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 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.