NYT's Dowd Spreads Author's Gossip on Pope Benedict and His 'Remarkably Handsome' Male Secretary

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is no fan of the Vatican; that's clear from her column on the front of the latest Sunday Review, "How Mary Feels About Being a Virgin."

Dowd paid tribute to Colm Toibin, a gay Irish ex-Catholic and author of the theologically controversial novella "The Testament of Mary." Author Mary Gordon gave it a positive review in the Times last year, and it made the paper's "Best of the Year" list for fiction.

The novella has been transformed into a one-woman Broadway show, and Dowd praised it sight unseen in an interview with Toibin. Going further than literary license, Dowd let Toibin hint about the Pope's relationship with his male secretary.

In “The Testament of Mary,” a one-woman show with Fiona Shaw previewing later this month on Broadway, Toibin imagines his own version of how the Virgin Mary felt about crucifixion -- “the most foul and frightening image that had ever been conjured up by men” -- and whether she really had not known Joseph in a biblical sense.

To borrow a phrase that nuns once applied to naughty children in my school, the play is a bold, brazen piece. Toibin wrote it first as a stage monologue, then turned it into a novel and has recast it again for Broadway. His illiterate but intelligent Mary, with echoes of Antigone and Electra, is no idealized, asexual, docile Madonna, tenderly cradling her son’s bleeding body, Pietà-style.

Dowd gave Toibin room to float hints about the 85-year-old former pope's relationship with his private male secretary.

I wonder what he thinks of the pageantry in Rome. He is dubious about the showy helicopter exit of Benedict to nearby Castel Gandolfo: “There’s absolutely no reason why he couldn’t have gone by car. The roads in Italy are really good.” But he expresses admiration for the easy affection between the 85-year-old former Holy Father and his 56-year-old private secretary, Msgr. Georg Gänswein, whom Toibin has described as “remarkably handsome, a cross between George Clooney and Hugh Grant, but in a way more beautiful than either.”

Benedict may have given up his flashy red loafers, downgrading to brown ones made for him in Mexico, but he is taking “Gorgeous Georg,” as the younger German is known, to live in his new home, a monastery in the Vatican. Some cardinals are worried about the arrangement of having Gänswein serve two pontiffs, by day as prefect of the new pope’s household and at night as secretary to the emeritus pope.

“An 85-year-old man having such a beautiful companion with him morning and night to talk to and walk with,” Toibin said. “It’s like the end of a novel. It’s what all of us want for ourselves, straight or gay. It’s better than sex.”

Toibin also wanted to see "nuns making sermons" and "clerical celibacy" to be abolished, and allowing women into the priesthood. In conclusion Dowd let Toibin linger on the supposedly gay imagery surrounding the pope.

“I remember being at the Vatican at Easter 1994,” he recalled, “and watching all the cardinals and bishops, wonderfully powerful old men with great chins, sitting nobly with a long row of extraordinarily beautiful young seminarians standing behind, shading them with different colored sun umbrellas, some of which were pink.

“It was remarkable that none of them seemed to know what it looked like, and I watched it thinking, somebody must tell them.”