VATICAN CITY — References to sport abound in the Bible, especially in St. Paul’s writings, as a spiritual metaphor — and as of last week, the Vatican now has an official sports association.

“It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. […] I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14): As St. Paul’s comparison indicates, like the search for sanctity in our spiritual lives, sport embodies a destination that can only be achieved through a free choice lived out with strenuous and dedicated effort.

“Sport and religion have gratuitousness in common,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, introducing the Jan. 10 news conference for the launch of Athletica Vaticana — the very first sports association based in the Holy See with an international recognition — which will be inserted into the “sport and culture” department of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Before this, the Vatican had only a small soccer team and the St. Peter Cricket Club, both unofficial.

“Pope Francis has always had a predilection for the sports world,” Cardinal Ravasi said. The Pope has indeed always shown a keen interest in the athletic field and was for years a card-carrying supporter of the Argentine soccer club San Lorenzo de Almagro.

Through a bilateral agreement with the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), the new body will be able to officially participate in every Italian or international athletic event. And the brand-new association could even pave the way to participation in the Olympic Games one day. “To see the white and yellow Vatican flag parade at the opening ceremony would be a dream, but it is not a short-term goal,” said the association’s inaugural president, Msgr. Melchor Sanchez de Toca, who is also the undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The road to making the Olympics happen could be long and difficult, but the achievement is not impossible, according to Giovanni Malagò, the president of CONI. “I am sure it will happen some day, because we have just set up a brave and winning ‘startup.’”

The association’s first official event will take place in Rome on Jan. 20, participating in the “Corsa di Miguel,” a marathon that takes place every year in tribute to Miguel Benacio Sánchez, a marathon runner killed in Argentina in 1978.

 

Create Bridges

From its beginnings a year ago, courtesy of some Vatican employees who used to go running every morning along the Tiber River, the association will now officially gather approximately 60 members, from 19 to 62 years old. Participants include priests, nuns, journalists, firefighters and police, maintenance workers and employees from the Vatican Museum and its drugstore, as well as Swiss Guards.

“The project idea was born somewhat by chance because there are a lot of sports men in the Vatican, but we tended to be isolated,” Thierry Roch, a Swiss Guard who joined the association a few months ago, told the Register. “It has played a unifying role among us. We are no longer only colleagues; we are friends now, thanks to sport. This is the beauty of it: the power to create bridges, to keep us linked to each other.”  

Sister Marie-Théo Puybareau-Manaud — the first nun involved with Athletica Vaticana, who has been a long-distance runner for 10 years — praises the evangelizing potential of sport. According to her, running allows religious people to “get off the mountain on which they used to place the religious life to go and be with others, run with others, just like in a race.”

Added Sister Marie-Théo, “Sport is an incarnated spirituality; it makes us live with all of our being and body. I hope I can pass on the joy to run together. I hope I can share this surge of solidarity, to offer a sign of faith in this troubled world.”

Even if the group is made up of amateur sportsmen, some have already won fame during recent sports events in Rome. Camille Chenaux, a 27-year-old woman, a year ago won the “Corsa del Ricordo,” a traditional Italian race that commemorates victims of the World War II-era “foibe massacres” undertaken by Yugoslav partisans against Italians living in some parts of Yugoslavia.

Athletica Vaticana will provide Chenaux an opportunity to compete internationally. “I am proud to be part of such a team because there clearly is a different state of mind than in other teams. As a Catholic, it is very important to me,” she said.

Currently, the association is reserved for the Vatican employees and their families, but some ad honorem members can be appointed. Two African migrants have already been admitted into the group, as a response to Pope Francis’ call for a real integration of such newcomers.

 

A Christian Experience

It is with the same welcoming spirit that Athletica Vaticana is going to admit some young disabled people to the team, through an agreement with the Italian Federation of Paralympic Sports. Indeed, in addition to the competitive dimension, one of the main purposes of the association is to promote a concrete Christian testimony through spiritual and social support initiatives within the sports world, as its statutes claim.

“Sport helps change the mentality of a whole country; it can change the way people see handicaps,” said Luca Pancalli, president of the Italian Paralympic Committee (CIP), during the Jan. 10 news conference. “That is why our initiative can be a historic step.”

And the new team already has an inspiring figure of such Christian witness with one of the founders of Athletica Vaticana: Giampaolo Mattei, a journalist at L’Osservatore Romano whose daughter Benedetta, a 14-year-old teenager with Down syndrome, blossomed through sports participation. “Without physical activities, the young disabled people would stay locked up at home,” Mattei said. “And it is us, the so-called ‘normal people,’ that will benefit the most from this relationship, while learning how to overcome every barrier.”

The international interest that the association arouses is seen as a great source of possibilities, in this sense. “Athletica Vaticana is not an organization,” Mattei concluded, “but a way of thinking, a Christian way of life that is expressed in a race, between solidarity and spirituality.”

Register correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.