ROME – For the first time ever, the Vatican will have its own women’s soccer team, giving a potential assist to the empowerment of women in the Church.

“The team was born for fun,” said Susan Volpini, secretary of the association “Women in the Vatican” in a May 16 phone interview with Crux.

“Those of us who work at the Vatican don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet each other,” she added.

While there has been a men’s soccer team at the Vatican since 1974 flaunting the yellow and white colors of the Holy See (albeit usually against the Vatican police and Swiss Guards), the thought of having a women’s team did not occur until this year.

Every year in June, the Sport Association in the Vatican organizes tournaments and events for “Family Day” at the Petriana sport center, a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican’s soccer team plays against members of AS Roma, a topflight Serie A team, while children enjoy games.

“The only ones who were not very included were the women,” said Danilo Zennaro, head of the Sports’ Association in the Vatican, in a May 17 interview with Crux.

To change things up, organizers created “an improvised team” of female Vatican employees and wives and daughters of Vatican employees.

“Women said: ‘Why can’t we play?’ and last year we had our first game,” Volpini said, explaining that that was “the first time they mentioned a women’s team.”

When that same all-female team met with the women’s team at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital, Zennaro said he noticed the “many women who came to watch the game,” raising the idea that “maybe women in the Vatican are interested in soccer.”

“If I set my mind to bringing a women’s team to Vienna maybe it can push forward this movement,” he said.

On June 22, a local team in Vienna, Austria, invited the Vatican for a tournament to celebrate its 25th anniversary. For the Vatican’s women’s team, it will be the first real opportunity to flex its muscles abroad.

“Officials at an international competition in Vienna asked if we had a team and approached Women in the Vatican to see if we wanted to be a part of this initiative,” Volpini said.

By joining forces with the Bambino Gesù team, the new women’s soccer team numbers between 20-25 players. About 60 percent are Vatican employees, 20 percent are wives of men working at the Vatican, and 20 percent daughters of Vatican staff.

They range in age from 25 to 50 and most are amateur soccer players. Eugene Tcheugoue, a professional soccer player from Cameroon, will be captaining the team coached by Gianfranco Guadagnoli, who also oversees the men’s team at the Vatican.

Though there no religious sisters on the team yet, “they are surely welcome,” Zennaro said.

Before jetting to Vienna, the female soccer team will face off against AS Roma, which ranks fourth in Italy’s Women’s Serie A, the top professional league in the country.

“They are obviously not at the same level, but it will be an experience nonetheless,” Zennaro said, “it seemed fair and a good opportunity.”

The new team has already gotten a wink from the Vatican Secretariat of State. During a meeting with the Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the pope’s “substitute,” or chief of staff, “he seemed very satisfied,” Zennaro said.

“Our goal, more than sporting results, is for the largest number of Vatican employees to play a sport,” he said, adding that this “greatly interested” Peña.

The approval from upstairs at the Vatican surprised Zennaro much less than the surprise that met the creation of the women’s team outside the wall of the city-state. Having witnessed women grow in number and rank in the Vatican over the past 25 years, he doesn’t believe the world should be shocked by the news of a women’s soccer team.

“When I started working at the Vatican, making an exception for nuns, maybe 0.2 percent of employees were women,” Zennaro said. “Today we are closer to 20 percent.”

“We followed the guidelines provided by the Holy Father,” he added, with “maximum openness to the lay reality and especially toward women.”

What slowed things down for the creation of a women’s team, Zennaro believes, was not the Vatican’s supposed misogyny, but the most male-centric view of soccer. Today things have changed, he said, as “we now see this great openness.”

What will happen after these first two games remains uncertain for the Vatican women’s team, but organizers hope that it may be able to compete in charitable events in the future and perhaps – why not – even more.

“We have no idea where this is going to go,” Volpini said. “Right now, it’s a great way to get our Vatican family together.”

Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave

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