ROME – Over some 2,000 years of papal history, not every pope has been a great orator, but almost all have managed to use an astonishing amount of words. From giving speeches and homilies, to issuing teaching documents, legal rulings and even routine correspondence, wielding words is pretty much a core aspect of the job.

As a result, it’s tough these days to find a word no pope has ever used before, but Sunday brought just such an occasion.

For the very first time in Church history, a pontiff used the word “hackathon,” recognizing a March 9-10 Vatican Hackathon conceived by a Harvard student and pulled off with the support of tech giants such as Microsoft and Google, under the patronage of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications.

“I greet in a special way the university students from different parts of the world meeting in the first ‘Vatican Hackathon,’ promoted by the Dicastery for Communications,” the pope said during his traditional noontime Angelus address on Sunday.

“Dear young people, it’s beautiful to put one’s intelligence, which God gives us, at the service of the truth and the neediest,” Francis said.

A “hackathon”, as it turns out, is not about breaching security firewalls, but taking up some pressing social problem and tasking a group of bright young minds with applying technology to find creative solutions.

The idea of hosting one at the Vatican came out of an event that took place for the first time last year in Rome, called the “Harvard Vatican Leadership Summit,” designed to bring a group of Harvard students from a variety of different backgrounds and disciplines to Rome, to figure out how the Vatican can support their desire to apply their talents to the service of the world and its most vulnerable people.

The idea for a Harvard-Vatican summit was the brainchild of two students: Okendo Lewis-Gayle, an American born in Costa Rica, raised in Italy, and educated in part in China, who’s since graduated with a master’s in public administration; and Jakub Florkiewicz, a Pole working on an MBA.

For the 2018 edition, the two executive directors of the summit are Gretta Gerazimaite, the first Lithuanian woman to graduate from Harvard’s MBA program, and Jack Clark, a classics and government major who describes himself as a “devoted Catholic.”

Father Mark Murphy, who serves as the undergraduate chaplain at the Harvard Catholic Center, which has taken over logistical responsibility for the summit now that Lewis-Gayle has graduated, said that interest on campus is strong.

This year, Murphy said, 26 students made the trip, but over 100 applied. This is the second edition of the summit, and plans call for it to continue.

At one level, the idea of a partnership between the Vatican and Harvard may seem a bit counter-intuitive. One way of understanding Harvard, after all, is as the Vatican of elite secular opinion, and in a sense, the two institutions can appear more as natural rivals for hearts and minds than as logical bedfellows.

Lewis-Gayle conceded that at the beginning, there was a degree of skepticism.

“One of the things we realized when we began this journey is that people were rather skeptical about how one would bring together the Vatican and Harvard,” he said. “There was a lot of concern that this would just not work.”

Okendo Lewis-Gayle with Crux’s Claire Giangravé and John L. Allen Jr. at the first-ever Vatican Hackathon, which grew out of the Harvard Vatican Leadership Summit, meeting in Rome March 10-15. (Credit: Okendo Lewis-Gayle.)

Lewis-Gayle spoke to Crux on Sunday, at the conclusion of a morning gathering of the March 10-15 summit on the rooftop terrace of the Residenza Paolo VI, a Rome hotel across the street from St. Peter’s Square, where the group watched Pope Francis deliver his Angelus address and cheered lustily when the words “Vatican Hackathon” were pronounced.

Fairly quickly, however, Lewis-Gayle said, Harvard and the Vatican realized they have a fair bit in common.

“What brought them together was this commitment to servant leadership, whether it’s the Church or it’s Harvard, both are ultimately trying to train leaders who will go and better serve the world,” he said.

“It was fascinating to see that’s what really bonded it, and what the whole summit has been about. The question is how we can help these leaders as they go into the worlds of business, government, law, you name it, to understand the value of servant leadership, so they can exercise it throughout their lives,” he said.

Lewis-Gayle said hearing the pope refer to the hackathon was a peak moment of this experience.

“I guess for me, what it means is that this is just not a cute idea, but it’s real,” he said. “It means this isn’t just talk, that it actually can work.”

“The fact that we had a participant who rose to the challenge on the need for using technology creatively to solve problems, and who made it all the way to hosting the first-ever Vatican Hackathon, and that the pope actually just uttered those words, tells you that if we answer the call to serve, we can do great things,” he said.

Lewis-Gayle himself is a fairly compelling example of answering the call to serve. He’s the founder of a company called Harambee, which targets African-born twentysomethings from elite schools who have dreams of starting business ventures and socially responsible projects in their native lands.

“It’s a continent that’s the richest one on earth in terms of resources, yet it’s home to some of the poorest people on the planet,” he said. “I believe that through servant leaders and innovators, we can change that within our lifetime.”

Recently one of the start-ups Harambee identified got a $24 million investment from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Lewis-Gayle is now working with Zuckerberg and his wife on their humanitarian organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to help them think about how to engage Africa.

Lewis-Gayle sees real potential to bring the Catholic Church into that effort.

“Africa is the fastest-growing market, if you will, for the Catholic Church,” he said. “You find African seminarians, especially Nigerians, in Kentucky and the most random places around the world. I think this is the future of the Church, and it’s interesting to see how the worlds of business and the Church can mix.”

The Harvard Vatican Leadership Summit is intentionally inter-faith and diverse, bringing together students of all religious backgrounds and none. Lewis-Gayle says he considers himself Catholic, though with “split loyalties,” because he’s also got a “Bible-banging Baptist” grandma.

“She goes to church where Whitney Houston learned how to sing,” he said. “Sister Houston is the director of our choice, and, Lord have mercy, these people can sing!”

“I sort of have these split loyalties, because I certainly appreciate the customs of the [Catholic] church, when you’re in a Baptist church, and you see this spirit that has carried African-Americans through thick and thin, and you hear the music that’s just uplifting, you’ve got to have a little bit of all of it,” he said.

In terms of the future of the Harvard Vatican Summit, Lewis-Gayle said future projects include working with the Vatican Museums and its patrons program to get youth involved in supporting artistic restoration efforts, and also working with Vatican TV to enhance its use of virtual reality technologies.

Yet, he said, Harvard also gets something out of the exchange too.

“At Harvard, there’s been a discussion about ethical leadership for a while now in the business school,” he said. “What’s interesting is we’ve had an increasing number of applicants from the business school come into this. I think what Harvard gets from this is a more refined understanding of what ethical leadership is.”

“There’s a desire from many student leaders to figure that out, and to be able to draw from [the Vatican’s] 2,000 years of experience and history in dealing with humanity,” he said.

Fundamentally, he said, this is about two venerable institutions, whatever their differences may be, which share a common interest in unleashing the talent and idealism of youth.

“At the core, it’s really just about getting the best minds to come together and problem-solve, taking an issue and asking, ‘How do we do it?’” he said. “Now it’s just wonderful to see that’s of such value to both sides that they’re figuring out ways to institutionalize it.”