Pope John Paul II enjoyed zooming down mountains with skis, playing tennis and even once let the paparazzi catch him in his bathing suit while out for a swim.
His German successor, Benedict XVI, enjoyed hosting football legends such as Franz Beckenbauer at the Vatican, though he preferred to flex his mind instead of his muscles.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, is considered a fervent fan of the San Lorenzo football club from his home town, Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. But because he had part of one of his lungs removed as a young man, the now-82-year-old doesn’t play any sports himself.
That hasn’t stopped him from opening the first official Vatican track and field club, and the team’s ambitions extend far beyond the confines of the smallest country in the world: the running team showed its mettle the Berlin Marathon in September 2019.
Its also planning to take part in events in Algeria and Andorra in coming years.
“The Vatican is no different than the rest of humanity: Sport is a beautiful and good thing, especially when it’s not excessively commercialized,” says Monsignor Melchor Jose Sanchez de Toca y Alameda in explaining the reasoning behind creating the sports club.
Membership in the Athletica Vaticana is open to anyone who holds Vatican citizenship or who works for the small Catholic city-state.
Everyone from pharmacists and firefighters to the Swiss Guard’s papal bodyguards and clergy members are part of the sports association. Membership is also open to young migrants and Paralympic athletes.
The biggest heavyweight – at least as far as church hierarchy goes – is a bishop on the running team, says Sanchez, who’s the Vatican’s de facto head of sports.
But the top members aren’t based on their status within the church. “They’re the ones who run faster,” explains Sanchez.
For its first competition abroad, the team decided to pick a symbolic spot in Germany: Wittenberg, which is closed tied to Martin Luther, who famously broke with the Catholic Church and triggered the Reformation.
Doreen Meyer, who comes from the eastern German city, had made contact with the Vatican team. Years earlier, the long-distance runner ran to Rome in 1993 in order to meet the pope at the time, John Paul.
But the meeting never happened. Meyer decided to reach out to the Vatican again in 2018 and invited its athletes to come to Wittenberg.
“When it comes to running, whether someone is a Protestant or not plays less of a role. The focus is friendly competition,” says Meyer.
The power of sports to help people overcome their differences and work together is something that Francis continually emphasizes. That’s why representatives from other religions are also invited to run with the Vatican club as honorary members.
“The pope wanted two members from different religions, and I’m a Muslim. It’s a huge honour for me,” says Ansou Cisse, from Senegal.
Does the Vatican also have higher ambitions, in the form of the Olympics? As a sovereign state, it theoretically has the right to send a team to the competition. The idea of a cardinal competing in the shot put or a nun winning the long jump isn’t too far-fetched.
“It’s a dream,” says Sanchez.
But it’s not that easy for the Vatican and its roughly 1,000 residents. The athletic team is currently coordinating with the Italian National Olympic Committee. “It’s a long way to go. The goal is not to compete for medals, but the symbolic presence,” he says.
To have its own Olympic committee, multiple professional associations must first be established. Sanchez already has a few ideas, however: Thanks to the Swiss Guard, who come from Alpine country, winter sports could be one feasible way that the Vatican could hold its own.