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This experience accompanies me wherever I go

To mark the first anniversary of the death of Pope Benedict XVI, an interview with his long-time private secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein on wistful memories, intense grief, and deep gratitude.

 Erzbischof Dr. Gänswein, der langjährige Privatsekretär von Papst Benedikt XVI.

New Year’s Eve will mark the first anniversary of the death of Pope Benedict XVI. What goes through your mind and through your heart when you think about the last days of Benedict XVI and his final farewell?

Thinking about the day of his death brings me feelings of sadness, pain, and wistfulness. At the same time, however, it also inspires immense gratitude for the many years I was able to live and work alongside Pope Benedict. They were an undeserved gift. Nevertheless, now when I think of the end of the year, New Year’s Eve, the anniversary of his death, I mostly feel sad and nostalgic.

Are there moments from this time of saying farewell that are particularly ingrained in your memory?

The days leading up to his death are particularly ingrained in my heart and in my memory. Most of all, the holy masses our small community celebrated at his deathbed. The intimate, dense atmosphere, the presence of the Pope as he grew weaker and weaker—it all left a very deep impression on my heart. This image, this experience accompanies me wherever I go.

Papst Benedikt wird herzlichst begrüßt beim Weltjugendtag in Madrid

Benedict XVI was born on Holy Saturday and died in the Octave of Christmas. The pictures of his body laid out beside the Christmas tree were seen around the world. In light of last year’s events, do you look at Christmas differently this year?

Since last year, the Christmas season has been inextricably linked to Benedict’s death in my mind. This has a strong influence on how things make me feel. Born on Holy Saturday, died in the Octave of Christmas: There’s a certain providential coincidence to be seen in this that in retrospect casts his entire life in a particular light. The most important dates of his life coincide with the most important dates of his faith: Easter and Christmas. The birth, passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord are reflected in the dates of Joseph Ratzinger’s life. Pope Benedict XVI spent his entire life in this great “Octave of Faith”.

The custom of a “year of mourning” is based on the idea that mourning takes time. What are the phases of grief that you’ve experienced? How did you deal with them spiritually? Has it changed you personally? That is, has it changed your faith, your spiritual life?

My spiritual life has absorbed the painful days of mourning and given them stability and substance. I grieved like people who grieve for a departed loved one, but even stronger was the knowledge that God, not death, has the final word. As a human being I have suffered, and still do, from the fact that Pope Benedict is physically no longer present. In my faith, however, I have experienced consolation, confidence, and inner strength. This has deepened my spiritual life.

Sarg von Papst Benedikt XVI. mit geöffnetem Evangelium. Im Hintergrund sieht man die Menschenmassen.

Do you talk to Pope Benedict XVI in prayer? Do you see him as an intercessor for certain intentions?

I pray to him every day. He had become one of my greatest intercessors, especially when it comes to personal intentions.

Benedict XVI approached his death very consciously. He wrote about it on several occasions in his final years, and talked about how he was in the final stage of his earthly pilgrimage. Did he prepare for his death in a particular way?

He had been doing so ever since he resigned from the Petrine Office. It was not so much that there were particular activities he did to prepare himself for death, but rather that Benedict approached his last day more “deliberately”, allowing himself to be more consciously involved in the process of dying. He said yes to his diminishing strength and placed himself in God’s good hands, which he knew would support and sustain him. His preparation for his death consisted above all in being more conscientious about his day-to-day work and entrusting the time he had left more thoroughly to the guidance of God.

From things Benedict XVI said, one gets the impression that he was looking forward to meeting the Lord at the end of his days. Does a Pope die more easily than a simple believer? 

That he was preparing to meet the Lord and was looking forward to it is something I’m quite convinced of. Whether someone dies more easily or not does not depend on their position. As the saying goes, a person dies the way they lived. Benedict XVI lived in God, for God, and for Christ. And that was the mindset in which he died. So perhaps this did make it easier for him to put his life back into the hands of Christ.

Leichnam von Papst emeritus Benedikt XVI. / Jospeh Ratzinger.

