Monsignor Alfred Xuereb on the Day of the Announcement, and Francis' 1st Phone Call
ROME, 06 March 2014 (ZENIT)
By Anna Artymiak
Together with the Pope’s brother Georg Ratzinger, Monsignor Georg Gänswein and the four Memores Domini, Monsignor Alfred Xuereb was one of the few to know for some time of Benedict XVI’s intention to renounce the Petrine ministry.
The priest served under the pontificate of John Paul II, and then as one of Benedict XVI’s private secretary. He has continued with that role with Pope Francis, having recently been named the secretary-general of the new Secretariat of the Economy.
Here, he speaks of the end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
Q: Did you know before the announcement that Benedict XVI would resign? How was the decision communicated to you? What was your reaction? Were there signs already that Benedict XVI was considering this decision?
Monsignor Xuereb: Already some time before the announcement I was struck by Pope Benedict’s intense recollection in the sacristy before the Mass. The Mass was supposed to begin at 7:00 am. Sometimes, however, one could hear the sound of the clock in Saint Damasus’ Courtyard, and he would stay in recollection. He prayed. There was a period when he recollected himself more intensely than usual. I had a clear sensation that something very important was happening in the Pope’s heart, that there was some particular intention for which the Holy Father was praying. I don’t know precisely, but perhaps it was the time of interior struggle that he went through before coming to the heroic decision of the renunciation.
The news was communicated to us personally. I was called by him officially. I sat down in front of his desk. Although it wasn’t the first time [I’d gotten such a call], I perceived I would receive a very important communication. Obviously, no one expected it. He was calm, as one who already went through a struggle and surmounted the moment of indecision. He was serene as one who knows that he is in the will of the Lord.
As soon as I heard the news, my first reaction was: “No, Holy Father! Why don’t you think about it a bit more?” Then I stopped myself and said to myself: “Who knows how long he has been examining this decision.” Coming back to my mind like lightning were the long moments and recollections in prayer before the Mass and I listened to his words attentively.
Everything was already decided. He repeated twice to me: “You will go with the new Pope.” Perhaps he had an intuition; I don’t know. The day I left Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo I wept and I thanked him for his great paternity.
Q: In what way did your everyday routine change after the news?
Monsignor Xuereb: It changed a lot for me. I had a crisis of weeping; it was very difficult for me to detach myself from Pope Benedict XVI. On February 11, 2013, in the Hall of the Consistory, I was on a stool beside him. While he read, I wept. The person next to me elbowed me and said: Control yourself because I’m also upset. I marveled at the expressions of the cardinals that I had in front of me. I remember Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who couldn’t believe his ears.
At the table that day we spoke about this and I said to Pope Benedict: “But, Holy Father, you remained very calm.” “Yes,” he answered me decisively. The decision was taken, the delivery happened, now it was up to us to adhere to this great choice he had made: a choice of government, which initially might seem the choice of abandonment of the government. So many cardinals, the consistory having ended — some because they had not heard, others because they didn’t know Latin well — approached Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Giovanni Battista Re to understand better what Benedict had said. The Holy Father remained at peace up to the last day, even when he went to Castel Gandolfo.
Q: Not everyone understands yet the reasons for the renunciation …
Monsignor Xuereb: Benedict XVI was convinced about what the Lord was asking him at that moment. “I no longer have the strength to continue my mission — he said — my mission is ended. I resign in favor of someone else who has more strength than me and will lead the Church forward.” Because the Church is not Pope Benedict’s but Christ’s.
Q: Many people began to send Benedict XVI what he called “moving signs of care, of friendship and of prayer.” What do you know about this?
Monsignor Xuereb: I remember very well. After February 28, 2013, thousands of letters began to arrive at Castel Gandolfo. It was impressive. At first, not so many arrived. All were unrestrained in writing to the Pope. However, what was lovely was to see that all those who wrote often enclosed something in the letter: an object made by hand, a musical score, a calendar, a drawing. As if the people wished to say: “Thank you for everything you have done; we appreciate the sacrifice you have made for us. We wish not only to express these sentiments, but to give you something of ours.”
