World Cup soccer is coming to the Vatican. Well, not exactly, but a championship began at the end of February that allowed Rome-based seminarians from around the world to take part in the first major soccer tournament of its kind.

In a competition called the Clericus Cup, priests and seminarians studying at the Vatican’s pontifical universities will play regular matches, culminating in a cup final in July.

Organizers Centro Sportivo Italiano (CSI), a Catholic sports association that promotes the educational qualities of sport, said that it will be a genuine tournament with 16 teams, a fan base and intense on-field competition.

Some 311 religiously-inclined athletes from 51 countries, including the United States, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Rwanda, will participate in the event, the Associated Press reported Feb. 20.

“The fundamental aspect of this event is to promote the cultural and physical aspects of sport for seminarians at the pontifical universities, and to really help cultural investment in sport as an educational and pastoral instrument,” Centro Sportivo Italiano’s Director Edio Costantini told the Register. “Above all, we want every parish, not only in Italy but also around the world, to look on this initiative as a model to take back to their own countries.”

The tournament grew out of a meeting last year between Centro Sportivo Italiano and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state. The cardinal is an ardent fan of Juventus, an Italian soccer team in the country’s top league (as Archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Bertone provided radio commentaries for a number of games).

The cardinal recently voiced hope that the Vatican could field a world-class soccer team one day.

“Can you imagine what sort of team the Vatican would have if we got all the Brazilian priests involved?” Cardinal Bertone told reporters in December. “It would be magnificent.”

The Clericus Cup has already captured the imagination of many Italians — and plenty of press attention. Cardinal Bertone’s public support has helped.

“Bertone is the ideal promoter for us,” said Costantini. “We very much value the support he has given to this initiative.”

The event could not have been better timed. Italian soccer is suffering from widespread corruption in the form of match fixing, and rising hooliganism.

A riot by fans last month in the Sicilian town of Catania resulted in the murder of police officer Filippo Raciti. That was followed by a suspension of all matches and, although they later resumed, fans were locked out of a number of stadiums until soccer clubs had met required safety measures.

Asked if the Clericus Cup should also be suspended, Costantini said it would be “silly and paradoxical.”

“Our conviction is that violence in sport is a phenomenon born mainly from a malaise among the youth,” Co0stantini told the Italy Global Nation news service Feb. 3.

Rather than cutting back on sport, he added, it should be increased because it provides more educational opportunities, improves health and helps develop character.

Clericus Cup organizers hope the tournament will provide good role models and improved behavior on the field (players using profanity will be sent off the field, and fair play will be rewarded).

“Many sports champions are bad role models because, while they may be very good people in daily life, they don’t always show that on the pitch,” said Costantini. “We want these players to be models for young people so they can learn to play well and behave well.”

According to Legionary Father Kevin Lixey, who oversees the Vatican Office for Sport in the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Clericus Cup is part of an overall effort to “re-launch” Christian values in sport. But the more immediate goal is to enrich the lives of seminarians and make them more sensitive to the formative aspects of sport.

“It’s a way to engage future priests, little by little, in the pastoral ministry of sport,” said Father Lixey. “It’s also a good chance for them to build some friendships that will last a lifetime.”

Matches will not be played on Sundays and although an Italian insurance firm will sponsor the competition, players will be unpaid (“Sport cannot be seen only as an element of business,” said Costantini).

However, players are free to participate in other leagues if they are good enough.

“If some become champions then we’re happy,” said Costantini, “but above all, we’d like them to become good people.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.