The private secretary of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, speaks to Vatican News and offers a moving testimony of the late Pontiff’s final hours and of the many years he spent at his side.
By Silvia Kritzenberger
Tried, moved, but at the same time at peace. Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Prefect of the Papal Household and private secretary first of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and then of Benedict XVI, visited the studios of Vatican Radio a day ahead of the funeral of the man he served for many years.
In an interview, he recounts the last moments of the earthly existence of the man who served the Church as Bishop of Rome from 2005 to 2013, and then made the historic choice of renouncing to the Pontificate almost ten years ago.
Q: Thousands of faithful paid their respects to the mortal remains of the Pope Emeritus. You have spent a large part of your life with him. How do you live now?
Humanly, suffering very much. It hurts, I suffer… Spiritually, very well. I know Pope Benedict is now where he wanted to go.
Q: How did Benedict XVI live these last days? What were his last words?
I didn’t hear his last words with my own ears, but the night before his death one of the nurses assisting him overheard them. Around three o’clock: “Lord, I love you.” The nurse told me in the morning as soon as I arrived in the bedroom, these were the last truly understandable words.
Usually, we prayed Lauds in front of his bed: that morning too I said to the Holy Father: “Let’s do as we did yesterday: I pray aloud and you join in spirit.” In fact, it was no longer possible that he could pray aloud, he was really out of breath.
There he only opened his eyes a little – he understood the question – and nodded his head yes. So, I started. At around 8 o’clock he began to breathe more and more heavily. There were two doctors – Dr. Polisca and a resuscitator – and they told me: “We fear that now the moment will come when he will have to have his last fight on earth.”
I called the memories Domini and also Sister Brigida, and I told them to come because he had reached his agony. He was lucid at the time. I had already prepared the accompanying prayers for the dying man earlier, and we prayed for about 15 minutes, all together while Benedict XVI breathed more and more heavily.
It became clear that he could not breathe well. So, I looked at one of the doctors and asked: “But, did he go into agony?”. He told me: “Yes, it’s started, but we don’t know how long it will last.”
Q: And then what happened?
We were there; everyone then prayed in silence, and at 9:34 he took his last breath. Then we continued our prayers no longer for the dying but for the dead. And we concluded by singing “Alma Redemptoris Mater”.
He died in the Octave of Christmas, his favorite liturgical time, on the day of his predecessor – San Silvestro, Pope under the Emperor Constantine. He had been elected the day in which a German Pope, Saint Leo IX of Alsace is remembered; he died on the day of a Roman Pope, St. Sylvester.
I told everyone: “I’ll call Pope Francis right away; he will be the first to know.” I called him, and he said: “I’ll be there immediately!”
Then he came, I accompanied him to the bedroom where he had died and I told everyone: “Stay”. The Pope greeted them; I offered him a chair, and he sat next to the bed and prayed. He gave his blessing and then he left. This happened on December 31, 2022.
Q: Which words of his spiritual testament touched you the most?
The testament as such touched me deeply. Choosing a few words is difficult, I must say. But this testament had already been written on 29 August 2006: the liturgical feast of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.
It was handwritten – very legible, very small but legible – in the second year of his Pontificate. In German, you would say “O-Ton Benedikt“, that is “This is really Benedict.” If I had had the text, without knowing the author, I would have recognized it. It contains the spirit of Benedict. Reading it or meditating on it, one sees it is really his. All of him is in here, in two pages.
Q: In short, it is a thank you to God and to his family…
Yes. It is a thank you, but also an encouragement to the faithful, not to let themselves be led astray by any hypothesis, either in the theological or philosophical field or in any other field.
Ultimately, it is the Church that communicates, it is the Church, the living Body of Christ, that communicates the faith to all and for all. Sometimes even in theology, there are theories that are very enlightened, or seem so, but that after a year or two have already passed. It is the faith of the Catholic Church, this is what truly leads us to liberation and puts us in contact with the Lord.
Q: What was the strongest message of his pontificate?
His strength lies in the motto he chose when he became Archbishop of Munich, quoting John’s Third Letter: “Cooperatores veritatis“, that is, “collaborators of the truth”, which means that truth is not something that has been thought, but is a Person: it is the Son of God.
God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, in Jesus of Nazareth, and this is his message: to follow not a theory of truth, but to follow the Lord. “I am the way, the truth and the life”. This is his message. A message that is not a burden: rather it is an aid to carry all the weight of each day, and this gives joy. There are problems, but faith is stronger; faith must have the last word.
