February 28th, 2013
09:31 PM ET
By Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, CNN
(CNN) – Andreas Widmer knew two men - one who was pope and one who would succeed him - who despite their immense responsibilities were keen to the spiritual needs of the people around them. The sort of people others might hardly notice.
Widmer was one of those the clerics noticed.
He saw the inner workings of the Vatican as a member of the Swiss Guard when John Paul II was head of the Roman Catholic Church. The experience left him with an appreciation for what a pope sacrifices.
"Nobody wants to be pope," he said. To become pope is "to give up all privacy," Widmer said. "You're basically locked in; you have to go where you have to go. You lose your friends, you lose your family - you're a prisoner.
"Not one cardinal wants to be pope."
When the cardinals assemble their conclave to elect a new pope, he said, "they walk into the Sistine Chapel like this," he said, demonstrating averted eyes. "Don't make eye contact."
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, had been looking forward to retirement, Widmer noted.
"He wanted to go back and write books" and be left alone, Widmer said of Ratzinger, 78 when he was elevated to become "pastor of the Church universal," shepherd to a flock of 1.2 billion people.
Widmer became a member of the Swiss Guard when he was 20 years old. The bodyguards are best known for their proximity to the pope, as well as their colorful uniforms. But Widmer says it is a competitive position, for which candidates have to meet stringent requirements - physical, mental and psychological.
Still, "I went there for all the wrong reasons," he said.
"I thought ... the coolest thing you could do is be a bodyguard." Widmer was a guard from 1986 to 1988.
He said his faith deepened from talking to John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger.
The first time Widmer spent Christmas Eve on duty, away from home for the holiday, he said Pope John Paul II saw that his eyes were red.
"Right at that moment, he comes out of his apartment. And he noticed, and he reached out to me, and he thanked me for being there, and he gave me courage."
Widmer said John Paul II had a rare gift for personally connecting with people.
"When he was with you, nothing else mattered. You felt like he got up in the morning to meet you. That's the presence that this man had when he was with you.
Today, Widmer is director of entrepreneurship programs at the Catholic University of America and president of the Carpenter's Fund, which provides loans for building infrastructure in developing countries. He describes his experiences with the popes in his book "The Pope & The CEO."
He agrees with many observers who say that John Paul II was at his best with the public, while Benedict was at his best with concepts and matters of doctrine.
But he says that Benedict also was personally warm, not withdrawn or reserved.
"He was very accessible," Widmer said of Benedict. "Often he would wait to go see John Paul, and he would be outside, and I could talk to him. Completely open, like I can to you."
And when Benedict - back when he was still a cardinal - spotted Widmer reading a book he wrote, he was sympathetic about what heavy reading it was. "'Read it in small bits,'" he said the pope told him. "'It goes down easier.'"
Widmer admires Benedict XVI for leaving on his own terms, and for making way for a younger pope, who can travel abroad and give the Catholic Church new appeal.
But he disputes the notion that Benedict was becoming isolated at the Vatican.
"It couldn't be further from the truth," he said. "That man knows exactly what is going on. He's very connected."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.