VATICAN CITY (AP) — Veteran journalist Giovanna Chirri was beginning to doze off in the Vatican press room during a slow vacation when suddenly the Latin she learned in high school revived her — and gave her the scoop of a lifetime.
It was February 11, 2013, and Chirri was watching closed-circuit television coverage of Pope Benedict XVI. chairing a pro forma meeting of cardinals to set dates for three upcoming canonizations.
But at the end of the ceremony, rather than getting up and leaving the hall of the Consistory of the Apostolic Palace, Benedict remained seated, took out a single sheet of paper and began to read.
“I have summoned you to this consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church,” Benedict says quietly in his cut-off German Latin.
Chirri followed but only began to realize the significance of what was unfolding when she heard Benoît utter the words “ingravescente aetate”. The term is Latin for “advanced age” and is the title of a 1970 Vatican regulation requiring bishops to retire when they reach 75.
Familiar with Latin and Vatican regulations, Chirri slowly began to realize that Benedict had just announced that he would also be retiring, at the end of the month, as he believed he was getting too old for the job.
It was the first papal resignation in 600 years, and Chirri, the Vatican correspondent for the authoritative news agency ANSA, was set to report the news to the world.
“Hearing this ‘ingravescente aetate’, I started to feel bad physically, a really, really violent reaction,” Chirri recalled years later.
His head felt like an inflating balloon. Her left leg began to shake so uncontrollably that she had to hold it down with one hand as she began phoning her sources in the Vatican to verify that she had heard Benedict correctly.
After finally receiving confirmation from the Vatican spokesperson, Chirri sent the flash headline to ANSA at 11:46 a.m.
“The pope leaves the pontificate from February 28,” it read.
Benoît died on Saturday, nearly a decade after that momentous day.
Years later, Chirri is still searching for the right words to express the emotional, physical, professional and intellectual burn that this title, and all that it entails, caused him.
“I was terrified by news that was unthinkable to me,” she said.
Aside from the fact that she really loved Benedict as pope, Chirri couldn’t fathom that the conservative German theologian who spent his life defending Church rules and doctrine would make the groundbreaking decision to step down.
“Now eight years have passed and we are used to it,” she said in a 2021 interview. “But eight years ago the idea that the pope might resign was beyond (the It was a theoretical hypothesis” that was technically possible but had been repeatedly rejected by popes over the centuries.
Chirri was rewarded for having both the intellectual capacity to understand what had happened and the nerves of steel to report it first and accurately among mainstream news outlets – which is not a small feat considering the quasi-official authority an ANSA headline carries in Vatican news reporting.
It was a Vatican holiday that day – the anniversary of the Lateran Pacts between Italy and the Vatican – and only a handful of other journalists were even in the press room to hear the internal broadcast of the ceremony.
But Chirri was there, the right person in the right place at the right time.
“Certainly, if I hadn’t been an Italian who studied Latin in the 1970s in Italy, I would never have understood anything,” Chirri said of Italy’s busy public high school curriculum. in classics.
“Also, because the pope was reading so calmly, it was like he was telling us what he had for breakfast that morning,” she added.
Only later will it become apparent that Benoît had been contemplating retirement for months. A nocturnal fall during a trip to Mexico in 2012 confirmed to him that he no longer had the strength to face the globetrotting rigors of the 21st century papacy.
Benedict knew well what was needed to make the announcement legitimate: Although only a handful of popes have done so before, canon law permits a papal resignation as long as it is “freely made and properly manifested.”
Some traditionalists and conspiracy theorists would later quibble with the grammatical formula Benedict used, claiming that it rendered the ad void and that Benedict was still pope.
But Benedict fulfilled both requirements of the law: he said he made the decision freely, made it public at a Vatican ceremony using the official language of the Holy See, and repeated it for years to remove any doubt.
“As far as canon law is concerned, it’s impeccable,” Chirri said.
And to anyone paying attention, Benedict had hinted at his intentions for years.
In 2009, during a visit to the earthquake-ravaged city of L’Aquila, Benedict prayed at the tomb of Pope Celestine V, the hermit pope who resigned in 1294 after just five months in office. Benedict left on Celestine’s tomb a pallium – the simple white woolen stole that is a symbol of the papacy.
Nobody thought much about it at the time. But in retrospect, a pope leaving behind a powerful symbol of the papacy at the tomb of a pope who had resigned carried a message.
A year later, in a 2010 interview, Benedict XVI bluntly stated that popes not only could but should resign under certain circumstances, although he stressed that retirement was not an option to escape a burden. particular.
“If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of performing the functions of his office, then he has the right, and in certain circumstances also the obligation, to resign,” he said. said Benedict XVI in “Light of the World.”
He laid out essentially the same reasoning to his cardinals on that cold February morning.
“After having examined my conscience several times before God, I have come to the certainty that my strength, due to an advanced age, is no longer adapted to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry (Saint Peter)”, he said. he declares.
He said that in the modern world “strength of mind and body is needed, strength which in recent months has deteriorated in me to such an extent that I have had to recognize my inability to perform the ministry adequately. entrusted to me”.
Closing his remarks, Benedict thanked the cardinals for their love and service and asked forgiveness for his shortcomings.
And in a promise he kept to the end, he vowed to continue serving the church “through a life of prayer”.
Follow AP’s coverage of the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at https://apnews.com/hub/pope-benedict-xvi