In February of 2022, Benedict XVI, then very advanced in years, wrote a letter in which he considered the approaching end of his life: “Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete’. In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.” To be able to have such a deep trust in the mercy of God while facing the hour of one’s death—is that a gift of faith? Is it something that can be learned? Is it something people have to work on?

I consider the ability to trust in the mercy of God in the face of death to be a great gift of faith. Consciously allowing oneself to encounter the Lord while trusting in the mercy of God at the hour death—this is something that we can practice. That means listening to the Word of the Lord ever more intently and allowing his presence to enter us. Giving Him more priority, believing more deeply; this gives us greater hope. Practicing trust in the merciful Judge gives us consolation and inner peace.

It is said that the last words of Benedict XVI were “Lord, I love you!”. Does this one simple sentence sum up the life’s work of this Pope?

I am utterly convinced that the words you quoted were the theological and personal “leitmotif” of his entire life. This encompassed every stage of his work, reaching its climax during his pontificate.

You worked very closely with Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI for many decades: at the CDF, during his pontificate, and during his time as Pope Emeritus. In all those years, what was the greatest challenge for you?

In all the stages of life you mentioned, the greatest challenge for me was to live up to the tasks assigned to me and to carry them out in such a way that I could be a real source of support and assistance to the one who entrusted me with these tasks. It definitely wasn’t always easy, it was sometimes exhausting, but I was always glad to do it and put my entire heart into it. In Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, I had a “boss” who was as gentle as he was wise. He showed me a lot of understanding, great sensitivity, and human sympathy. That really inspired and motivated my work.

What are you particularly grateful for? 

I am grateful for the many years I was able to work at his side. They have enriched my life and deepened my faith. There were many experiences that allowed me to grow in maturity. I am particularly grateful for the experience of not throwing in the towel even when things got very difficult, but persevering in faithfulness, joyful confidence, and firm trust in God. In the end, joy always prevailed.

In psychology there’s this thing called the “deathbed test”: On your deathbed you suddenly realize what really matters in life, what is essential and what is not. Applying this to the debates and arguments over matters of theology and faith: What truly counts in the end? What endures, even beyond the threshold of death? What is essential?

There’s a passage from the Second Epistle to Timothy that comes to mind, in which the Apostle Paul says that he has finished the race, fought the good fight, and kept the faith. No matter how intense the arguments over theological and ecclesiastical matters might get, what counts in the end is our love for Christ and faithfulness in following him. What is essential is that when I approach the threshold of death, my faith does not waver, but withstands everything. That my trust in the Savior sustains me, and that I do not lose sight of the goal of eternal life.

What do you imagine heaven is like?

A little child once asked Pope Benedict this exact question at a large public event. He answered that he imagined heaven was like being at home with his family, with his mother and father, his sisters and brothers, and everyone who loves one another. What he meant was the idea of living together in great harmony. And not for a few moments, but once and for all time. That’s how I imagine heaven too: A “being together” with God in complete harmony that knows no end.

How will you observe the anniversary of Benedict XVI’s death?

On New Year’s Eve there will be a memorial mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, which I will preside over. Afterwards we will pray the Stations of the Cross at the tomb of Pope Benedict XVI. I will spend the day with friends in memory of the late Pope. This is bound to bring back lots of memories that have touched my life in recent years.

What do you think Benedict XVI would have wanted later generations to remember about him and his life’s work?

The last words he spoke in this world: “Lord, I love you.” In that sentence is contained everything he wrote, preached, witnessed, and believed as a theologian, priest, bishop, and Pope. This declaration is his testament.

Remembering Benedict XVI: Life, Teaching, Legacy

Marking the first anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's passing, EWTN will partner with the Fundatio Christiana Virtus and the Vatican Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI foundation and broadcast a conference on the late Pope's life, teaching, and legacy. On the 30th and 31st of December, scholars, experts, and friends of Joseph Ratzinger will convene in the Campo Santo Teutonico next to St. Peter's Basilica and talk about Pope Benedict XVI's impact on the Church and society.

Further information and the transmission can be found here