Vatican journalist Giovanna Chirri remembers her shock at Benedict XVI's resignation last year, and how she broke the news before he finished his announcement because she could understand Latin.
“He said it in Latin and I was panicking. I was short of breath, my legs were trembling. I was sitting and my legs trembled like this…it was a very violent reaction. It was a reaction to shock,” Chirri told CNA in a Feb. 10 interview.
Chirri is a journalist for Italian news agency Ansa and was sitting in the Holy See press office listening to a consistory meeting between the former Pope and the cardinals on her computer. Her sole aim was to publish the canonization date of martyrs that are highly venerated in Puglia, a region of Southern Italy.
“It was a calm day with hardly anyone around because there was an event of little importance taking place without much media attention,” she explained, noting that the only reason she was present was because of the strong devotion to the martyrs of Puglia.
“So I was listening with just one ear. But what helped me was that when the consistory was over, the Pope was supposed to leave but he stayed seated and continued to talk in Latin.”
Chirri noted that at that moment “I must have thought 'what is going on? Why isn’t he leaving?' and I became more alert,” observing that “he spoke in Latin and I was lucky with that, too,” because she could understand the language perfectly.
“The first two things he said shocked me because he told the cardinals that he had gathered them for the consistory, but that he had something important to tell them for the Church,” she said.
“And the second important thing he said was that he was getting old,” Chirri noted, recalling how the now-retired pontiff used the words “ingravescente aetate” to describe his aging.
It was “at that moment that I began to understand what was happening,” she reflected, “because I have a document of Paul VI called 'ingravescentem aetatem' in which he” declared that cardinals were no longer able “to elect a pope at the age of 80 during a conclave.”
“So I knew these were the words of a retirement. It was then when he said these two words I began to have a reaction that is difficult to explain with reason,” Chirri continued, adding that “I began to understand first more with my stomach than with my head.”
Upon hearing Benedict speak of how he was not able to continue the task entrusted to him, and of having the “honor of organizing a conclave for his successor,” the journalist observed that “he said all these things which I heard but didn’t hear. I heard but I did not understand.”
However, she noted that once she heard the word “conclave,” she began “to reason,” and thought that “we need to do something.”
Explaining how she frantically began calling other journalists around and within the Vatican, because “I needed outside help with news like these. I couldn’t deal with it alone,” Chirri explained that at first she was not able to reach anyone.
At that moment, Chirri stated that she had “a tiny bit of luck,” because although no one was answering their phone, Cardinal Sodano, dean of the Collage of Cardinals, stood up on the monitor and spoke in Italian, saying “‘Holiness, this news catches us like a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky.’”
“It was unequivocal,” after that, she said, “and so I told myself ‘what do you mean you did not understand? I understood very well.’ The Pope has resigned. So I began to write the news.”
She then detailed she consulted with her editors, who “trusted” her and “decided to run the story,” explaining that afterward Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi then returned her previous phone call, “so we did this story which then spread throughout the world.”
Afterwards, Chirri recalled that Fr. Lombardi sent out a text message announcing a press briefing in the Holy See press office, and soon “a lot of colleagues started to arrive and this area that was a desert was getting full.”
“So I sat down in that room – I think I was in shock – and a colleague of the Vatican Radio approached me with a microphone and told me ‘Giovanna, you were the first one to give the news of his resigning. We want a firsthand evaluation of Benedict XVI.’”
“So I did it, she said ‘thanks’ and she left,” Chirri explained, observing that it was only after that moment that she realized she “had been the first person in the world to break these news.”
“As a journalist of an agency, one cannot explain what it means to have broken this news.”
Estefania Aguirre contributed to this report.