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Remembering the renunciation day: Benedict’s historic retirement 10 years on

Benedykt XVI podczas spotkania wspólnoty z Taize w Rzymie w grudniu 2012 roku

Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

I.Media - published on 02/12/23

"I transmitted the news, and then I started to cry ..."

February 11, 2013, was supposed to be an ordinary day at the Vatican. But this date will be remembered as the one chosen by Benedict XVI to announce his decision to renounce the Throne of Peter. Ten years later, I.Media looks back at that historic morning.

In the press room of the Holy See, at the foot of St. Peter’s Square, only a handful of journalists were present on this February 11, 2013, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Pope Benedict XVI chose this double Vatican holiday – which commemorates the Lateran Accords signed in 1929 – to convene a consistory dedicated to setting the date of future canonizations, following a well-worn ritual.

“I went to the press room with the prospect of spending only two hours there,” recalls Charles de Pechpeyrou, today a journalist for L’Osservatore Romano who worked at the time for the I.Media agency. In this room where journalists from all over the world usually meet, only five were present that morning – one Italian, two French, one Mexican, and one Japanese.

On the Vatican’s internal television circuit which these journalists access, the consistory ceremony is taking place. It is not broadcast outside. The only big issue on this quiet morning is the official canonization of the Martyrs of Otranto. And even then, the news had been announced a few days earlier and the media interest was therefore low.

But around 10:40 a.m., things were about to change. Archbishop Guido Marini, the Pontiff’s ceremonial secretary, had just handed a sheet of paper to Pope Benedict XVI. “In Latin, and in a serious manner, he began to read this text,” says Charles de Pechpeyrou.

“I listened and took notes. On my paper, there were key words that added up… He spoke, for example, of ‘incapacity to govern’… In my brain, everything was jostling. I said to myself: ‘Is he really telling us that he is leaving?'”

Immediately, the young journalist called Antoine-Marie Izoard, the director of I.Media at the time. “He told me: ‘I think the Pope has resigned,'” says the man who now heads the editorial staff of Famille Chrétienne. After receiving confirmation from the Holy See’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, he sent the brief ‘Urgent’ message at 10:46 a.m.: “Benedict XVI has presented his resignation.”

“I was trembling with emotion as I wrote those words, which were absolutely unprecedented,” said the Vatican expert.

“I had a strange perception of time, I was in a state of total panic,” said Charles de Pechpeyrou. In the press room of the Holy See, Giovanna Chirri, the Italian journalist of the ANSA agency, also understood what was happening, sending her alert at 10:46 am. “I transmitted the news, and then I started to cry,” she said later.

The Pope serene and the cardinals stunned

In the Consistory Hall, the cardinals gathered around Benedict XVI were equally stunned by the news. “A thunderclap in a serene sky.” This is how the dean of the College, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, reacted on behalf of his brother cardinals, expressing his disbelief and amazement to the German pontiff.

“Everything is true, I am not in a dream. But, humanly speaking, it is still difficult to believe in what is happening,” wrote on February 11, 2013, the second secretary of Benedict XVI, Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, in his diary published 10 years later in Italy under the title “I miei giorni con Benedetto XVI” published by San Paolo.

In his diary, the Maltese Archbishop, currently Apostolic Nuncio to Korea and Mongolia, does not hide his emotion after listening to Benedict XVI’s speech, of which he had naturally been informed beforehand, as he was part of the Pope’s most inner circle of collaborators: “There, the communication came. I burst into tears.” He notes that some cardinals, “not very comfortable with Latin,” did not immediately understand the words of the German pontiff and were “forced to ask their confreres for information.”

Bishop Xuereb recalls that it was “impossible to find the words” after such an announcement. “During lunch, still visibly moved and not quite knowing what to say, I throw in an observation: ‘Holy Father, but you appeared very quiet when you pronounced your act of renunciation…'” “Yes,” Benedict replies, determined. Not a word more. I understand that this is not the time to add any more observations,” said the Maltese prelate.

The atmosphere around the reigning pope remains calm and hushed for a few more days, but the news has already spread around the world like wildfire. In the late morning of February 11, the press room of the Holy See was packed for an impromptu speech by Father Federico Lombardi. The room remained full until the conclave where Pope Francis was chosen – March 12 and 13 – when nearly 6,000 journalists were present in Rome.

“Until February 28, the effective date of his resignation, we lived through a totally unprecedented and moving period, with these audiences where the world came to say goodbye to this pope,” explains Antoine-Marie Izoard, who remembers thinking: “Benedict was attached to tradition … to the point of inventing a new one!”

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Pope Benedict XVI
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