Pope Francis’ decision to ask Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, now prefect emeritus of the Papal Household, to return to his native diocese testifies not only to the fact that the Pope wants to cut ties with the previous pontificate completely. The decision regarding Archbishop Gaenswein is further proof of the modus operandi of Pope Francis and a signal that the last period of his government will not be easy for anyone.

The communication of the decision on Gaenswein arrived in a few lines of the bulletin of the Press Office of the Holy See of June 15, where what was not said was heavier than what was written.

Writing that Archbishop Gaenswein had finished his mandate on February 28, 2023, Pope Francis, in fact, not only suspended his salary but also required Gaenswein to return the salary he has received from February 28 to today. When there is no communication to the contrary, the institution considers the person confirmed in the position and continues to pay the monthly salary. However, if the time of expiry is determined, the salary can also be reclaimed.

It is not the first time that Pope Francis has used this formula. A similar thing happened with some officials now involved in the Vatican trial on the management of the Secretariat of State funds. They were implicitly confirmed and then not renewed in their office and asked to return the money. But there have been even worse situations when people with convictions still on appeal in the Vatican court have had their assets foreclosed to enforce a sentence for compensation that, in reality, had not yet reached the final judgment.

The request to return the money, implicit in the communication on Gaenswein, tells two truths: that the Vatican under Pope Francis has a severe problem in raising resources and therefore is not afraid to take revenge on anyone to recover part of what it spends; and that, through this “recovery” operation, Pope Francis punishes those he believes should be punished, in a particularly humiliating way.

But some humiliations are good, Pope Francis told Gaenswein when he complained to the Pope that he had not received another assignment and was, in any case, suspended as prefect of the papal household. Gaenswein tells it in a book published following the death of Benedict XVI. A book that was perhaps naive in terms of the way and timing of its release but which had the merit of restoring a vivid portrait of what was the relationship between Pope Francis and the entourage of the Pope Emeritus.

Beyond the superficial courtesy, in the end, it becomes clear that Pope Francis has not tolerated well, not so much the presence of a Pope Emeritus in the Vatican, but the fact that some still saw Benedict XVI as a point of reference, even though he was no longer pope. It was as if the Pope saw in the love for Benedict XVI a contrast to his pontificate. And probably from there comes the Pope’s bitterness towards those he called “backwardnessed people,” and the increasingly harsh restrictions on the traditional Mass, reversing an opening made by Benedict XVI himself, and the decision to practically kick Gaenswein out without ever making this decision official.

To analyze the whole story in more detail, one could say that Pope Francis does not want to take the responsibility of making known who are those he considers friends and those he considers enemies, nor does he want to personally assume the weight of some decisions as long as these can create problems with public opinion.

For Pope Francis, assigning Gaenswein to another post while Benedict XVI was alive would have meant admitting his difficulties regarding a situation he had tried to manage to his advantage from the beginning. Instead, leaving Gaenswein in his place while preventing him from going to work left open the possibility that the Pope was pondering the situation and that he wanted to help Gaenswein in a difficult situation. Now, after having reopened the trial on the choir of the Sistine Chapel (that was under Gaenswein’s management, and Gaenswein was heard at the trial) and after the death of Benedict XVI, Gaenswein can instead be sent away, even with the request to return to his diocese of origin. A proposal that Gaenswein would not have to obey. As bishop of Rome and head of Vatican City State, the Pope can only ask him not to reside in the Vatican or the diocese of Rome. However, the Pope cannot oblige anyone to a particular residence unless this is connected with his office.

Here too we see, in the decision regarding Gaenswein, analogies with other similar situations in the Vatican. In the other cases, it was a question of figures not at the top and on whom, therefore, the information was not objectively news for the newspapers. But they were precedents, which made it clear that this way of doing things is a way of government for Pope Francis.

Perhaps the same thing happened with Cardinal Angelo Becciu, now on trial in the Vatican for alleged embezzlement in a much broader process: the Pope first asked him to resign his post and renounce his cardinal prerogatives (something about which there is only a bulletin from the Press Office of the Holy See, but no decision from the college of cardinals), then he modified a provision to ensure that even cardinals could be judged by the Vatican tribunal, and finally, with the trial in progress, he asked Becciu anyway to participate as a cardinal in public events. A series of actions which, in the event of a conviction, would allow the Pope to say that no, he wasn’t angry with Becciu. Indeed, he helped him, but the sentences must be respected.

And so it was for Gaenswein, set aside following the publication of a book by Cardinal Sarah that Benedict XVI had co-signed, left in his place anyway, and then sent home without assignment after the death of the Pope emeritus, but above all after the publication of an autobiographical book by Gaenswein himself which sounded like an indictment of the pontificate. Pope Francis will thus be able to say that he did not expel Gaesnwein; he simply did not renew him even in the face of a situation that had become embarrassing for him.

This type of mechanism, however, can be applied to anyone. Pope Francis signals that no one is protected in the Vatican and that anyone could be defenestrated. The Pope can do it, of course. It is striking that he wants to do it trying to take on as little responsibility as possible but leaving room for personal justification.

However, there is now an evident desire to cut with the past. Pope Francis had done this in different ways over the years, like when, in consistories, he always introduced the figure of a remediation cardinal, often over 80 years of age, who testified to the Pope’s disagreement with the choices made in the past, and certified a change of course.

Gaenswein’s humiliating removal says that the Pope now wants every possible link with what existed before him to be severed. Perhaps there will be another consistory by the end of the year, and thus the Pope will have created in ten years and nine consistories a college of cardinals entirely in his image and likeness. Perhaps there will be other reforms, maybe the reform of papal funerals.

After all, Pope Francis had not wanted Benedict XVI to have a papal funeral, despite being pope, and presided over a celebration in a minor key and did not even personally managed the books for the commendation and valediction as he does for any cardinal who dies. Not only that: Pope Francis had hardly mentioned Benedict XVI in the homily of the funeral, a decision that was passed off as a precise will of the Pope Emeritus and a sign of wanting a more pastoral Church, but which in reality also seemed to demonstrate the desire of not putting too much emphasis on the ritual.

Now, with a reform of papal funerals, he could cover up this apparent annoyance by showing that, in the end, he did what he did because he wanted all popes to be treated as “servants of the servants of God” and not with full honors. If that happens, anyone who minimally opposes such reform will be swept away, relocated, or left without office. And the explanations for not wanting to change the rites to maintain some profound meanings that the Church has built over millennia will be worthless.

Thus, Pope Francis returns from hospitalization broken down physically but determined to make his thoughts count. There will be a before and after for his pontificate; there is no doubt about that. The consequences of these actions, however, are all to be pondered.


2 Responses to Pope Francis, a break with the past

  1. James scrive:

    Should there be any question as to the character of the individual who presently occupies the Chair of Saint Peter that question is answered in this report. Nothing further need be offered.

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