Having gone to the Vatican in 2009 to present a paper at a conference, I had this notion that studying at there was an entirely serious enterprise. Soon, I learned about a seminarian soccer tournament called the Clericus Cup that turned that notion upside down. I started following every word of Mons. Melchor Sanchez, Undersecretary of the Vatican Council for Culture and Vatican sports expert, and it dawned on me how intense priests are about the tournament. The Vatican has held the Clericus Cup annually since 2007. It builds on the tradition of the Rome Cup, a smaller tournament started in 2003 by soccer-loving seminarians studying at the pontifical colleges. The Clericus Cup is a 16-team soccer tournament with both group play and a knockout round. Eight teams advance to the quarterfinals. Many of the players have been playing soccer at a high level for much of their lives.
The prize is a soccer ball wearing a saturno (a brimmed hat occasionally worn by priests) and cleats. One Jesuit priest and college chaplain I know has called it “the most awkward trophy in sports.” In other words, it’s perfect for a tournament played during Lent and Easter, when Jesus reversed our expectations of honor in order to save the world.
Do the seminarians wear a saturno while playing? No. They look like normal soccer players, with the notable exception that their jerseys sometimes have messages from the ecclesial year like “Mercy, out on the field” for the Extraordinary Year of Mercy. Do the fans wear a saturno? No. The Americans have been known to show up to cheer for their team in superhero costumes. But the trophy represents that the Clericus Cup is about learning to be a priest (“Clericus” comes from “cleric,” after all) and devoting all your energy to the good of your team.
Unlike fans of professional sports teams, the cardinals, nuns, priests, and tisoferia (Italian for supporters or fans) who attend do not need a DJ or a rally monkey to keep them in sync while cheering for their team. Fans have cheers specific to their team. The team of the Legionaries of Christ seminary Maria Mater Ecclesiae (Mary, Mother of the Church), for instance, uses a cheer described as Forza, forza, Mater! (Italian for Strength, strength, Mother!). But the crowd can switch to singing well-known tunes and generally exhibits a musicality that I’ve never experienced at any sports competition in the United States.
The Clericus Cup is also unusual for a sports tournament in that players read the Bible and pray before each game. Though the players have called the Clericus Cup their World Cup, winning or losing isn’t really the point of the tournament. Seminarians have a spiritual experience when they train and compete on soccer fields that overlook St. Peter’s Basilica.
When I talked with seminarian FranciscoMary Aghogho, he said the Clericus Cup was about the “joy of brotherhood that exists between priests and seminarians.” (He also noted he was the team’s first choice for the goalkeeper position.) However, much as St. Paul has said about the race of faith, FranciscoMary noted that the problems of life are “the real tournament.”
Footage of the tournament can be hard to come by. The best way to keep up with one’s favorite seminarian soccer stars is the Clericus Cup website. Several clips of matches throughout the years are posted on YouTube.
Soccer isn’t the only Vatican sports team. In 2013, the Vatican launched a cricket tournament that travels abroad and plays teams from other religious groups. In April, St. Peter’s Cricket Club flew to Fatima, Portugal, for an international and interfaith tournament.
Despite our assumptions about the passions of priests and nuns, we shouldn’t overlook their athletic abilities. It seems Pope Francis isn’t the only one with a fondness for soccer.