The memoir of Benedict XVI’s personal secretary is the most talked-about Catholic book in years. Here’s what’s in it.
Released on January 12, it recounts the archbishop’s experiences as Benedict XVI’s personal secretary and concludes with the pope emeritus’ death and funeral.
The book, published in Italian by Edizioni Piemme, runs to more than 300 pages and is co-written with the journalist Saverio Gaeta.
It has stirred controversy because of its candid description of the relationship between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, and its citation of previously confidential documents.
It’s 2003: Vatican doctrinal chief Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger asks the young priest Fr. Georg Gänswein to serve as his personal secretary, believing that the appointment will be short-lived as he hopes to retire soon. To Gänswein’s surprise, he remains at the cardinal’s side as he is elected pope, dramatically resigns, and lives out his remaining years as “pope emeritus.”
Throughout, Gänswein sees “the true face of one of the greatest protagonists of the history of the last century,” a figure caricatured as the “Panzerkardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler.” He says that the recollections that follow will offer a “personal testimony” to Benedict XVI’s greatness, “shed some light on misunderstood aspects of his pontificate,” and “describe from the inside the real ‘Vatican world.'”
Entitled “The ‘predestined’ outside the box,” the chapter recounts Gänswein’s early impressions of Ratzinger following his appointment as his personal secretary. He presents him as indifferent to Vatican gossip, “moving on a decidedly more ethereal level” than his fellow cardinals, and longing for quiet retirement among the books of the Vatican Library.
The chapter presents Ratzinger’s ascent through the Church hierarchy as a work of Providence rather than ambition. Unlike some priests prizing Roman positions, Ratzinger did not focus on fluency in Italian. He learned it during the Second Vatican Council, “albeit somewhat poorly, using the didactic method of 33 rpm records.” He only got to grips with the language after arriving in Rome in 1981.
Gänswein explains that Ratzinger agreed to serve as prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation on condition that he could still publish his own theological reflections. Gänswein comments that “without the outlet of theological production, the ‘pressure cooker’ of his intellect would not have had a safety valve and would have exploded.”
Entitled “The philosopher and the theologian,” this chapter describes the close working relationship between Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, despite a “clear difference in character and style.” Gänswein presents the two men as complementary personalities, with the German’s “theological clarity and interpretative rigor” balancing the Pole’s “philosophical questioning and intellectual research.”
A “trusting openness” enabled the two men to cooperate even when they disagreed. One such “moment of dissonance” was an inter-religious meeting for peace in Assisi in 1986, which John Paul convened but Ratzinger skipped. Gänswein suggests that the pope eventually took on board Ratzinger’s concerns about the dangers of syncretism.
Entitled “The fall of the axe,” the chapter describes the end of John Paul II’s pontificate and Ratzinger’s election as his successor. Gänswein argues that, with a conclave on the horizon, the German cardinal ran an election campaign “‘in reverse,’ to convince possible supporters to set him aside.” He illustrates this by describing Ratzinger’s behaviour at the funeral of Communion and Liberation founder Fr. Luigi Giussani. John Paul had asked Ratzinger to preside, but Milan Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi desired “at all costs” to do the same, while Vatican Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko wanted to read the papal condolence letter. Gänswein writes that Ratzinger modestly limited himself to delivering the homily.
The author did not believe that his boss would emerge from the 2005 conclave as pope, or even play the role of “popemaker.” He says that Ratzinger’s homily before the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel was an attempt to rule himself out of the running, with its “strong reiteration of his own ‘war horses.'”
Gänswein, who stayed at the cardinals’ Vatican residence during the conclave, describes how he accompanied Ratzinger to the Sistine Chapel on the afternoon of April 19, 2005. Ratzinger, wearing a black sweater as insulation against the chapel’s draughts, was “very pensive” and did not talk. “On a psychological level, it was the most tiring walk of my life,” writes Gänswein. “I sensed that I was living through a historic and almost dramatic moment, with Ratzinger giving me the impression that I was walking toward a cliff.”
When the author realized that his mentor had been elected, he sent an urgent message asking the new pope’s handlers to ensure that he took off the black sweater when making his first appearance on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. But his request was forgotten in the excitement and images of the black sleeves peeking out from the papal vestments were beamed around the world.
Gänswein suggests that Ratzinger himself voted for the Italian Cardinal Giacomo Biffi.
Entitled “The family (pontifical and otherwise),” this chapter includes a portrait of Gänswein as a youth: “a bit of a transgressive, with long, curly hair and a nonconformist air.” The sports-mad fan of Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens dreams of becoming a stockbroker but opts for the priesthood. His pastor recommends that he reads Ratzinger’s 1968 book “Introduction to Christianity,” which convinces him that the author is a “person of spirit.” After ordination in Germany, he is sent to the Vatican, working first at the liturgy department and then, at Ratzinger’s behest, the doctrinal congregation.
