VATICAN CITY (AP) — Veteran reporter Giovanna Chirri was starting to sleep in the Vatican press room on a slow vacation when the Latin she learned in high school suddenly got her excited — 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 presiding over a pro-forma meeting of cardinals to set dates for three upcoming canonizations.
But at the end of the ceremony, instead of getting up and leaving the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace, Benedict remained seated, took out a single sheet of paper and began to read.
“I have called you to this treaty, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church,” Benedict said quietly in his Latin, cut into German.
Chirri followed, but began to realize the significance of what was unfolding when she heard Benedict then say the words “inravescente aetate.” The term is Latin for “advanced age” and is the title of a 1970 Vatican regulation requiring bishops to retire when they turn 75.
Well versed in both Latin and Vatican regulations, Ciri slowly began to realize that Benedict had just announced that he, too, would retire at the end of the month because he believed he was getting too old for the job.
It was the first papal resignation in 600 years, and Ciri, the Vatican correspondent for the authoritative news agency ANSA, was to break the news to the world.
“Hearing that ‘inravescente aetate’ I started to feel physically sick, a really, really violent reaction,” Chirri recalled years later.
Her head felt like an inflating balloon. Her left leg began to shake so uncontrollably that she had to hold it with one hand as she began calling her Vatican sources to check that she had heard Benedict correctly.
After finally receiving confirmation from the Vatican spokesman, Ciri sent the flash headline to ANSA at 11:46 am.
“The Pope leaves the pontificate on 2/28,” it read.
Benedict died on Saturday, almost a decade after that momentous day.
Years later, Chirri is still searching for the right words to express the emotional, physical, professional and spiritual burnout that title caused her, and all that it implied.
“I was horrified by news that was unimaginable to me,” he said.
Besides the fact that she really liked Benedict as Pope, Chirri couldn’t fathom that the conservative German theologian who spent his life upholding church rules and dogma would take the revolutionary step of resigning.
“Now eight years have passed and we’re used to it,” she said in an interview in 2021. “But eight years ago, the idea that the pope might resign was beyond reality. It was a theoretical hypothesis” that was technically possible, but had been repeatedly rejected by popes over the centuries.
Chirri won plaudits for having both the brains to understand what had happened and the nerves of steel to report it first and accurately among mainstream news organizations – no small feat given the quasi-official authority an ANSA headline has in the Vatican news report.
It was a Vatican holiday that day—the anniversary of the Lateran Accords between Italy and the Vatican—and only a few other reporters were even in the press room to listen to the internal broadcast of the ceremony.
But Ciri was there, the right man in the right place at the right time.
“Certainly, if I wasn’t an Italian studying Latin in the 1970s in Italy, I would never have understood anything,” Ciri said of Italy’s classics-heavy public high school curriculum.
“Also, because the Pope was reading so calmly, it was like he was telling us what he had for breakfast that morning,” he added.
Only later would it emerge that Benedict had been planning to retire for months. A nightfall during a trip to Mexico in 2012 confirmed to him that he no longer had the strength for the global rigors of the 21st century papacy.
Benedict was well aware of what was required to make the announcement legal: Although only a few popes had done so before, canon law permits papal resignation as long as it is “freely made and properly manifested.”
Some traditionalists and conspiracy theorists would later take issue with the grammatical formula used by Benedict, arguing that it invalidated the announcement and that Benedict was still Pope.
But Benedict fulfilled both requirements under the law: He declared that he had made the decision freely, made it public in a Vatican ceremony using the official language of the Holy See, and repeated it for years to come to remove any doubt.
“As far as canon law goes, it’s flawless,” Chirri said.
And for anyone paying attention, Benedict had been hinting at his intentions for years.
In 2009, during a visit to the earthquake-ravaged town 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 at Celestine’s tomb a palliomirinus — the simple white woolen clapper that is a symbol of the papacy.
No one thought much of it at the time. But in retrospect, a pope who left behind a powerful symbol of the papacy at the tomb of an abdicated pope carried a message.
A year later, in a 2010 interview, Benedict said in no uncertain terms that popes not only could but should resign under certain circumstances, though he stressed that retirement was not an option to escape a particular weight.
“If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has the right, and under certain circumstances, also the obligation to resign,” Benedict told “Light of the World.”
He made essentially the same reasoning to his cardinals that cold February morning.
“After repeatedly examining my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my powers, due to advanced age, are no longer suitable for an adequate exercise of the Petrine (St. Peter) ministry,” he said.
He said that in the modern world, “strength of mind and body is essential, a strength which in recent months has deteriorated in me to such an extent that I have had to acknowledge my inability to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Concluding his remarks, Benedict thanked the cardinals for their love and service and begged them to forgive his faults.
And in a promise he kept to the end, he vowed to continue serving the church “through a life devoted to prayer.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at https://apnews.com/hub/pope-benedict-xvi