Alfred Xuereb’s personal experiences of Pope Benedict XVI recounted to the EWTN Vatican News

The editor in-chief of the Vatican news, Angela Ambrogetti published an interview with the Maltese bishop Alfred Xuereb who for a number of years served as Pope Benedict XVI’s personal secretary. Here is what Xuereb had to say about Benedict XVI. In this interview Xuereb recounts how one day, the pope played Ninni la tibkix iżjed on his piano on Christmas Eve.

Looking at the Popes in opposition to each other impoverishes a person’s perspective because they miss the beautiful and enriching aspects of the personalities of each.” 

Alfred Xuereb, now archbishop, speaks from first-hand experience. For almost six years he was in the special secretariat of Benedict XVI, and was then in the service of Pope Francis. It was a discreet and diligent task. Pope Benedict himself put forward the Maltese monsignor to Pope Francis as a possible secretary. Today he is nuncio to South Korea and Mongolia. 

“I was with Benedict XVI until three days after the election of Pope Francis,’ he says, ‘then I came to the Vatican, to Santa Marta. The day I left I remember it minute by minute, because it was a very special moment for me. For almost six years I was next to a very special person, who loved me like a father, who allowed me to benefit from a respectful but intimate confidence. Then came the day of the painful parting.” 

Fr Alfred has a long experience in the service of the popes. He was Prelate of the antechamber in the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate, and then in the special secretariat of Benedict XVI. His discretion may not have made him known to the general public, but in the Vatican his smile and affability are much appreciated. Born in Victoria in 1958 and a priest since 1984, he studied first in Gozo and then at the Teresianum Institute of Spirituality in Rome, and spent a year working in Münster, Germany. From 1991 to 1995 he was secretary to the rector of the Lateran University, and then worked in the Secretariat of State and the Prefecture of the Papal Household. 

His account of the days in March 2013 is full of intensity. 

“Benedict XVI had written a beautiful letter, of which he gave me a copy that I keep like a precious jewel, in which he mentioned some of my merits to the new Pope. Perhaps in his goodness he wished to avoid listing my faults, assuring the new Pope that he had left me free, since the new Pope did not dare to ask me to withdraw from him. After all, he was perhaps the only one among 115 cardinals who did not have a secretary of his own. I also remember the moment when I packed my bags. They told me: hurry up the Pope needs a secretary, he is opening the letters himself, he is alone. I knew nothing of what was going on in Santa Marta.” 

But how did you greet the Pope Emeritus? 

“The most touching moment was when I entered his office in Castel Gandolfo to greet him personally. Then there was the last lunch, but the private moment was very intense. I cried and told him, as I could, with a knot in my throat: ‘Holy Father it is very difficult for me to detach myself from you; I thank you so much for what you have given me over these years, for your great paternity.’ 

He got up from his desk and, as I kissed his ring, which was no longer the Fisherman’s ring, he raised his right hand above my head and blessed me.” 

The memories are many and flow from the priest’s heart vivid and intense. 

“Once,” Fr Alfred recounts, “we were at Castel Gandolfo, and there was a meeting with seminarians and priests. One of the priests had pointed out how difficult it was to follow the rhythms of prayer, because the parish was big and there were so many people to follow. And he said, almost apologetically, that he could not always pray the breviary, because he might have to look after the faithful. Perhaps he was almost waiting for approval. Instead, the Pope told him: this pastoral care of yours is very praiseworthy, but remember that even when you pray the breviary you are doing a pastoral action because you are praying for your parishioners. Just as it is important to help a person by listening to them and doing concrete things to help them, it is equally important to help and support them with your prayer. Parishioners appreciate this so much when they hear about it. And so, the Pope encouraged the parish priest not to neglect the Liturgy of the Hours.” 

The ‘Pope’s family’, of which Fr Alfred was a part, experienced many daily gestures that demonstrated the humanity and simplicity of Benedict XVI. In his prayer requests, for example, Ratzinger continued certain habits of John Paul II, whom he always called, simply, the Pope. 

“Every day numerous letters arrived with prayer requests to Pope Benedict. It was the same with John Paul II and it was Fr Mietek’s task, which I inherited, to prepare them on a small sheet of paper for the Pope. So many requests from sick people arrived at the special secretariat, and the Pope was impressed by how many families were thinking not only of the sick person, but also of the whole family, who, day and night, Christmas and Easter, summer and winter, had to care for the sick family member. And then there was the anguish for the children. The Pope, who had a thousand thoughts, considered his prayer for the sick a very important pastoral ministry. I used to put the little sheets in the chapel on his kneeler, and I know that Benedict would leaf through them and reread them, keeping them in the little drawer. I was surprised when, after a few days, he would ask me if I had heard from any of the sick people I knew personally.” 