He describes typical days as Benedict XVI’s secretary and the inner workings of the papal household.
Entitled “The stumbling blocks of the government complex,” this chapter discusses Benedict XVI’s approach to governing the vast, unwieldy Catholic Church. Gänswein counters claims that the German pope was naive and inexperienced when it came to governance. He points out that Benedict did not only promote people who shared his theological vision.
He offers an extended defence of the pope’s “most discussed and problematic appointment”: that of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as head of the powerful Vatican Secretariat of State, which was opposed by his predecessor Cardinal Angelo Sodano as Bertone was not a diplomat. But Gänswein’s account nevertheless highlights many of Bertone’s perceived shortcomings.
The author describes the destabilizing effect of a leak of confidential papal documents, dubbed the “Vatileaks” scandal. He writes that he offered his resignation to Benedict after realizing that the leaks came from the papal butler Paolo Gabriele, whose work he oversaw, but it was refused. He reconciled with Gabriele shortly before the latter’s death in 2020.
Entitled “A Magisterium in the round,” this chapter presents the highlights of Benedict XVI’s teaching, which Gänswein describes as his “most significant legacy.” He says that the “decisive heart” of that teaching was Benedict’s “Christocentric witness,” as shown in the completion of his three-volume work “Jesus of Nazareth” while still pope. He says that it was through this Christocentric lens that Benedict XVI saw the papal office. “In the pope’s witness to Jesus Christ, the significance and necessity of Petrine service in the Church is once again made visible,” he writes.
The chapter walks the reader through Benedict XVI’s three encyclicals, other major documents, and key speeches. Gänswein laments misreadings of the pope’s words, notably his 2006 Regensburg lecture, which provoked a backlash in the Muslim world. He defends the pope’s controversial 2009 decision to lift the excommunications of four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. He says Benedict was mistakenly told that the most controversial of the four, the English Bishop Richard Williamson, was dying of cancer and needed an urgent remission.
Entitled “The historic renunciation that marked an era,” this chapter describes Benedict XVI’s decision to resign. Gänswein says that the pope’s commitment to celebrating World Youth Day in Brazil in 2013 weighed heavily on his mind. As Benedict felt his strength diminish, he behaved atypically at prayer: “On kneeling, he would take his head in his hands and almost collapse in on himself, an attitude foreign to his style.” He recalls that Benedict informed him on September 25, 2012, of his intention to make way for a “new, younger, and more energetic” pope. He briefly tried to persuade him to stay on but realized it was “utterly futile.”
Gänswein notes sheepishly that the pope’s Latin resignation announcement, drafted amid tight secrecy, contained a few errors. He says that Benedict’s serenity on the day of his abdication convinced him that his mentor had “mystical-ascetical traits” and a “direct rapport with God, by whom he felt truly inspired and constantly guided.”
The author notes that months before the resignation, Benedict had appointed him prefect of the Prefecture of the Papal Household and named him an archbishop. He describes his episcopal ordination as “the most solemn liturgical ceremony I have ever participated in.”
Entitled “The relationship between the two popes,” the chapter focuses on the evolving bond between Benedict and his unexpected successor, the Argentine Pope Francis.
Gänswein, who observed Francis’ first days as pope closely as head of the Prefecture of the Papal Household, says he and Benedict were surprised that the new pontiff chose to live in the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence rather than the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace. Gänswein disputes the notion that this was a sign of the new pope’s austerity, pointing out that the living quarters are roughly the same size and that, in any case, the Vatican must pay for the papal apartments’ continued upkeep.
Gänswein recalls that Benedict XVI was saddened by supporters and detractors’ attempts to exaggerate the differences between the Argentine pope and his predecessor. He describes Francis as an assiduous visitor at the pope emeritus’ new residence, the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican Gardens, bearing gifts of wine and dulce de leche.
The author recalls that Pope Francis invited Benedict to comment on his blockbuster 2013 interview, “A big heart open to God.” The pope emeritus wrote that he had read the text “with joy and true spiritual gain and complete agreement,” but offered some “complementary” observations about the pope’s remarks on abortion and contraception, and homosexuality.
Gänswein reports that Benedict found a few passages in Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium “extraneous,” but always sought to interpret his successors’ words and actions as generously as possible.
The German archbishop devotes several pages to the 2020 dispute over the publication of a book on priestly celibacy containing an essay by Benedict XVI. The book appeared when Pope Francis was thought (wrongly, Gänswein says) to be still considering a request to allow the ordination of married men in the Amazon region. Gänswein says that both he and Benedict were “astonished” that the pope emeritus was presented as a co-author with the then Vatican liturgy chief Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is presented in an unflattering light and accused of having “greatly harmed both Benedict and me.”
