VATICAN CITY — Nearly two months after Pope Benedict XVI’s election to St. Peter’s throne, his charismatic personal secretary is spearheading the German pontiff’s consolidation of power in the Curia, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church, sources in the Holy See say.
The bookish Benedict, who is 78 and suffered two minor strokes in recent years, bears scant resemblance to the athletic figure his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, cut when he was elected in 1978.
Italian newspapers wrote then of the Polish pope’s prowess at skiing, canoeing, swimming and hiking. Today, they have focused instead on the telegenic qualities of Father Georg Gaenswein, who recently moved into quarters in Benedict’s private apartment taking over the duties carried out previously by Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s faithful private secretary.
“Handsome, tall, blonde, sporty, the pope’s secretary is Bavarian like him, just as kind, but more jovial and a lover of good food,” wrote Luigi Accattoli, the respected Vatican reporter of Milan’s leading Corriere della Sera.
“Benedict’s new secretary is simply beautiful,” gushed a female reporter for the normally staid La Stampa of Turin newspaper. “He is the best news to come out of the Vatican.”
Born in the Black Forest town of Waldshut, Germany, Father Gaenswein “is 48 years old, but seems younger,” Corriere della Sera wrote. “He plays tennis and also is a skier. Legend has it that at a very young age he was a ski instructor.”
Father Gaenswein became Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s personal secretary two years ago, replacing the German prelate’s previous secretary of 19 years, Father Josef Clemens, who was promoted to become a bishop in charge of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Now Father Clemens is busy planning the Church’s World Youth Day in the German city of Cologne, where the pope will end his first foreign trip outside Italy in August to what is sure to be a tumultuous welcome from his proud countrymen.
Before Benedict’s election April 19, however, his two secretaries reputedly fell out as they competed for the favor of their patron, who was then John Paul’s personal theologian and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responsible for enforcing Catholic orthodoxy among the faithful.
During the purported spat, Father Gaenswein went so far as to decline to give Father Clemens his cell-phone number, effectively restricting the older man’s access to Cardinal Ratzinger, Rome’s left-leaning L’Espresso magazine reported. But after the cardinal became leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, his two aides said, “Let’s forget everything,” Corriere della Sera reported.
As German influence in his tiny city state has increased, Benedict has moved to break up what Italian newspapers called the powerful “Polish clan” of clerics from John Paul’s homeland.
Last Friday, the new pope promoted Archbishop Dziwisz to be Archbishop of Krakow, John Paul’s old archdiocese, meaning that the Polish churchman will receive a cardinal’s hat, but that his influence in Rome could be expected to decline.