Meet the Vatican team running for the greater glory of God (and maybe the Olympics)
Rome is a city whose very essence compels people to look up. For this I am thankful, especially when, one evening during a reporting trip here in February, I descend down the few dozen steps leading from a bridge just across from the second-century Castel Sant’Angelo toward the banks of the Tiber River. Down here, Rome is, well, unbeautiful. A two-lane trail provides traffic-free pavement for runners and cyclists, but graffiti adorn the massive stone walls. Garbage accumulates on the riverbank. Stray shoes—only one at a time, never a pair—dot the trail. During one run last year, I dodged police vehicles zooming toward what turned out to be a crime scene; I read the next day a body had been found. Luckily, runners can always look up for inspiration. So I do.
I see the picturesque churches, some dating back many centuries, that soar into the air. In the evening, brilliant red and orange sunsets provide a dramatic backdrop to the umbrella-like stone pine trees that dot the landscape. And in the winter, migratory birds passing through the city form dazzling patterns, zigging and zagging in geometric shapes, inviting those standing on the ground below to gaze into the heavens.
Running through Rome has been a constant for me ever since my first visit there a few years ago. Hitting the trails provides a release valve amid often grueling days of interviews, press briefings and navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. So it was with special interest that I read in January that the Vatican had established its own track and field team, Athletica Vaticana, which has already competed in a handful of races throughout Italy and dreams, someday, of representing the tiny state of Vatican City in the Olympics.
The team is made up of 60 athletes who range from 19 to 62 years of age. Most are amateurs, though a few log impressive times in local races, with some even capturing medals. Michela Ciprietti, a team member who works at the Vatican’s pharmacy, won the Vienna half-marathon in 2018, finishing the 13.1 miles in just under one hour and 23 minutes.
The team has a coach and official uniforms: blue warm-up suits and yellow running shirts with white piping, the colors of the flag of Vatican City. The crossed keys and papal tiara that make up the papal insignia are stamped on the upper left of the shirt, and on the right, the logo of Erreá, an Italian manufacturer chosen by the Vatican to supply the team’s gear because of its commitment to environmental sustainability and fair labor practices. (The team hopes to sell the gear to the public in the future.)
The man charged with starting the team is Msgr. Melchor Sánchez de Toca y Alameda, an affable Spaniard in his 50s who has worked at the Pontifical Council for Culture for more than 20 years.
A few years ago, Monsignor Sánchez was asked by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who has led the culture office since 2007, to add sports to his portfolio. When I asked Monsignor Sánchez, now the undersecretary of the office, during a recent interview if he was a lifelong sports fan, given his current role in promoting athletics and sportsmanship for the Vatican, he laughed.
“I’ve never been a big fan of any sport. Not even soccer,” said Monsignor Sánchez, who in 2018 headed the first Vatican delegation to take part in an official session of the International Olympic Committee.
He must have picked up on my look of confusion and my audible “huh,” as Monsignor Sánchez quickly explained that while watching sports on television has never appealed to him, athletic competition and the emotional response to it by people across the world always has. Growing up in Spain, Monsignor Sánchez was an athlete, and a few years ago he began running again, even setting his sights on training for the Rome International Marathon.
Rome’s annual marathon follows a course that is steeped in history. Beginning in front of the Colosseum, it takes athletes past the Eternal City’s most iconic sites, including St. Peter’s Basilica, Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps.
Monsignor Sánchez squeezed training into his schedule wherever he could. During the week, after finishing up at the office, located in a building alongside the cobblestoned Via della Conciliazone, the road that leads pilgrims and tour buses to St. Peter’s Square, he would run home. Navigating Rome’s chaotic streets, he dodged traffic and tried to avoid potholes, often taking a circuitous route with some stretches along the Tiber, in order to add extra miles as race day approached. On Sunday afternoons, following morning Mass and occasionally a meeting, he would embark on the double-digit-mile runs that are part of most marathon training programs.
Come race day, he finished in about four and a half hours. He was hooked on marathons and decided he would run another and another and another: He is currently training to run the 2019 Rome marathon in April—this time as a member of the Vatican’s official athletic team.
