00 8/5/2009 6:46 PM

What a wonderful article this is!

Mens sana in corpora Benedetto:
On the extraordinary memory
and physical agility of the Pope

by Luigi Accattoli
Translated from

August 5, 2009

"The Pope told me he watched all my races," swimming champion Federica Pellegrini said radiantly on Saturday after meeting Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo.

"They will miss seeing the first half of the game," the same Pope said once, about a crowd that had gathered to hear him at the same time as a crucial Italy-Netherlands football game last year.

Those who talk to the Pope find him surprisingly aware and up to date on what's happening even in unexpected areas like sports.

My most vivid experience of the prompt awareness of the man Ratzinger had to do with that Italy-Netherlands game on June 9, 2008, which, alas, we lost 3-0.

That was the evening that the annual diocesan congress of Rome opened in the Basilica of St. John Lateran which always begins with an address by the Bishop of Rome.

I had been requested by Cardinal Ruini - who was to step down as the Pope's Vicar for Rome at the end of that month - to address the convention that evening about "a newsman's testimony to hope".

So I was in the Basilica among the guests seated in the front row, with our names on place cards in the chairs, feeling - as newsmen often do on such occasions - a bit out of place.

As he left the Basilica after his opening address, the Pope surprisingly approached me and thanked me for 'having agreed' to speak at the convention. I do not even remember what I answered him, probably simply 'Thank you' as did Federica who said she was so overcome with the Pope's comment to her that "All I could do was say Thank you".

I was in the same position, especially since I did not think the Pope even knew who the other speakers at the convention were.

But what was more interesting was not the Pope's unexpected attention to me, but what Cardinal Ruini said later, when I told him of my amazement that the Pope had greeted me.

"You wouldn't be amazed," he answered, "if you had heard what he said as soon as he got out of the car earlier tonight."

"Do we have an audience?" the Pope had asked, and when the cardinal replied that the Basilica was full, the Pope remarked: "But isn't tonight Italy's first game for the European (soccer) cup?"

The cardinal assured him that "nonetheless, our participants are here". The Pope looked at his watch and commented, "They're going to miss the first half, at least!"

As a Vatican correspondent, I always followed the live broadcasts of papal events if I was not personally present. On Sunday, December 13, 2005, at the beatification of Charles de Foucauld, I saw that upon entering St. Peter's, the Pope stopped to talk to Mons. Lorenzo Chiarinell, Bishop of Viterbo, who had played a role in advocating the French missionary's cause.

I called the bishop afterwards to ask him what they talked about, and he said: "He commented on the article I had written for L'Osservatore Romano that day, which he said he read just before he came down to the Basilica."

Another time, I saw that when he entered Aula Nervi (Aula Paolo VI), he stopped halfway down the central aisle to speak to Mons. Vincenco Paglia, Bishop of Terni. In fact, he sat down next to him, while the assembly was singing warm-up songs, for the conversation.

Mons. Paglia later told me that the Pope had said "he saw on TV what was happening about the steel industry in our region" and he had wanted to know "if there was any progress in negotiations to save jobs".

This was exactly like it was with Pellegrini, who was in all of our newscasts the previous week for her gold medals and setting new records in the World Swimming Championships, who was so moved by the fact that he had told her he saw all her races on TV.

But it is not just what he sees on TV that he remembers. Even little-noted things that get published in the papers.

A colleague of mine retired after 33 years reporting on the Vatican for the newspapers and had an occasion to meet the Pope at a public event soon after. When the Pope saw him six months later in Aula Nervi, the Pope remarked: "You have officially retired but I see we can still read your articles!"

Another indication of this remarkable memory of events connected to individuals was narrated to me by Mons. Giuseppe Anfossi, Bishop of Aosta in 2006.

He said that the first time Benedict XVI came to Les Combes for his summer holiday in 2005, the bishop asked him for a blessing for his ailing mother. During their conversation in the car driving from the airport to Les Combes, he also told him that the diocese was undertaking its nocturnal pilgrimage that night to the shrine of the Black Modanna of Oropa from Fontainemore, and that as bishop, he was going to 'walk all night' with the pilgrims.

When the Pope came back to Les Combes in 1976, as soon as he got into the car with Anfossi, he asked "And how is your mother?", and later, "How did your night pilgrimage turn out?"

In the morning liturgy of Good Friday, the principal celebrant is called on to prostrate himself before the Cross and pray. No one can help being impressed by the agility and quickness with which the Pope has been able to do this, without the help of anyone, for a man who is now 82.

The very same agility characterizes his mind.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 8/5/2009 6:46 PM]