Among these letters, many arrived from children. I filled all the shelves with the letters that arrived. Obviously the Pope didn’t have the time to look at all of them, because there were thousands. One evening, passing by him, I said: “Look, Holy Father, these are the letters that arrived today, among which many are from children.” He turned to me and said: “Those are very beautiful letters.” I was very struck by his tenderness with children. The Pope always had a tender character.
Perhaps he wished to add: “As opposed to the letters that worry me, that created problems for me.” I think they were like an antidote, a charge for him, which helped him to feel much loved.
Q: You were with Benedict XVI during the days of the conclave. How did the Pope Emeritus live that period?
Monsignor Xuereb: With much expectation for the conclave, the election, etc. He was anxious to know who would be his Successor. Moving for me was the telephone call that the new Pontiff made immediately to Pope Benedict. I was at his side and I gave him the receiver. What emotion it was to hear Benedict say: “I thank you, Holy Father, because you thought of me. I promise you right away my obedience; I promise you my prayer for you!” To hear these words from a person with whom I lived and who was my Pope, to hear this elicited in me a very strong emotion.
Q: Then, the moment to take leave arrived …
Monsignor Xuereb: I was with him two to three days after the election of Pope Francis. The moment when I had to leave I remember minute by minute, because it was — if I can use this adjective — excruciating for me. I lived almost eight years next to a person who loved me like a father, who allowed me to enter an always respectful confidentiality, but very intimate, and the day arrived of the detachment. Pope Benedict had written a very beautiful letter — of which he gave me a copy that I keep as a jewel — in which he indicated to the new Pope some of my merits. Perhaps he wished to avoid writing about my defects … He assured him that he left me free.
I remember also the way in which I packed the bags. They said to me; “Hurry up because the Pope needs you, he is opening his letters by himself. He is alone; no one is there. Send your things down in a hurry.”
I didn’t know anything about what was happening at Saint Martha’s; I didn’t even know that Pope Francis did not have a secretary. Then the touching moment arrived, when I entered Benedict’s office to greet him personally. Afterwards there was lunch, but I greeted him at that moment and I said to him: “Holy Father, it’s very difficult for me to detach myself from you. I thank you very much for what you have given me.” My gratitude was not due to the fact that he granted me to be with the new Pope, as someone wrote, but for his great paternity. Pope Benedict was not moved during these moments.
He stood up, I knelt down, as we were accustomed to do to kiss the ring. Not only did he allow me to kiss the ring, but he raised his hand above me and blessed me. We took our leave in this way. Then, there was lunch, but I was unable to say a word.
Monsignor Alfred Xuereb Remembers How John Paul II and Benedict XVI Prayed for the Intentions Entrusted Them by the Faithful
ROME, 07 March 2014 (ZENIT)
By Anna Artymiak
Having served as secretary for three Popes, Monsignor Alfred Xuereb is one of the few to witness personally the prayer lives of the most recent Successors of Peter.
Monsignor Xuereb served under the pontificate of John Paul II, and then as one of Benedict XVI’s private secretaries. He has continued with that role with Pope Francis, having recently been named the secretary-general of the new Secretariat of the Economy.
In this second part of an interview with him, the monsignor recalls how Benedict XVI prayed for the faithful.
Part 1 was published Thursday.
Q: How did your appointment come about as second secretary of Pope Benedict?
Monsignor Xuereb: I was already working in the Second Loggia as prelate of the anti-chamber to accompany the personalities who had a private audience in the Library. One day I was told: “The Pope needs to speak with you.” I was very moved to find myself sitting on the same chair on which for some years, first with John Paul II, then with Benedict himself, I had invited persons to accommodate themselves beside the Pope’s desk.
Benedict XVI wished to speak to me personally, and said very beautiful words to me: “As you know, Monsignor Mietek is now returning to Ukraine. We were very happy with him and I thought that you could replace him. I know — he said — that you have been in Germany, therefore you know a bit of German.” I answered that I had been in Munster, that I practiced in a hospital, which the Pope told me he knew. He also knew the area where we lived and the parish, and even the parish priest because he had lived in the neighborhood and had taught there. He knew two professors: Professor Pieper and a theologian called Pasha. Because his house was destroyed in a bombardment he was then invited by the same persons where I was a guest. The Holy Father also said something about Malta and added: “Obviously now everyone has his tasks.” So I understood that we had to start soon. And I began immediately.
