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Thou shalt not drool

Georg Gän­swein is the poster boy of Catholic con­ser­vatism. The Ital­ian press com­pares him to George Clooney and Hugh Grant; his crit­ics describe him as the ‘Black For­est Ado­nis’. But how did he end up as the new Pope’s right-hand man? And is he the right per­son for the job?

By Luke Hard­ing and Bar­bara McMa­hon
Tues­day August 23, 2005


As Bene­dict XVI trun­dled through the nar­row streets of Cologne last week, many of his admir­ers found them­selves dis­tract­ed by the extrav­a­gant­ly hand­some man sit­ting in the back of the Pope­mo­bile. The thou­sands of ador­ing young Catholics had come to Ger­many to get a glimpse of the new Pope, vis­it­ing his native coun­try on his first trip abroad as pon­tiff. But they could­n’t help notic­ing the Pope’s new — and rather dishy — pri­vate sec­re­tary, Mon­sign­or Georg Gän­swein.

“As he jumped on to the Pope­mo­bile for the first time,” one Ger­man mag­a­zine remarked, “we women held our breath. There, where for the past 27 years the grim and pale Stanis­law Dzi­wisz had sat behind the Pope, a tall, blond, ath­let­ic young man had tak­en his place.”

Over the past four months, the Ital­ian press has also swooned over the 49-year-old Ger­man priest, who is known in Italy as Don Geor­gio. In the grey and elder­ly world of the Vat­i­can, it is hard­ly sur­pris­ing that Gän­swein — a keen ten­nis play­er and excel­lent ski­er who even has a pilot’s licence — has become the cen­tre of atten­tion. Last month, the Ital­ian edi­tion of Van­i­ty Fair com­pared Gän­swein to the actor George Clooney, while the mag­a­zine Chi opened that he was “as fas­ci­nat­ing as Hugh Grant”.

The Ital­ian pres­i­den­t’s wife Fran­ca was very tak­en with him when she first met him. “He’s very, very young. And he speaks excel­lent Ital­ian,” she was report­ed as say­ing. Anoth­er woman liv­ing close to the Vat­i­can recent­ly told Ger­many’s ARD TV that Gän­swein was “an inter­est­ing man with a deep gaze”, adding: “Shame that he is taboo for us women.”

Some Vat­i­can-watch­ers, how­ev­er, are already mut­ter­ing about Gän­swein’s influ­ence over Pope Bene­dict, the first Ger­man to sit on the chair of St Peter for near­ly 500 years.

Born on July 30 1956, Gän­swein grew up in Riedern am Wald, a tiny Bavar­i­an vil­lage. He was ordained in 1984 and is a doc­tor of canon law from Munich Uni­ver­si­ty. He came to Rome in 1995 and was quick­ly on the Vat­i­can fast track. In 1996, the then Car­di­nal Ratzinger asked him to join his staff, and he became a pro­fes­sor of canon law at the Pon­tif­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty of the Holy Cross, an insti­tu­tion affil­i­at­ed to the secre­tive Catholic move­ment Opus Dei.

Those who know him praise his effi­cien­cy and ana­lyt­i­cal abil­i­ty. “He under­stands com­pli­cat­ed issues with­in about 10 sec­onds and can give a clear and imme­di­ate answer,” one Vat­i­can source said. Gän­swein is, though, more than just an impres­sive the­olo­gian. He is, like the man he serves, extreme­ly con­ser­v­a­tive. “I think he is very dan­ger­ous,” Daniel Deck­ers, the author of a biog­ra­phy of Ger­many’s lead­ing lib­er­al car­di­nal, Karl Lehmann, said. “He’s part of a small but very pow­er­ful group with­in the Catholic church. He will use his pow­er to push Ratzinger in a cer­tain direc­tion.”

Deck­ers recalls trav­el­ling to Rome to meet Gän­swein. “He’s a good guy. He’s very elo­quent and can be very charm­ing. But he came right up to me and said: ‘Oh, you don’t like us.’ He referred to him­self and Ratzinger as ‘us’, as if the two of them were an insti­tu­tion.”

With Gän­swein as pri­vate sec­re­tary, there seems lit­tle hope that Bene­dict XVI will offer con­ces­sions on issues that alien­ate many from the Catholic church — the use of con­doms, gay rela­tion­ships or pre-mar­i­tal sex. “You can for­get it,” one reli­gious affairs writer said blunt­ly.

