“I gave the news, then I started crying."
Giovanna Chirri, who covers the Vatican for Italy’s ANSA news agency and is the editor of a lay people’s newspaper, immediately understood what was happening. When Pope Benedict XVI started whispering his farewell speech in Latin, “my brain short-circuited: I thought it was absurd," Chirri said. "I knew, just like everybody else, what he’d written in his book. But I was convinced he would never quit.”
A journalist who has covered Vatican affairs since 1994, Chirri was able to break the news under pressure. “As a person, I was really, really sorry. I admire Ratzinger. I respect him," she said. "I knew the importance of the news: I tried to contact the agency, to get the information verified, even though I didn’t doubt my Latin, then they took care of breaking the news. That's how I communicated the information.”
The Vatican is a tough beat to cover. Journalists monitor the pulse there and keep tabs on different moods within the Church. They chronicle a world that affects millions of the faithful, for whom two individual news items are more important than all the rest: the nomination of a new pope and the farewell of a current one.
The most important breaking news in the world may have ended in tears, but it started like the beginning of a joke, with an Italian, a Mexican, two Frenchmen and a Japanese.
French Vatican reporter Charles De Pechpeyrou, who works for the news agency i.media, gave HuffPost his account of Pope Benedict's announcement. It took place on a quiet Monday morning, when the only event scheduled on the calendar was a regular public consistory organized to canonize several blessed individuals.
“It’s important, but it’s not one of those events that you underline over and over again in your agenda; If you’re covering it, you’re doing so just as a precautionary measure, to report what happened,” explained Pechpeyrou, who was in the Vatican press room Monday together with another French colleague, Chirri, Andreas Beltramos (of Notimex) and a Japanese reporter who covers the Vatican.
Reporters typically follow the consistory on TV screens set up to broadcast internal images from the Vatican. "nly certain events are broadcasted," Pechpeyrou said. "In this case there was live video.”
Pechpeyrou noted that for some time now Vatican reporters have gossiped with one another about the words -- cited once again Monday by Father Lombardi -- published in Pope Benedict XVI's book "Light of the World," regarding his eventual resignation. In the book, Benedict explained that one cannot quit during a moment of crisis, but only in a moment of serenity, or simply when “you just can’t take it anymore.”
Chirri confirmed that account. "I read it too, but I couldn’t believe he would actually quit," she said. "We never would have thought it would happen today. At the end of the consistory, we saw Monseigneur Marini pass the pope a piece of paper. Benedict XVI began reading in Latin and ... "
At that point, as part of the normal competition between journalists, the race was on: Who would report the news of the pope’s resignation first? Who was courageous enough to break the news? These questions may not be worth much outside the media circuit, but they become big news inside that world.
"Brava Giovanna," wrote various Italian journalists via Twitter. Chirri was the first journalist in the world to report the Pope’s resignation. An “unfashionable” Vatican reporter, as she calls herself, Chirri didn’t waste any time.
At 11:46 in the morning, her report hit the airwaves:
Translation: the pope is leaving the papacy.
Hats off to the Italian journalist. "Giovanna was further ahead of me, I’m not sure, I think she gave the news first," Pechpeyrou said. "Besides, we double check a lot before announcing news like this, and I had it checked in France as well.”
The difficult part was “understanding the Latin," he said. "At a certain point, for example, I caught the word 'incapability' in the pope's speech. I turned around and spoke with my Mexican colleague. We noticed that Pope Benedict had a sad look on his face, not his usual look. Something wasn't right. Then, when cardinal Sodano mentioned the 'sadness,' we finally understood. Then Father Lombardi confirmed his resignation over the phone."
That’s how the most important news flash of the year hit the airwaves. Chirri and Italy’s ANSA news agency, as well as all of Italy’s news sources, received compliments from foreign press companies, including The New York Times.
This piece has been translated from the Italian and originally appeared on HuffPost Italy.