Q: I imagine that that time you packed your bags joyfully …
Monsignor Xuereb: Also with emotion, so much emotion …
Q: Did Benedict XVI continue John Paul II’s tradition of bringing to his personal prayer the many intentions presented through the Secretariat?
Monsignor Xuereb: Yes, John Paul II already did so and it was the task of Monsignor Mietek. I inherited this very beautiful task. The intentions arrived almost every day. Many did not come to us from the private secretariat, but directly from the Secretariat of State. To those we responded that the Pope had addressed a general intention during his prayer. Benedict XVI would remain very affected: how many sicknesses that perhaps we didn’t know, and how many families lived the drama of sickness! He thought not only of the sick person, but of the whole family that, night and day, Christmas and Easter, summer and winter, had to look after and go to their sick, some very grave. How many families were in anguish because newborn babies or little ones were sick! And when there was a prayer intention from Malta and from my city, he would say to me: “Do you know these persons?” Sometimes I said yes because I knew them, at other times I said no, because I didn’t know them. But what struck me was that the Pope, after a few days, more than once having finished the Rosary in the Gardens, would turn to me and ask: “Have you had news of Mister — he would say the surname — of whom you spoke to me?” In some cases I had to say that unfortunately the person was dead and I was struck by the fact that the Holy Father would recollect himself and recite immediately the Eternal Rest prayer. And he also invited me, who gave him this news, to pray immediately. The Pope, who had a thousand things to do, a thousand thoughts, considered his prayer for the sick a very important pastoral ministry. I would leave the slip of paper with the names of the persons for whom to pray on the kneeler, which had a sort of box. I know that he looked through them often. They were there. I never took them away unless he told me so.
Q: John Paul II’s canonization is coming close. Did Benedict XVI remember him often?
Monsignor Xuereb: Yes, certainly. He called him “the Pope.” When he said “the Pope,” in the beginning I didn’t understand. He considered himself as one who collaborated with “the Pope.” I think he served “the Pope” faithfully not only because he knew what was meant theologically by “the Successor of Peter,” but also because of the particular veneration for the Pontiff that one who was educated in the Bavarian religious environment had. In this sense for him to serve “the Pope” was a very great gift.
Q: From your position, how did you see this relationship of friendship between John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger?
Monsignor Xuereb: I took part only once in the meetings that Cardinal Ratzinger had with John Paul II and in fact on the occasion of the Plenary Audience of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which he was Prefect. I can only confirm what was already noticed by all, and that is that John Paul II had very great trust in Ratzinger, he turned to him to ask for his views or to draft and correct important documents. The very fact that John Paul II had not accepted, many times, the resignations of Cardinal Ratzinger, who had already celebrated for some years his 75 years of age, means that he didn’t want to lose a man of trust, such a valid collaborator. Here I see another aspect of John Paul II’s holiness and that is his farsightedness. He looked far ahead and perhaps foresaw also that Ratzinger might be his Successor.
Q: How did you live John Paul II’s beatification?
Monsignor Xuereb: Pope Benedict was very happy about this. One could see it also at the Mass, when he pronounced during the homily the phrase “Now he is Blessed!” Suffice it to watch the film again to understand how happy he was!
Monsignor Alfred Xuereb is from Malta. His service for the Holy See began under the Pontificate of John Paul II in 2001, in the first section of the Secretariat of State. Then he became a collaborator of Monsignor James Harvey in the Prefecture of the Papal Household and from September 2003 he assumed the function of Prelate of the papal anti-chamber, that is, the prelate responsible for introducing to the Pope the guests received by him in private audience in the Apostolic Palace. During this time Don Alfred Xuereb had the opportunity to know John Paul II more closely. From September of 2007, together with Georg Gänswein, he carried out the function of second secretary of Benedict XVI. Before him, was the Pole Don Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, now Metropolitan Archbishop of Lemberg, in Ukraine. After the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the Chair of Peter, he became the first private secretary of Pope Francis.