LES COMBES, Italy — Pope Benedict XVI showed last year that he knows how to keep busy on vacation, and he’s demonstrating that ability again this year.

During last year’s vacation here in the Italian Alps, he reportedly wrote some of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).

This year, among other things, he found time to work on a book, to visit the famed St. Bernard’s kennel at an Augustinian monastery in Switzerland, to lead a prayer vigil for Mideast peace (see article below) and to attend a retirement party for longtime papal spokesman Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls at the Salesian-owned chalet in Les Combes where the Pope vacationed from July 11-28.

Being pope means Benedict, a theologian and scholar, can teach millions more people than ever before, but it has put a crimp in his publishing schedule.

For the second year in a row, rumors were floating around that the Pope was using his July vacation in the northern Italian Alps to work on a book he has been writing, on and off, for three or four years.

As he returned to Les Combes July 21 after a walk in Gran Paradiso National Park, journalists asked the Holy Father about the rumors.

“Yes, I am trying to write a book,” he said, smiling.

“But it is better not to talk about it. One needs to be cautious when attempting something, because it is possible it will never come to completion,” he said.

Benedict would not explain the subject matter, but the 2006 rumor was that he is trying to complete a major work on Christology, discussing various aspects of Catholic faith in Jesus Christ.

Earlier in his Alpine vacation, the Pope made a brief visit to Switzerland, walking across the Italian border to visit the famed Saint Bernard kennel of an Augustinian monastery.

News of the Holy Father’s July 18 excursion came from Benedict himself.

Returning to Les Combes, the Pope told reporters he had gone first to a convent of Benedictine nuns at Saint-Oyen, Italy.

“We had a lovely meeting with the Benedictine sisters and we prayed together,” the Holy Father said. “Then we went to the Great St. Bernard Pass where we prayed vespers with the monks and with the people before having a nice encounter in the refectory.”

Meeting Benedict shortly after 8 p.m., the reporters asked if he had a chance to visit the kennels where, for more than three centuries, the Augustinians raised Saint Bernard dogs and trained them to assist in mountain rescues.

Smiling, the Pope said yes, adding that the dogs “were very good, very brave.”

The Holy Father’s return to Italy, where his car was waiting, consisted of “a beautiful walk,” he said.

Members of the papal entourage told reporters that about 200 tourists were at the Augustinian monastery and were shocked when they saw the Pope come out. He stopped to shake hands and to bless children.

The Augustinians had announced in 2004 that they could no longer afford to raise Saint Bernards and were planning to auction off the animals. After a public uproar, particularly because the dogs are an important symbol for local tourism, a Swiss association assumed financial responsibility for the kennel.

On July 27, Benedict attended a simple farewell party in honor of Navarro-Valls, director of the Vatican press office for the last 22 years.

Persons accompanying Benedict on his vacation attended the party, including those in charge of his security.

The Pope arrived around 7:30 p.m., reported Salvatore Mazza, special correspondent of the Italian newspaper Avvenire, to bid farewell to Navarro-Valls, to whom he addressed words of esteem and affection.

The Holy Father took advantage of the occasion to thank his “guardian angels” for their work to ensure a peaceful vacation for him.

Peaceful it may have been, but it certainly wasn’t idle!

(CNS and Zenit

contributed to this story.)