Amateur sports leagues in Italy, like most things here, are highly regulated. That meant that even though a group of Vatican employees—priests, sisters, pharmacy workers, firefighters and even members of the Swiss Guard—began running together a few years ago, they could not compete in official competitions because they were not a recognized team. But through a recent agreement with the Italian Olympic Committee, the team is now eligible to compete as an official member of the Italian track association.
The Best Times
One of the runners from the early days of the unofficial group that would become Vaticana Athletica is Thierry Roch, a 23-year-old member of the Swiss Guard whom I met at the Porta Sant’Anna on the west side of Vatican City in February. We found our way to a small café; and we, he with a lemon soda and I with a double espresso, spent an hour talking about the connection between his passion for running and his duty to protect the pope.
“I run every day,” he told me. Slim and speaking slowly—he is fluent in French, German, Italian and Spanish and plans to spend time in the United States this summer to perfect his English skills—Mr. Roch said running was especially appealing to him during his early years as a member of the Swiss Guard. Back then, he would have to spend hours standing perfectly still, adorned in the iconic yellow, blue and red uniforms inspired by the Medici family, not moving a single muscle. At the end of those long days, running was a natural release.
“We are always stressed,” he said of young people generally. Running helps address some of that. In addition to the physical aspect, he uses the time for meditation and prayer. His training takes him along the Tiber and through Pamphili Gardens, one of the largest parks in Rome that includes lush gardens and a villa dating back to the 1600s. Plus, sharing a room with three other Swiss Guards means he does not have much of his own space, so an hour or two out on the trails gives him some time to himself.
Mr. Roch’s hard work has paid off. Last year, he completed the Rome International Marathon, his first, in just 2 hours and 47 minutes. He won bronze in his division and placed 26th overall. (He was also the fastest member of the Vatican’s team in the debut race on Jan. 20, finishing the 10K in 35 minutes and 31 seconds, coming in 87th place out of more than 6,000 runners.)
While the Vatican team could someday be eligible for Olympic participation, more immediate goals include a possible official appearance in the Games of the Small States of Europe.
Launched in 1985, the G.S.S.E. hosts an annual competition, usually in late May, for nations in Europe that are part of the European Olympic Committees and that have a population of under a million. Those nations are Andorra, Cyprus, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro and San Marino. With only about 1,000 residents and its own sovereign territory located within Italy, Vatican City seems to qualify. Team leaders are in negotiations to take part in the 2019 games, which will be held in Montenegro between May 27 and June 1.
Mr. Roch hopes to be among the handful of people from the Vatican’s team who will take part in the games, running in the 10K competition, before his time in the Swiss Guard concludes later this year.
While his times are impressive, Mr. Roch said what he appreciates most about the team is the camaraderie and the charity work the team undertakes together. This has included accompanying people who are poor or who lack housing to athletic events. Two honorary members of the team are Muslim migrants who moved to Rome from Africa without a support network in place. And later this spring, Mr. Roch and several other members of the team will travel to Wittenberg, Germany, to run alongside a team of Protestant Christians whom they first met in Rome last year during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
“We are not searching the best times, but trying to show the values of being a good Christian."
“We are not searching the best times,” he said, “but trying to show the values of being a good Christian. That’s the goal of the team.”
The team is also intentional about including athletes with disabilities, so that they can raise awareness about access to competition. On March 31, some members will compete in the Run for Autism. And the team’s first official run was on Jan. 20, when they competed in La Corsa di Miguel, a 10K race named in honor of a runner and poet who was “disappeared” during Argentina’s civil war.
Of Perseverance and St. Peter
The Vatican has encouraged the mingling of faith and sports for many years, and not just in Rome.
Pope John Paul II created the Pontifical Council for Culture in 1982, and today it considers all kinds of cultural activities “so that human civilization may become increasingly open to the Gospel, and so that men and women of science, letters and the arts may know that the Church acknowledges their work as a service to truth, goodness and beauty,” according to the Vatican website’s description of the council.
In 2016, the Council for Culture hosted Sport at the Service of Humanity, a global conference on faith and sports, which included an address from Pope Francis. It was attended by the leaders of the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee and the North American National Collegiate Athletic Association. In his address to the gathering, Pope Francis, a soccer fan who has tweeted many times about the value of sports in bringing people together, extolled the efforts of various bodies promoting athletics to ensure that “sport is a source of inclusion, of inspiration and of involvement.”
Catholic groups around the world have taken to heart the Vatican’s call to engage with sports more seriously.
