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The Polish Dominican priest whose watch is the Papacy

Catherine Sheehan
Catherine Sheehan
Catherine Sheehan is an award-winning multimedia journalist. Her articles have been published by Catholic News Service, Crux Now, the Catholic Herald and the Herald Sun.
Fr Wojciech Giertych OP at Notre Dame University in Sydney. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

As Theologian to the Papal Household, Fr Wojciech Giertych OP casts the last “theological eye” over all papal documents before they are placed in the hands of the Pope for his final sign-off.

He offers advice on each document—which the Pope may or may not choose to take—and he also reads over the Pope’s discourses prepared for his various audiences.

“In the final moment of preparation I get the text and I have to read it to see if it’s unclear, doubtful or heretical and I then point that out,” Fr Giertych told The Catholic Weekly. “It’s my job to look with a critical eye.”

After being appointed Theologian to the Papal Household by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Fr Giertych took up residence at the Vatican in the Apostolic Palace, where the Pope traditionally lives.

The current pope however, famously chose to live in the Sanctae Marthae Guest House, on the opposite side of St Peter’s Basilica, after he was elected in 2013.

Fr Giertych has serviced as Theologian to the Papal Household under both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. PHOTO: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano

“I never imagined I would live in the Vatican, in the Apostolic Palace, at a time when there are two popes and neither of them are living in the Apostolic Palace, and I’m living in it!” Fr Giertych said laughing.

A Dominican has always held the position of Theologian to the Papal Household, since the 13th century when the role first came into being, originally referred to as the “Master of the Sacred Palace”. It is thought St Dominic himself may have been the first to assume the office, however the history is unclear.

“It has been the experience of the Holy See for eight centuries that it’s good to have a Dominican there because we’re trained in the theology of St Thomas Aquinas, and Aquinas is very precise,” Fr Giertych said. “For some reason the job fell upon me.”

One of nine children, Fr Giertych was born in London in 1951 to Polish parents and spent the first 19 years of his life in England before moving to Poland.

Fr Giertych is interviewed by Catholic Weekly journalist Catherine Sheehan at Notre Dame University in Sydney on 19 July 2018. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

After being ordained in Krakow in 1981, he obtained a licentiate and doctorate in theology from the University of St Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, in Rome, where he has been a professor of moral theology since 1994.

Having served as Papal theologian under both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, Fr Giertych has unique insight into the differences between the two pontiffs. He says that while Benedict, as an intellectual, had a similar approach to John Paul II, who was in the tradition of Aquinas, Francis focuses primarily on the pastoral approach.

“I think Francis’ basic focus is trying to notice directly the individual.”

The approach of Aquinas, he said, was to seek definitions so as to clarify the faith, whereas the pastoral approach means noticing the individual and the challenges and complexities he or she faces in life.

“On the one hand the Church has to teach its basic teaching which is clear and which we have received from the Apostles and explained over the centuries, taking into account the various new challenges. Whereas, with the pastoral side first of all you establish human contact, you meet the individual who may have had a complex life.”

“Both these approaches are absolutely valid.”

St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian and philosopher, has been a major influence in Fr Giertych’s formation as a theologian.

As a Papal theologian he is a consulter to both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Fr Giertych spends much of his time reading over the lives of potential saints and determining whether they exhibited heroic virtue or not during their lives. “I have to read a thousand pages and then make a statement.”

“Normally by the time they arrive at that stage it’s basically already clear that they have been virtuous.”

French Carmelite nun and Doctor of the Church, St Thérèse of Lisieux, helped Fr Giertych to read the works of St Thomas Aquinas.

Due to the large number of people whose causes for canonisation the Congregation is looking into, even with 80 consultors reading over their life stories, it’s still slow going, Fr Giertych said.

“At the rate they are working, with all those being presented, the Congregation needs about 1000 years. Rome is slow,” he laughed.

And who are Fr Giertych’s favourite saints?

Fr Wojciech Giertych, Theologian of the Papal Household, is pictured in the chapel at his residence in the Apostolic Palace. PHOTO: CNS photo/Paul Haring

Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant Dominican philosopher and theologian, of course, and less obviously, Thérèse of Lisieux, who he says provides a counterbalance to Aquinas’ rational approach, complementing him with her “feminine genius”.

“I’m a Dominican so I’ve been reading Aquinas for many, many years. So he is a major point of reference. But I’ve read everything written by Thérèse of Lisieux, and I read it in French.”

“I once gave a conference in France on the complementarity, how Thérèse has helped me to read Aquinas.”

“Aquinas tries to define the mystery, but the woman is the one who grabs you by the elbow and says, ‘Look!’ She sits next to you and points to the mystery.”

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