Papal Vacations Feature Mountains, Prayer and Reading

VATICAN CITY — From earliest childhood in his native Poland, Pope John Paul II has had a love of physical activity, particularly any sport or excursion that brought him in contact with mountains.

And when he became Pope, he had every intention of continuing to enjoy mountain sports, or at least the proximity of mountains.

Indeed, as Pope he continued to ski in the mountains close to Rome and to leave the apostolic palace for the occasional mountain hike — usually on a Tuesday, the day he traditionally prepares the weekly general audience and receives few, if any, visitors.

In the summer of 1987 the Holy Father broke with tradition — or, as some say, established a new tradition — and departed for the Dolomites in northern Italy on what was described as a “working vacation,” a combination of reading and writing, but also days of long hikes and picnics and prayer and reading books in the mountains. That summer he relaxed at Lorenzago di Cadore as he did again in 1988, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1998.

This summer John Paul is vacationing in Les Combes, a small hamlet in the Valle D'Aosta region of northwestern Italy, for the 10th time since he first visited in 1989. He did not take a mountain vacation in either 2002 or 2003.

At 84 and in more delicate health than in past years, the Pope is expected to enjoy the same mountain views as in previous years but from a car or inside a tent pitched on a suggestive site by his aides, not from a mountain trail as a hiker.

When the Holy Father arrived in Les Combes for the third time in 1991, he told reporters that the time in the mountains “will not be a ‘dolce far niente’ (do nothing) period but rather a change of activity.” He said, in fact, that he hoped to finish the encyclical he planned on morality and to study the Magyar language for his trip the following month to Hungary.

“I don't know that language,” he said, “and so I must practice it. To help I brought some books with me.”

Mountain Mass

At the end of that 1991 visit to Valle d'Aosta, the Holy Father celebrated Mass in Breuil-Cervinia at the foot of the famed Matterhorn in a church dedicated to the memory of the fallen solders from the Alpine Skiing Battalion. In his homily, he returned to a theme he has regularly spoken of during his mountain trips: the contemplation of the works of God in nature. This leads us, he said, “to see in them the sign of the power, the beauty and the intelligence of the Creator.”

He has also said that “for vacations to be truly restful and to bring authentic well-being, a person should find in them a good balance with himself, with others and with the environment. It is this inner and outer harmony that regenerates the mind and restores energy to the body and spirit.”

This year, in addition to daily outings in the midst of tighter than usual security, the Pope is expected to work on a document on totalitarian systems and also to prepare his speeches for the Aug. 14-15 trip to Lourdes, France, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and for a trip on Sept. 5 to the Shrine of Loreto on Italy's Adriatic coast. He is constantly kept up to date on international events.

John Paul's brief stay in the mountains at Lorenzago di Cadore in 1992 was doubly important. Not only did it allow him to unwind from a year of frenetic activity, but more importantly, it allowed him to recuperate following his mid-July surgery.

Papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls spoke to reporters during that vacation, noting that the mountain rest “contributed greatly to the Pope's being physically healthy and in very good spirits.” He added that the Holy Father's days had been spent praying, reading, writing and taking long walks in the forested, hilly areas of Lorenzago.

“He could often be seen,” Navarro-Valls said, “with an alpine walking stick in one hand and a rosary in the other.”

The Pope generally arose about 6 a.m., prayed and said Mass at 7:30. He took many all-day walks, even when it rained.

“During one sudden cloudburst,” Navarro-Valls recounted, “a tent was erected as temporary shelter and the Pope spent an hour inside reading. When he came out he told those accompanying him that it had been at least 15 years since he heard rain beat down on a tent.”

In remarks to journalists during the Pope's 1993 vacation in Loren-zago di Cadore, the head of the Holy See press office said he felt there were three focal points to John Paul's vacation period.

“One is naturally the mountains,” Navarro-Valls said. “Another are the books that the Pope usually brings with him. When he goes out and we stop for a while, the Pope immediately asks for one of his books. After lunch he might even read a while; not much, 45 minutes or so.

“The third point is the chapel. The Pope still rises early in the morning and says Mass, though it is a half-hour later than his schedule in the Vatican. He goes to his chapel upon returning from his daily excursion.”


In 1996, at the end of his July vacation, the Pope told journalists that he “felt rejuvenated” and that leaving the mountains was a bittersweet experience.

“It is sad on the one hand, but we are returning to a milieu that is close to us, Castel Gandolfo, which is traditional,” he said. “The mountains, the Dolomites, were not a papal tradition. But now they are.”

And bittersweet it will surely be on July 17 when mountain enthusiast John Paul leaves the beauty, serenity and cooler weather of Les Combes for the apostolic palace in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome in the Alban Hills, where he is expected to stay until the end of September.

Joan Lewis works for Vatican Information Service.