Q: The world will never forget that February 11, 2013, the announcement of the resignation. There are those who continue to say that it was not a free choice or even that he wanted to remain Pope in some way. What do you think?
I myself asked him this same question on various occasions, saying to him: “Holy Father, they are looking for a conspiracy behind the announcement of February 11 after the Consistory. They search, they search, they search…”
Benedict replied: “Whoever does not believe that what I said is the real reason for giving up will not believe me even if I say now ‘Believe me, it is so!'” This is and remains the only reason and we must not forget it. He had announced this decision to me: “I have to do it”. I was among the first who tried to dissuade him. And he answered me clearly: “Look, I’m not asking for your opinion, but I’m communicating my decision. A prayed, suffered decision, taken coram Deo“.
There are those who do not believe or make up theories, saying that they would have “left one part but kept another part”, etc.: all those who say this are only making up theories about one word or the other and in the end they do not trust Benedict, what he said. This is just an affront to him. Of course, everyone is free to say sensible or less sensible things.
But the naked truth is this: he no longer had the strength to lead the Church, as he said in Latin that day. I asked: “Holy Father, why in Latin?” He replied: “This is the language of the Church.” Anyone who thinks they can find or need to find some other reason is wrong. He communicated the real reason. Amen.
Q: What aspect struck you the most when you were close to Benedict in the long period he spent as Emeritus?
It’s been almost ten years. Benedict – already as a cardinal, already as a professor – had a very great [spiritual] dowry. Many say humility: yes, this is true, but also – perhaps this was not seen so well – an ability to accept when people did not agree with what he said.
As a professor it is normal: there is the comparison, the discussion, the “struggle” between the different arguments. Strong words are also used in this context, but without ever hurting and if possible, without causing controversy. It is another thing when one is a bishop and then Pope: he preaches and writes not as a private person, but as one who has received the mandate to preach and to be the shepherd of a flock.
The Pope is the first witness of the Gospel, indeed, of the Lord. And there we saw that his words, the words of the Successor of Peter, were not accepted. But this tells us that the leadership of the Church is not done only by commanding, deciding, but also by suffering, and the part of the suffering was no small one. When he became Emeritus, certainly all the responsibility and the entire Pontificate were over for him.
Q: Did he think he would live this long after giving up?
About three months ago I told him: “Holy Father, we are approaching my tenth anniversary of episcopate: Epiphany 2013, Epiphany 2023. We must celebrate.” But it also means ten years from his resignation.
Some ask me: “But how is it possible he gave up saying he no longer had the strength and then he is still living after ten years?” And he replied: “I must say that I am the first one who is surprised that the Lord has given me more time. I thought a year at most, and He gave me 10! And 95 is a good age, but years and old age also have their weight, even for a Pope Emeritus.”
He continued: “I accepted it and tried to do what I had promised: to pray, to be present, and above all to accompany my successor with prayer.” And this is very beautiful. I also recommend to some who have problems with this to re-read what Benedict said, thanking Pope Francis in the Clementine Hall on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of his priestly ordination.
Finally, once, I jokingly said, in a not very elegant way: “Holy Father, you have reckoned without your host.” He replied: “I didn’t make any decision: I accepted what the Lord gave me. He gave me this; I have to thank Him. This is my belief. Others may have other ideas, theories or beliefs, but this is mine.”
Q: What was the greatest teaching for your life, and what will you miss most about Joseph Ratzinger?
The greatest teaching is that written faith, pronounced and proclaimed faith, is not only something that he said and preached, but that he lived. That is, the example for me is that the faith he learned, taught and proclaimed became a lived faith. And for me – even in this moment in which I suffer, not alone – this is a great spiritual relief.
Q: In his testament Benedict writes: “If in this late hour of my life I look back on the decades I have covered, the first thing I see is how many reasons I have to be thankful.” Was he a happy, fulfilled man?
He was a man deeply convinced that in the love of the Lord one is never wrong, even if humanly one makes many mistakes. And this conviction gave him peace and – it can be said – this humility and also this clarity.
He always said: “Faith must be a simple faith, not simplistic, but simple. Because all great theories, all great theologies have their foundation in faith. And this is and remains the only nourishment for oneself and also for others.”