Retired Pope Benedict watches his successor soar

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is not “jealous” of his successor’s worldwide celebrity, holds him in “high esteem”
and is developing an ever closer relationship with Pope Francis through “regular” communications, according to the former pontiff’s private secretary and prefect of the papal household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein.

In a rare interview with a U.S. media outlet, Gänswein, a Benedict confidant who resides with the retired pope in a remodeled Vatican City convent, suggested that despite their obvious differences, the former pope was not seeking to influence the new pontiff on major church decisions. In addition, Gänswein said, Benedict’s surprise appearance at
a swearing-in ceremony for 19
new cardinals this past weekend should not be taken as a sign of his reemergence into public life.

Instead, Gänswein said, Benedict was there at the invitation of Francis and was not expected to make a habit of attending major Vatican events.

“Pope Benedict pondered a lot and then accepted,” Gänswein said. “But this does not in any way signify that he is, so to speak, getting back in the game.”

Gänswein — the 57-year-old German cleric known across Italy as “Gorgeous George” for his movie-­star looks, which once landed him on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Italian edition — is in a unique position inside the rarefied world of Vatican City. Not only does he remain Benedict’s private secretary but he is also superintendent of Francis’s papal household, thus enjoying extraordinary access to both the former and current pontiffs.

A growing bond

Speaking under the frescoed ceiling of the 16th-century Apostolic Palace just beyond St. Peter’s Square, Gänswein described the two popes as obviously different. Indeed, before he became the first pontiff to retire since Gregory XII in 1415, Benedict, 86, was seen by many Vatican watchers as a ponderous and conservative theologian.

Francis, meanwhile, has been embraced by progressives as an everyman pontiff, making headlines with everything from his comments on not “judging” homosexuals to his recent decision to personally baptize the child of a couple who were married in a civil ceremony outside the church. At the same time, he has moved to enact broad reforms inside the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank.

“Pope Francis’s style is quite different, though that doesn’t mean that the content is better,” Gänswein said. “But his style created much interest among the faithful and also outside of the church.”

Gänswein said he had not directly spoken to Benedict about the nature of his private communications with his successor, which the archbishop said occurred regularly through letters, telephone calls and face-to-face meetings. But he suggested that the retired pontiff had not tried to intervene on issues of governance, such as the recent elevation of the new cardinals, including several seen as progressive reformers.

“If Pope Francis asked for his advice about the new cardinals, I don’t know, but I don’t think so,” Gänswein said. “Governance is one thing, communication another.”

Yet the two men, Gänswein suggested, were apparently becoming friends: Benedict’s “esteem [for Pope Francis] is very high. And it has grown because of the courage of the new pope, week after week. At the beginning, they did not know each other very well. But then Pope Francis phoned him, wrote him, visited him, phoned him again and invited him [to private meetings], so that their contact became very personal and confidential.”

Retirement and after

Although Benedict was often pilloried by the press, Gänswein said the retired pope was not bitter about the transformation of Francis over the past year from a little-known Argentine cardinal to a global media darling. “The Pope Emeritus Benedict is well aware of the fame of his successor, but he’s not jealous because he sees that celebrity as helping the faithful,” Gänswein said.

Gänswein said Benedict had told him about his intention to retire well before the official
announcement last February — an act that Gänswein said he tried unsuccessfully to counsel against.

“Actually, my first instinctive reaction was to tell him, ‘No, Holy Father, it’s not possible that you should renounce,’ ” Gänswein said. “Then I understood that such a decision had already been taken by Pope Benedict.”

Gänswein insisted that Benedict’s decision was related purely to frailness and age, not to the “Vatileaks” scandal in which private documents leaked to the Italian news media exposed alleged Vatican corruption and the travails of high-level gay clerics.

These days, Gänswein, who wore fashionable leather sneakers below his solid black cassock, said Benedict’s life has become a routine, perhaps not surprising for an aged former pontiff.

Each morning, he said, Gänswein and Benedict celebrate Mass together in the chapel of the former convent where they live. After breakfast, Benedict dedicates time to praying, reading, writing letters and, occasionally, accepting personal visits. He has lunch at 1:30 p.m., after which he and Gänswein take a short walk.

After his afternoon siesta, Benedict prays the rosary alongside Gänswein, before the two go for another walk in a small concealed grove behind St. Peter’s. At 7:30 p.m., the two men typically dine together, before Benedict ends his day with the evening news and, perhaps, a stretch on his balcony before bed.

“The pope emeritus is not writing books any longer. He hasn’t got the strength, otherwise he wouldn’t have left his papacy,” Gänswein said. “ ‘It takes strength to write,’ he says.”

Asked whether Benedict was reflecting on his tumultuous tenure as pope — and whether he viewed his papacy as a success — Gänswein said Benedict’s eight years as pope “were not easy years, for many reasons. The pope emeritus has pondered much about this. The measure of his own success is not the way the media wrote about him, whether they appreciated him or not.

“Success is not the right angle from which to judge a papacy,” Gänswein added. “He planted lots of seeds, and you can’t immediately see the seed, but only after nature’s done her work you can see what grows from them.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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