive issues.
The last straw appears to have been a book Benedict co-authored on priestly celibacy in 2020 — a public relations disaster that Gaenswein said Francis appeared to blame in part on him.
Gaenswein was effectively fired at once as head of the papal household.
“Stay home from now on. Accompany Benedict, who needs you, and act as a shield,” he said Francis told him.
Gaenswein, who had been propelled into the limelight on Benedict’s election, says he was left “shocked and speechless” by his demotion.
On hearing the news, Benedict half-jokingly said: “It seems Pope Francis doesn’t trust me anymore, and is making you my guardian.”
The ex-pontiff intervened and tried to get Francis to change his mind, but to no avail, Gaenswein wrote.
The son of a blacksmith, he was ordained in 1984 and rose through the ranks to become secretary to the then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
When Ratzinger was elected to the papacy in April 2005, the international media was instantly smitten by his dashing, blond-haired assistant.
His close relationship with Benedict sparked jealousy, he said in the memoir.
But Francis appeared not to want him nearby, Gaenswein said, citing the pontiff’s refusal to allow him to live in the palace apartment that Benedict had used.
The memoir is not expected to improve relations between the pair, and it was not clear what job Gaenswein would be given now.
Speculation about Gaenswein’s future has swirled now that his main job tending to Benedict has come to an end following his Dec. 31 death. But questions have also been raised about what Francis will do with Gaenswein following this week’s publication of his tell-all book.
But some Vatican commentators have speculated he could be appointed as a Vatican ambassador, or as director of an important shrine.
The intrigue between the two Popes
Although Pope Francis often compared having former Pope Benedict living in the Vatican to having a grandfather in the house, a book by Benedict’s closest aide shows what he says were strains while two men wearing white lived in the tiny city-state.
Recall that Benedict was buried on Thursday and hours after the funeral in St. Peter’s Square an Italian publishing house began sending journalists advance copies of the 330-page “Nothing But The Truth – My Life Beside Benedict XVI”, by Archbishop Georg Ganswein.
Ganswein, 66, was Benedict’s personal secretary from 2003, when Benedict was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and remained as his side for nearly 20 years until his death on Saturday. He was Francis’ gatekeeper until he was replaced in 2020.
In the book, due to be in bookstores on Jan. 12, Ganswein gives an insider’s view of Benedict’s election in 2005, his 2013 decision to become the first pope in 600 years to step down, his post-papacy years, his sickness and his final hours.
Even though Benedict largely avoided public appearances after his resignation, he remained a standard-bearer for Catholic conservatives, who felt alienated by reforms ushered in by Francis, including cracking down on the old Latin Mass.
Ganswein says Benedict was “surprised” that Francis never responded to a public letter by four conservative cardinals in 2016, including American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, which accused Francis of sowing confusion on moral issues.
The book also says Benedict did not agree with some of Francis’ stands.
After Francis gave a long interview to a Jesuit journal six months after his election in 2013, Francis sent the journal to Benedict for his comments.
Ganswein says Benedict, in his annotated response to Francis, critiqued the way Francis had responded to questions on abortion and homosexuality.
He also writes that Benedict felt Francis’ decisions to restrict the use of the traditionalist Latin Mass was “a mistake”.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said he had no comment on the book, written with Italian journalist Saverio Gaeta and published by Piemme, an imprint of Mondadori.
For the first seven years after Francis was elected pope, Ganswein kept his two jobs – Prefect of the Pontifical Household and private secretary to the ex-pope.
Ganswein writes that he was never able to reach a “a climate of trust” with the new pope and that Francis probably let him keep the prefect’s job for so long out of respect for Benedict.
The axe fell in January 2020, when Ganswein was at the centre of a messy episode concerning a book about priestly celibacy written primarily by conservative Cardinal Robert Sarah.
Sarah said Benedict was co-author. Benedict said he was not and demanded that his name be removed from the cover.
Ganswein was caught in the middle and Francis, who official Vatican sources said at the time was not pleased by how the episode was handled, effectively fired Ganswein from his job as prefect.
Ganswein writes that Francis ordered him to “not come back to work tomorrow” but to look after the ailing Benedict full time.
Benedict wrote two letters to Francis appealing to him to do or say something to clear up the situation because Ganswein was suffering and “under attack from all sides”. Francis never reinstated Ganswein in the post.
Ganswein wrote that Benedict told him on Sept. 25, 2012, that he had decided to resign – about five months before he did – and said the pope told a handful of top Vatican officials later.
He said he tried to convince the pope to slow down rather then step down but Benedict would not have it and began thinking of the best timing for an event they knew would be historic.