ROME – In 2012, an Italian film called ‘100 meters from heaven’ imagined what it would be like if athletes flaunting the Vatican colors, white and yellow, competed in the Olympics Games. Today the comedy, directed by Raffaele Verzillo, may be one step closer to becoming a reality.
About thirty Vatican employees, both men and women, have created a track-team, the Athletica Vaticana or – as they call themselves – ‘the pope’s runners.’
Vatican pharmacists and journalists of the Jesuit newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, clergy and Swiss guards, might soon be carrying the insignia of the Holy See across finish lines.
For now, the purpose of the team is to evangelize and share Pope Francis’s message through sport, but also with concrete acts of solidarity, under the patronage of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and with the approval of the Vatican Secretariat of State.
“We won’t be participating at the Olympics,” Father Melchor Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, undersecretary of the Ponticical Council for Culture, told L’Osservatore Romano shutting down hopefuls. “But we will try to give witness to the real values of sport through friendship and attention toward the hardships that many people face.”
Sanchez continued adding that “even the Bible is full of references in this sense, one only needs to think to the sport metaphors, even on races in the stadium, used by St. Paul to explain the Christian effort.”
Though the Olympic games may only remain a fantasy for the foreseeable future, the ‘pope’s runners’ will debut the Vatican colors September 17 for the year’s first interreligious marathon, the Via Pacis, which will start and end at Saint Peter’s and pass before Rome’s synagogue and mosque as well as the Waldensian and Orthodox churches.
“We wish to be the witnesses to a pure, united, honest sport without any shortcuts,” said Vatican Pharmacist, Michela Ciprietti, who ten days ago won Rome’s nighttime half marathon, her hands raised to the sky.
The Athletica Vaticana aims to be “strong also in its spiritual dimension,” she added.
Giancarlo Giannini, who at 59 is the oldest member of the team, told journalists, “We ‘pope’s runners’ don’t have rankings or personal best as an objective,” though he adds that team members are qualified in various types of track, from middle-distance to the 100 kilometer race.
The Vatican’s track team is not the only example of the Church officially encouraging evangelization through sports. In 1972, for example, the Soccer Representative of Vatican Employees was founded.
“We will join our friends and colleagues of the soccer representative that for many years already, beyond creating the Vatican’s internal championship, plays games in order to gather funds destined for charity,” Sanchez said, “as well the cricket team created by priest students at pontifical university – so not exactly Vatican employees – which is creating new channels of dialogue with the Asian, Muslim and Anglican worlds.”
We may never see an Olympic Vatican team, but surely Romans will soon get used to seeing more yellow and white during marathons.