A trust­ed con­fi­dant of the last Pope, who made him a chap­lain in 2000, Gän­swein has worked as Ratzinger’s sec­re­tary since 2003, and was one of the few aides allowed to give out press state­ments on John Paul’s con­di­tion. In the Vat­i­can, Gän­swein and Ratzinger dine togeth­er, recent­ly enter­tain­ing Princess Glo­ria von Thurn und Taxis, the Ger­man socialite, accord­ing to reports in the Ital­ian press. In Cologne last week, Gän­swein was nev­er far away from his boss — hand­ing the 78-year-old Pope his read­ing glass­es, or trav­el­ling with him on a cruise down the Rhine. He was there, too, when the Pope appeared on a hill beneath a fly­ing saucer-shaped dome, for a vast open-air mass. (In his address to near­ly 1 mil­lion pil­grims who had spent the night camped out in a mud­dy field, the Pope remind­ed the young Catholics that they had to obey all of the church’s rules — not just the bits they liked. “That basi­cal­ly means no sex, does­n’t it?” Ger­man pil­grim Malte Schuburt, 19, point­ed out.)

Gän­swein’s crit­ics even accuse him of turn­ing the Pope into a fash­ion vic­tim. This sum­mer, Ratzinger and his sec­re­tary went on hol­i­day to the papal res­i­dence at Cas­tel Gan­dol­fo, near Rome, as well as to the Ital­ian Alps at Valle D’Aos­ta. While both men were hik­ing in the hills, the Pope appeared in pub­lic wear­ing a Nike hat, design­er Serengeti sun­glass­es and a Carti­er watch. “This is Gän­swein’s style. It’s his hand­writ­ing,” one reli­gious affairs writer said. “This is some­thing I don’t under­stand.”

Gän­swein’s pow­er derives part­ly from his place in the Pope’s very small per­son­al staff. Bene­dic­t’s long-time assis­tant is Ingrid Stam­pa and he has four women — Carmela, Loredana, Emanuela and Cristi­na — who do domes­tic duties. They have tak­en nun’s vows but do not wear habits. Pope Bene­dict writes every­thing in Ger­man in very small script, and Gän­swein is one of the few who can read his writ­ing.

So far, Gän­swein does not enjoy the same pow­er as Stanis­law Dzi­wisz, who spent 40 years at Pope John Paul II’s side. Some have even dis­missed him as the “Black For­est Ado­nis”. Yet it is Gän­swein who decides who gets to see the Pope, and who does­n’t. He also pro­tects his boss from the mound of papers on Bene­dic­t’s desk. “He is the Pope’s gate­keep­er. This makes him a very pow­er­ful man,” Deck­ers said.

It is not sur­pris­ing, then, that the Pope’s pri­vate sec­re­tary is already begin­ning to inspire dread in lib­er­al Catholic cir­cles. In Ger­many, the Catholic church is divid­ed more or less between two fig­ures — the lib­er­al-con­ser­v­a­tive Car­di­nal Lehmann, the head of the Ger­man arch­bish­op’s con­fer­ence, and the ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive Car­di­nal Joachim Meis­ner, the Arch­bish­op of Cologne. Both men were with the Pope last week. But it is no secret as to which Bish­op the Vat­i­can favours. “Gän­swein is an oppo­nent of Lehmann,” one source in the Ger­man Catholic church said. “One of Ratzinger’s great weak­ness­es is that his judg­ment of peo­ple isn’t always suf­fi­cient. He has a small out-reach.”

Last week’s papal tour of Ger­many was an undoubt­ed suc­cess for the Bavar­i­an Bene­dict. A far less flam­boy­ant fig­ure than his pre­de­ces­sor, Bene­dict was often embar­rassed by the euphor­ic crowds. But he is a for­mi­da­ble intel­lec­tu­al, able to deliv­er his ideas with flu­en­cy and rigour in numer­ous lan­guages. The ques­tion remains though — how long will he last? The Pope has already suf­fered two strokes — one of which slight­ly impaired his eye­sight — and he has a heart con­di­tion. Don Geor­gio is said to be very pro­tec­tive of the Pope, par­tic­u­lar­ly about his health. But if there is bad news to trans­mit, it will be Gän­swein, the priest with the film-star looks, who will be there to deliv­er it.


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