The archbishop describes the unravelling of his relationship with Pope Francis, recalling an occasion when the pope asked him not to join him on a visit to Rome’s Sant’Egidio Community, leaving him with a feeling of humiliation. He also expresses frustration at the pope’s decision that he should not move into an apartment in the Apostolic Palace traditionally allocated to the head of the Prefecture of the Papal Household (later occupied by Vatican “foreign minister” Archbishop Paul Gallagher.)
Gänswein also expresses anguish at the pope’s request, in the wake of the celibacy book controversy, that he devote his time entirely to helping Benedict, quoting letters in which the pope emeritus encouraged Francis to allow Gänswein to continue performing the prefect’s duties, to no avail. The German archbishop recounts a later phone call with Francis in which he asked unsuccessfully whether he could return to the role.
He concludes the chapter by saying that as Benedict’s secretary, he carries a “mark of Cain,” and can do nothing to shake perceptions that he is “very right-wing” and “hawkish.”
Entitled “In the monastery the industrious silence,” this chapter describes Benedict XVI’s almost ten years in retirement. Gänswein says he never expected the pope emeritus to live so long when he arrived at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery “totally exhausted.” But the tranquil atmosphere revived Benedict XVI, whose primary ailment was lung fatigue, which made it difficult for him to speak.
Gänswein explains that, with Pope Francis’ encouragement, Benedict did not live in “complete seclusion.” He also recalls that pope emeritus commented “sympathetically” on Francis’ remark that he was like a “wise grandfather” by pointing out they were “only nine years apart” and “maybe it was more correct to call me ‘big brother.'”
Gänswein defends Benedict XVI’s use of the term “pope emeritus” and his decision to continue dressing in white against claims that they sowed confusion. He says the German pope was obliged at the time of his retirement “to make some decisions knowing full well that they were not perfect.”
The archbishop says that Benedict was concerned by Francis’ displays of favour, at the start of his pontificate, toward his old theological sparring partner Cardinal Walter Kasper. He highlights the differences between the retired pope and the cardinal’s stances on the “serious and delicate” question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, which took centre stage at the family synods of 2014-15.
Gänswein says that Benedict expressed “some perplexity” about the resulting apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, questioning “the meaning of some [foot]notes, which usually signal the citation of a source, while in this case they expressed significant content,” and wondering why “a certain ambiguity had been allowed to hover in that document” after its publication. When four cardinals issued “dubia” seeking clarification, Benedict was reportedly surprised that they went unanswered, but he otherwise maintained a “rigorous” silence.
Turning to an incident dubbed “lettergate,” Gänswein denies leaking the full text of a letter from Benedict XVI that led to the downfall of a Vatican official, which he believes annoyed Pope Francis.
He says that Benedict regarded Francis’ 2021 crackdown on the Traditional Latin Mass as “a mistake,” since it “jeopardized the attempt at pacification” of the liturgy wars in his landmark 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum. “Benedict in particular felt it was wrong to prohibit the celebration of Mass in the ancient rite in parochial churches,” he writes. He adds that Benedict balked at a reference to his “true intentions” regarding the Old Mass in a conversation between Pope Francis and Slovakia’s Jesuits.
Gänswein defends Benedict XVI’s response to clerical pedophilia and his convictions about the causes of the abuse crisis. He describes the pope emeritus’ reaction to an abuse report that criticized his handling of four cases when he was Munich archbishop and quotes his subsequent “sincere plea for forgiveness” from abuse survivors.
The archbishop devotes several pages to the “private” homilies that Benedict preached at Masses in his residence, citing sections from several for the first time. He notes that the last homily, in 2017, when Benedict struggled to speak, focused on eternal life.
He outlines the pope emeritus’ orderly daily schedule, noting that he enjoyed having books read to him (including Cardinal George Pell’s prison memoirs, which he “so appreciated”) and continued to drink lemonade “with a splash of beer.”
He says that Benedict was not distressed by his approaching death and was well prepared when his health declined in late December 2022. His “last comprehensible words” were “Lord, I love you.”
He notes Benedict’s firm instruction to destroy his private papers and says it is for the Church to decide, after a suitable waiting period, whether his mentor was a saint. But he says it is “unquestionable” that Benedict displayed “heroic virtues,” one of the qualities required for canonization. The chapter ends with the German pope’s spiritual testament.
The Italian journalist Saverio Gaeta, who assisted Gänswein with the book, explains why it is written as a first-person narrative rather than an interview. He suggests that a journalist intrudes less in a first-person narrative, which enables the subject to go “deeper into what he wishes to communicate.” He describes the German archbishop as “the most authoritative witness and exegete of a man of faith, of a priest after God’s own heart, of a protagonist of the history of our difficult and exciting times.”
- Raju Hasmukh with files from The Pillar