“Everybody is aware of the enthusiasm with which children will play with a rugged old deflated ball in the suburbs of some great cities or the streets of small towns,” he said. “I wish to encourage all of you...to work together to ensure these children can take up sport in circumstances of dignity, especially those who are excluded due to poverty.”
And Catholic groups around the world have taken to heart the Vatican’s call to engage with sports more seriously.
Back in 2011, a group of 52 Catholic nuns joined forces to tackle the Beijing marathon, splitting up the race into segments, to help raise money to support people living with H.I.V. and AIDS. For more than a decade, a group of soccer teams composed of seminarians studying in Rome has competed for the Clericus Cup, with students from the United States winning the title last year. And this spring, two Franciscan sisters from Toronto, Ohio, will try to finish the Cleveland Marathon, part of an effort to raise awareness of religious life and perhaps raise some money for charity along the way.
Sister Anna Rose said she began running a few years after she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother in 2011. The group of 40 women, who live about 10 miles from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, incorporate exercise into their weekly routines, Sister Rose said, and are committed to carrying out some kind of physical activity three times a week.
When she first decided to run, Sister Rose tried for two minutes. Not hating it, next time she went for five. Then, slowly, she built up her endurance, and the miles began adding up. Inspired by another sister in the community, she decided she would try to complete the 26.2-mile race in May.
Running is not an end in itself but a tool to help her develop her faith more deeply.
Sister Rose, who is 33, said that for her, running is not an end in itself but a tool to help her develop her faith more deeply. She said running helps her to “practice the virtues of living a Christian life.”
She mentioned feeling “gratitude that the Lord has given me a body that can run” and said that longer runs show her the power of “perseverance,” especially when “part of me doesn’t really want to run outside, like now, when it’s cold.”
During runs, she takes time to pray or spends it in fellowship with other members of her community. On days when she does not feel like going outside, she uses one of the treadmills her community was given, set up in front of a depiction of Jesus washing Peter’s feet.
“It’s really beautiful to run and meditate on that image. That’s the heart of the Gospel, Christ’s self-emptying,” she said.
When we spoke on the phone in mid-February, Sister Rose was preparing to leave for a seven-mile run. She had planned to go farther—many people training for marathons complete long runs of 16, 18 and even 22 miles on the weekends leading up the big race—but a stubborn injury was interfering with her plans. That annoyance, too, was another reminder to Sister Rose of the Christian life, helping her realize that much of her life is out of her control.
Running helps her to “practice the virtues of living a Christian life.”
“I don’t know if my body can sustain 26.2 miles; I’ve never done it before,” she said. But with the support of her sisters, some of whom plan to travel to Cleveland to run with her or to cheer her on, she thinks the experience will be worthwhile. “It’s a communal effort. It’s become for me a microcosm of the body of Christ, praying and interceding is different ways.”
But, she said, all through the sweat and grit of training, “we’re all fixed on him.”
Connecting Across Boundaries
Back in Rome, Monsignor Sánchez leans forward in his chair, growing excited as he talks about the power of sports in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. He laments that theologians have not spent much time considering this phenomenon—though he highlights two books that he has found helpful—Catholic Perspectives on Sports, by the U.S. Jesuit Patrick Kelly, and A Brief Theology of Sport, by the Anglican theologian Lincoln Harvey—and says one of his goals is to invite more serious thought about how sports fit into the Christian experience.
"Sport is something that deeply moves and arouses the passions and emotions of millions of people."
In the meantime, he is focused on working with influencers who can help make sports more inclusive. This means making sure that people with disabilities have access to teams, that people lacking financial resources are not shut out and that everyone is able to partake in the drama and leisure of sport. Building on the success of previous conferences at Villanova University and Loyola Marymount University, Monsignor Sánchez is hoping to host another meeting about the meaning and value of collegiate sports this fall at Georgetown University. And while his hopes for an Olympic appearance remain, Monsignor Sánchez said he is focused at the moment on highlighting the power of sports to speak to the deepest longings of human beings and to connect across boundaries.
“Sport is something that deeply moves and arouses the passions and emotions of millions of people,” he said. “It produces an energy that can be used for good or bad, with riots when teams win or lose.”
“You cannot ignore this,” he continued. “Is sport important for a Christian life? Yes, definitely.”