VATICAN CITY — Like St. Benedict of Nursia before him, Pope Benedict XVI has sought peace and seclusion away from Rome, heading for a picturesque mountain region of Italy on July 11, the exact date of the feast of St. Benedict.
But the Pope is unlikely to spend much of his vacation time relaxing amid the beautiful scenery of Val d'Aosta in northwest Italy. This is not only because of a large workload ahead of important events and decisions in the fall that will require his attention, but also because the Holy Father likes to work and keep busy, even on vacation.
Bishop Joseph Clemens, who for more than a decade was Pope Benedict's private secretary, recently told the Register that the Holy Father is “constantly at work” and that little is done extemporaneously.
“He prepares himself for every homily,” said the German-born bishop. “He doesn't do anything without preparation — that's a good characteristic which I've learned from him. He never improvises.”
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who visited the Pope shortly before he left for vacation, told reporters that the Holy Father would be spending his vacations in “deep reflection.” The Irish premier was not able to expand on the content of that reflection, but added he was “struck that it was all work.”
In his memoir Milestones, then-professor Joseph Ratzinger would occasionally mention vacations, but usually they would be referred to in the context of study or preparation. However, as cardinal and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he would regularly take off the month of August, the time of year when the Vatican, as well as much of sweltering Rome, traditionally closes down and its inhabitants flock to cooler climes.
During that period, or ferragosto as the Romans call it, he would usually travel, sometimes with his brother, Father George Ratzinger, to the Bressanone seminary in Val Pusteria in the German-speaking Alto Adige region of northeast Italy. Benedict would have liked to return there this year, to a region where his maternal ancestors once lived, but he was advised against it for reasons of security.
So now he is enjoying the same mountain resort so often frequented and much loved by John Paul II. The choice was perhaps unsurprising. A Bavarian by birth, the Holy Father has, like John Paul II, long had a deep love for the mountains.
He fondly remembers growing up in an idyllic setting of Traunstein, a small town near the Austrian border. Despite lacking basic amenities such as running water, his family's house was surrounded by the Alps and lush vegetation amid scenery seemingly reminiscent of The Sound of Music.
“When we opened our eyes in the morning, the first thing we could see was the mountains,” Benedict told interviewer Peter Seewald in 1996. “In the front we had apple trees, plum trees, and a lot of flowers that my mother had cultivated in the garden. It was a beautiful, large plot of ground — in terms of location it was heavenly.”
Italian media say it is likely he will take two or three hiking trips a week into the mountains. Also like John Paul, Benedict will continue to give his Sunday Angelus address from his vacation residence.
In between these pastoral duties and recreations, the Holy Father will spend most of his time preparing for the most important decisions of his young pontificate. These include possible reforms of the Roman Curia, preparations for a consistory (a formal meeting of the College of Cardinals), and a raft of ecclesiastical appointments, all of which are expected to take place in the fall.
He will also be preparing for World Youth Day in Cologne Aug. 11-21, his first international trip as Pope. The Holy Father will then return to Rome July 28, proceeding directly to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the Albano hills outside Rome. There he will resume his general and private audiences as well as other duties.
But for now, the Pope will be staying in a region that gave John Paul so much pleasure, and savoring surroundings that were the birthplace and inspiration of another great theologian of the Church: St. Anselm of Canterbury.
As Benedict — and John Paul — liked to remind Catholics, nothing happens by chance.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.