VATICAN CITY – New questions arose about how much influence Pope Benedict XVI will exert over his successor Thursday after the Vatican confirmed that Benedict’s closest adviser would continue to serve him as a private secretary while running the new pope’s household.
For a second day of his emotional farewell tour, Benedict sent a pointed message to his successor and to the cardinals who will elect him about the direction the Catholic Church must take once he is no longer pope. While these remarks have been clearly labeled as Benedict’s swansong before retiring, his influence after retirement remains the subject of intense debate.
Benedict’s resignation Feb. 28 creates an awkward situation — the first in 600 years — in which the Catholic Church will have both a reigning pope and a retired one. The Vatican has insisted that Benedict will cease to be pope at exactly 8 p.m. on the historic day, devoting himself entirely to a life of prayer.
Benedict confirmed that Thursday during a farewell audience with a few thousand priests who live and work in the diocese of Rome, saying that he would remain “hidden” to the world in retirement.
“Even as I retire now in prayer, I will always be close to all you and I am sure that you will be close to me, even if to the world I remain hidden,” he told the priests.
But the Vatican confirmed that Benedict’s trusted private secretary, 56-year-old Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, would remain in that post and live with Benedict in a converted monastery in the Vatican gardens. He will also go to work every day in the Apostolic Palace, where he is prefect of the papal household, a job he has had for just over two months.
That dual role would seem to bolster concerns expressed privately by some cardinals that Benedict — by staying inside the Vatican and having his confidant working for the new pope — would continue to exert at least some influence on the new papacy and the governance of the church.
Asked about this potential conflict, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Thursday that the job of prefect is very technical, organizing the pope’s audiences, and has no real governmental or doctrinal role to it.
“In this sense this won’t be a profound problem I think,” he said.
After the pope, Gaenswein is the most visible figure at the Vatican. Dubbed “Gorgeous Georg” for his good looks, he was featured on the cover of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair last month under the headline “It isn’t a sin to be beautiful.”
He has been Benedict’s private secretary since 2003, although the two worked together for a number of years before that at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict headed before becoming pope in 2005. He is almost always by the pope’s side: holding his glasses for him, driving with him in the popemobile during foreign visits, taking walks with him.
Gaenswein clearly has the trust of Benedict: He could have been tarnished by the scandal over the leaks of papal documents last year, since the thefts took place right under his nose. Instead, he was promoted to prefect of the papal household after the pope’s ex-butler was convicted of aggravated theft.