And then the recollection before Mass: “Mass started at 7.00 a.m., but there were days when you could hear the clock in the courtyard of San Damaso chiming the hour but he remained in recollection. I remember one particular time in which he stayed long after the start time. I had the distinct feeling that he was praying for a particular intention. Perhaps it was the moment of inner travail that he had before arriving at the heroic decision of resignation. It was a very special recollection.” 

In daily life there were also special moments of celebration such as Christmas. Do you remember your first Christmas with Pope Benedict? 

“We were around the tree with lit candles as is the custom in Germany. We sang Christmas carols in German in Latin and Italian. At a certain moment the Pope turned to me and said: your predecessor, Fr Mietek, sang us some carols in Polish, do you have any Maltese ones? 

I had some sheet music of our folk songs, in particular one that is the most traditional: Ninni la Tibkix Izjed, Lullaby to Jesus, weep no more. It is always sung. I ran to my office and took the sheet music and my surprise and excitement was great when the Pope took the sheet music and stood at the piano playing. Hearing this melody played by the Pope still moves me today. On Christmas Eve after dinner, while waiting for Mass, we would gather around the lit tree, the Pope would take the Gospel passage of the Nativity of Jesus and read it, then we would exchange greetings. He explained to me that every father of a family in Bavaria does this. I liked to enrich the great popular Maltese religiosity with that of Bavaria.” 

At the table and after meals or perhaps after walks in the Vatican Gardens for the recitation of the Rosary, the Pope and his secretaries would talk about the audiences of the day, the people they had met, sometimes even the criticism that came from outside and inside the Church. “I saw him sorry of course, but not displeased. I never heard him say a sentence of indignation. When there was the sad affair of our Adjutant of the House, whom he treated like a son, he expressed his sorrow for his family and for himself. But never a word of indignation.”  

Fr Alfred were you with Pope Benedict when newly elected Pope Francis called him on the phone? 

“Benedict experienced the conclave and the election of the new Pope with great expectation, he was anxious to know who would succeed him. We prayed intensely, feeling united with the whole Church invoking the Holy Spirit. We followed the moment of the “annunciatio vobis gaudium magnum” on TV. It was very moving to be present at the phone call that the new Pope made to Pope Benedict. I handed him the wireless phone, and I could hear Benedict XVI saying: ‘I thank you Holy Father and -to hear Benedict say this aroused admiration- I thank you that you immediately thought of me and I promise from now on my obedience and my prayers.’ These words from a person I lived with, because he was my Pope, to hear him say this, I was very edified.” 

How did you experience the decision to resign? 

“My fear was misunderstanding and perhaps general condemnation. I feared that one might say: he started a work and did not have the courage to complete it! Instead, I still see his heroism precisely in this; he did not take this risk. He was convinced of what the Lord was asking of him at that moment: I no longer have the strength to continue my mission; my mission is over; I entrust to someone else who has more energy than me the task of carrying the Church forward. Because the Church does not belong to the Pope, but to Christ. Those who love the Church consider this decision ‘a great act of government’.” 

What was your first reaction to the news? 

“As he told me the news, I immediately said to him: ‘No, Holy Father, why don’t you think about it!’ Then I restrained myself and said: ‘but who knows how long he has been thinking about it!’ And the moments of prayer before Mass, long and collected, flashed through my mind. And I let him speak, I listened to him, bewildered. Everything was well decided: when to communicate and how. And he told me: ‘You will go with the new Pope’. And he repeated it to me twice, to the point that I was about to say to him: ‘I would be willing, but who knows if the new Pope will want me?’” 

Some think that Benedict XVI was too intellectual as a Pope, with his head only in books. 

“I consider the Pope Emeritus with a personality made up of two dimensions that might seem conflicting but instead are complementary. On the one hand, he is a giant of intellect, of theological, philosophical, liturgical, biblical depth… And on the other hand, thanks to his growing up in a normal, no-frills family in Bavaria, he has remained a simple man with the look of an evangelical child. Two parts that make the personality even more complete. And his discretion is a way of not overpowering the other, rather he always makes the effort to bring out the good in the other and his character so that a harmony is created. This is the art of relating to others that Benedict XVI taught me.” 

Is there a word that best describes Benedict XVI? 

“I don’t want to encapsulate Pope Benedict in one word or phrase, because that would be like trying to enclose an entire city under a bell jar. But the word I have heard Pope Benedict say the most is: ‘thank you!’ Over and over again. We would help him dress for Mass, we would give him the pectoral cross, and he would say: ‘thank you!’ I used to carry his cane: ‘thank you!’ I would take his stick away: ‘thank you!’ Once, when I was Prelate of the Anteroom, we were waiting for a guest in the library, and I allowed myself to pay him a compliment for a homily he had just given. I was very impressed by the way he accepted it. First of all, he accepted it. And, with humility, he lowered his eyes and said: ‘thank you!’ From the writings of Benedict XVI, we can learn a lot, because he is a great teacher, but not without choosing him as a model of life.”

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