Today in Italy we are celebrating the biggest holiday of the summer season “Ferragosto,” the name Italians give to the August 15 solemnity of the Assumption. Ferragosto refers to the feriae augusti, meaning “holidays of August.” These appear to have originated in 18 BC when the Roman Emperor Augustus declared that the entire month of August would be dedicated to the feriae, a series of festivals and celebrations, the most important of which fell on the 13th and was dedicated to the goddess Diana.

Though the term ferragosto is pagan in origin, in Italy it refers to the mid-summer holidays but is interchangeable with the feast of the Assunta, the Assumption, strictly a religious celebration. There has been a constant tradition in the Church that Mary was assumed into heaven, and as early as the fifth century, this feast was celebrated in Syria, spreading to other parts of the world over the centuries. In the 12th Century, this feast was celebrated in the city of Rome, and in France. From the 13th century onwards, this was a certain tenet of faith and in 1950, Pope Pius XII declared this dogma infallibly and ex cathedra.

The pace of life is much slower in Rome in July and August, particularly August, and you’ll see a lot of chiuso per ferie (closed for vacation) signs posted on the shutters of stores, pharmacies, florists, some restaurants and coffee bars, newsstands, tobacconists, hardware stores, movie theaters, and small, neighborhood food markets known as alimentari or delicatessens. The phones of friends, including many who work in the Roman Curia, ring empty.

The local toy store:

A local café:

I was out this morning for Mass and the peace and quiet of Rome, due to shuttered stores and greatly reduced traffic, was simply marvelous. It seemed like you could shoot a cannon down the middle of some of the city’s main streets and not hit a thing!

Mail Boxes

Another neighborhood store:

Souvenir stores and the mini markets that dot every street in Rome will be open for business as usual. The markets open about 7 in the morning and close at or after midnight.

Life is extra quiet in the Vatican. When the Pope is away on vacation (or, in Francis’ case, on a reduced work schedule in the Vatican), this mini-state is deserted. The Vatican stores, pharmacy and medical center all have reduced hours because many employees are away on prolonged vacations. Vacations are quite generous in the summer, at Christmas and at Easter for employees of Vatican City State or the Roman Curia. Employees who live outside of Italy receive an added three days of vacation for travel time and those who live outside of continental Europe receive five additional days.

These vacations usually compensate for working six days a week the rest of the year, which makes weekend travel generally impossible. There are few public and private audiences when the Pope is on vacation. Curial activity slows down in the summer, and stops completely on August 14, 15 and 16. Only the press office and Secretariat of State are open for business, but with only a skeleton staff.

However, 2017 is a vast improvement over the early years I lived in Italy, especially when there were very few supermarkets. Once upon a time, Italians bought most of their food at three places: the local alimentari, the neighborhood butcher and the local fruit and vegetable store. Each one was assigned a letter – either A or B – for summer vacations. When A stores closed, B could not. And vice versa. This was to avoid all stores in one neighborhood closing at the same time, forcing people to go longer distances for food.

I can also remember when the local newspapers actually published the names of the few doctors, including specialists, who were available in Rome at vacation time, as well as a list of the few pharmacies that would be open in a given period.

Years ago, many coffee bars and restaurants closed for close to a month in the summer, especially because so few had air-conditioning. Since the historically hot and brutal summer of 2003 (four non-stop months of record heat, ending in mid-September), more and more stores, bars and restaurants have installed air-conditioning. Ten thousand people died in France that summer, and approximately 1,000 died in Italy.

By law restaurants and bars must close one day a week and that day is always posted outside the entrance or on the shutter. Some overlook this law, while others ask special permission to open on a seventh day. For example, if a restaurant had its weekly closing on a Monday but Monday of a given year was Christmas or Ferragosto, the owner would ask permission from the proper authorities to open that day (or simply open, without the proper permission!).

Until the summer of 2013, Popes generally spent all or much of the summer period at Castelgandolfo. St. John Paul and Benedict XVI often spent some time in July in northern Italy at a vacation home belonging to a diocese or diocesan seminary. Long walks in the woods, some picnics, down time for reading and, in the case of Benedict, quiet time to play the piano, and cooler temps marked those periods.

That time in northern Italy was usually followed by two months at Castelgandolfo – August and September, with a return to Rome in late September. Both John Paul and Benedict loved the papal palace, its views of Lake Albano, the cool air, and the lovely gardens with their many spots for prayer and meditation. On August 15. they always celebrated Mass on the feast of the Assumption in the small local parish of San Tommaso.

Pope Francis does not spend time in the historic and beautiful Castelgandolfo residence as his predecessors have done. His has admitted to “not knowing” how to take a vacation. His idea of a vacation is not to change residences but to change his schedule just a bit, perhaps sleeping later, dedicating more time to reading, etc. In July there were no general audiences, nor were there guests at the morning Masses in the Santa Marta. General audiences resumed on August 2 but Francis’ August appointment schedule has a lot of blank pages.

The residents of Castelgandolfo miss “their” Pope. Businesses once thrived when John Paul and Benedict spent time there, not just in the summer but often after a long trip or an arduous Holy Week. Today those businesses are suffering and if you seen a sign on a building that says chiuso, it may be more permanent than just a few weeks of vacation.