Veteran reporter Giovanna Chirri was starting to doze off in the Vatican press room on a slow holiday when all of a sudden the Latin she learned in high school made her perk up — and gave her the scoop of a lifetime.
It was Feb. 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, rather than stand up and leave the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace, Benedict remained seated, took out a single sheet of paper and began to read.
“I have convoked 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 said quietly in his German-clipped Latin.
Chirri followed along but only began to realize the import of what was unfolding when she heard Benedict then 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 turn 75.
Knowing both Latin and Vatican regulations well, Chirri slowly began to realize that Benedict had just announced he too would be retiring, 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 Chirri, the Vatican correspondent for the authoritative ANSA news agency, was about to report the news to the world.
“Hearing this ‘ingravescente aetate’ I started to feel sick physically, a really, really violent reaction,” Chirri recalled years later.
Her head felt like it was a balloon inflating. Her left leg began to shake so uncontrollably that she had to hold it down with one hand as she started making phone calls to her Vatican sources to check that she had heard Benedict correctly.
After finally receiving confirmation from the Vatican spokesman, Chirri sent the flash headline on ANSA at 11:46 a.m.
“The pope is leaving the pontificate beginning 2/28,” it read.
Benedict died Saturday, almost a decade after that momentous day.
Years later, Chirri still searches for the right words to express the emotional, physical, professional and intellectual combustion that that headline, and all it implied, caused her.
“I was terrified by news that was unthinkable to me,” she said.
Aside from the fact that she truly liked Benedict as a pope, Chirri couldn’t comprehend that the conservative German theologian who spent his life upholding church rules and doctrine 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 rejected repeatedly by popes over the centuries.
Chirri won accolades for having had both the intellectual capacity to understand what had transpired, and the steely nerves to report it first and accurately among mainstream news organizations — no small feat considering the near-official authority that an ANSA headline carries in reporting Vatican news.
It was a holiday in the Vatican that day — the anniversary of the Lateran Accords between Italy and the Vatican — and only a handful of other reporters were even in the press room to hear the in-house 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 never would have understood a thing,” Chirri 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 had for breakfast that morning,” she added.
Only later, would it emerge that Benedict had been planning to retire for months. A nighttime fall during a 2012 trip to Mexico confirmed to him that he no longer had the strength for the globe-trotting rigors of the 21st century papacy.
Benedict knew well what was required to make the announcement legitimate: Though only a handful of popes had done it before, canon law allows for 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 it rendered the announcement null and that Benedict was still pope.
But Benedict fulfilled both requirements under the law: He stated that he had come to 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 is concerned, it’s impeccable,” Chirri said.
And for anyone paying attention, Benedict had hinted about 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 stepped down 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.
No one thought much of it at the time. But in retrospect, a pope leaving behind a potent symbol of the papacy on the tomb of a pope who had resigned carried a message.
One year later, in a 2010 book-length interview, Benedict said point-blank that popes not only could but should resign under certain circumstances, though he stressed that retirement was not an option to escape a particular burden.
“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 a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign,” Benedict said in “Light of the World.”
He essentially laid out that same rationale to his cardinals on that chilly February morning.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine (St. Peter) ministry,” he said.
He said that in modern world, “strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Closing out his remarks, Benedict thanked the cardinals for their love and service and begged their forgiveness for his defects.
And in a promise he kept to the very end, he vowed to continue serving the church “through a life dedicated to prayer.”