The Heartthrob from the Vatican

The Heartthrob from the Vatican

When Pope Benedict XVI touches down for his first papal visit in the United States next week, you may notice that he doesn’t have the same onstage flair as his predecessor, John Paul II. But you may also begin to notice a very handsome man of the cloth never far from the pontiff’s side. That would be Monsignor Georg Gänswein, the Pope’s personal secretary, responsible for everything from deciding who gets to see Benedict, to keeping His Holiness on schedule, to discreetly handing him his papal reading glasses just before a homily or other public discourse. While he is the paradigm of discretion, others have taken liberties with his image. Fashion designer Donatella Versace said her Spring 2007 collection was inspired by Gänswein, confessing: “I was thinking of an austere, severe and ethical man. I find Father Georg’s austerity very elegant.”

Italians have taken notice of Gänswein, and nicknamed him “Bel Giorgio,” which Americans might translate as: Gorgeous George. Paparazzi have snapped photos of him playing tennis in his tennis whites, while the Roman and Bavarian press eagerly report his bravura on the ski slopes and appearances at evening Church functions. Nevertheless, despite the glamour imposed on him by the celebrity press, the tall, athletic and dirty-blond Monsignor in his clerical black, concentrates on his pivotal but quiet job choreographing papal appearances. And that is how Americans will see him, in a supporting role buoyed by his scene-stealing good looks.

Like the pontiff, Gänswein is Bavarian by birth and an academic by training, with a doctorate in canon law. His impressive intellectual credentials notwithstanding, Gänswein is devoted to the administrative and ceremonial requirements of his current job. Though he tends to keep a low profile, the 51-year-old prelate did tell one Catholic newspaper last year a bit about a typical day in the papal apartment: he and the Pope begin with breakfast, often with one or two other staffers, and Gänswein prepares documents for the papal signature and lays out the list of upcoming appointments. The pair typically take a daily stroll together after lunch in the Vatican gardens.

In person, Gänswein is affable and quick-witted — though always off-the-record — when encountering members of the Vatican press corps. In 1996, he began working in the key Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He has also worked as a Professor of Canon Law at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, which is run by Opus Dei, though Gänswein is not a member.

In 2003, when Ratzinger’s longtime personal secretary, Monsignor Josef Clemens, was appointed to a top position in another Vatican office, Gänswein stepped into the role of Ratzinger’s right-hand man. It was not expected to be a particularly long assignment, as the Cardinal planned to return to his private studies in Germany after the conclusion of the papacy of the ailing John Paul II. Of course, fate had other plans, and when Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, Gänswein moved with him across St. Peter’s Square to the office next to the new pontiff in the Apostolic Palace.

There had been rumors over the past two years that Gänswein could be reassigned, with some hypothesizing that he would take over a post that Ratzinger filled in the 1970s: Archbishop of Munich. But most Vaticanologists expect him to stay busy as papal gatekeeper-in-chief. It is a role that became one of the most powerful in the waning years of the previous papacy. Don Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s longtime personal secretary, exerted great authority over the direction of the papacy and access to the Holy Father. After John Paul’s death Dziwisz took over his boss’s old job as Archbishop of Krakow, and has risen to the rank of Cardinal.

For now, Gänswein does not appear to have such sweeping authority. The real muscle behind the scenes is flexed by the No. 2 man in the Vatican hierarchy, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was Ratzinger’s No. 2 in his old job at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. During the April 15-20 visit, the Italian Cardinal will also be frequently seen close to Benedict’s side, at the White House, the United Nations and others appearances. Bertone stands out in a crowd as well: tall and bespectacled, with a gregarious disposition. But both Bertone and Gänswein know they are merely part of the papal entourage. They will be pointing American attention toward the man in white.