Early on a Saturday morning, about two dozen athletes in sweat suits gather in an unusual clubhouse. Papal crests grace the walls of this room in the Pontifical North American College. It's America's seminary in Rome. The athletes read from their playbook: the Bible. The league's director - Pope Benedict XVI - looks down on them from a photograph on the wall.
Today, these young men will sweat over more than the Scriptures. They'll play another team made up of mostly Brazilian seminarians and priests from the Collegio Brasiliano e Orionino. The American squad is a strong contender for the Clericus Cup, but the competition's real goal is to showcase priests in a new light and encourage them to teach values through sports.
Following in the athletic footsteps of John Paul II
The Clericus Cup gets divine inspiration from a former goalie and pope: John Paul II. His sports foundation, along with Italian sports authorities and the Vatican, organize the annual tournament. Victor Ingalls, a seminarian from Alabama, says the athletic pontiff encouraged priests to be as physically active as other men.
"John Paul II said, 'You know, the spiritual life is obviously important, but everything builds upon just the human being.' Like we're all human beings," he points out, "just like everyone else. We're just guys and just trying to do the Lord's will."
He piles into a bus with his teammates, and they head off on their mission. Daniel O'Mullane admits that football - or soccer, as it's known in his Paterson, New Jersey diocese - usually isn't on his Saturday morning schedule.
"Actually, I might be in prayer at this point. And that's not a lie," he adds with a laugh.
A few minutes later, the bus stops near the field and the men walk through a gate into another country: the Vatican. A wall surrounds this city-state. Even men of the cloth need permission to enter, which they've received. Playing on God's squad does have its advantages.
The game gets under way on a field not far from St. Peter's Basilica. No one on the American bench seems to have taken a vow of silence. Cries of "Get that ball on the pitch!" "Way to run, way to go!" and "Pass, pass, shoot!" echo from the stands. And in no time, the fit North American squad has scored the first goal.
Playing a purer game, but playing to win
The team is nicknamed the Martyrs. As one seminarian put it, "Even when we lose, we win." The fans sing the team's fight song, ending with the cheer, "N-A-C! Go Martyrs!"
In truth, everyone is cheering for a purer game. This tournament is meant to set an example that sports can be played without violence, greed or corruption. One of the Martyr's forwards, Charlie Gallagher, is studying to be a priest in the Washington, D.C., diocese.
"We hope to carry when we play on the field the same kinds of virtues and temperament that we have off the field, too. To keep peace of mind and charity, of course," he says.
But, he insists, "We still all play really hard. And we want to win with equal determination."
Asked if he has to go to confession after a game, he laughs and suggests the reporter talk to his spiritual director about that.
Priests, Gallagher admits, are only human. During last year's tournament, for example, an African priest threw his shirt at the referee. He earned a red card and probably had to recite more than 10 Hail Mary prayers as penance. The priests and seminarians who fill the stands for the North American team also get a little hot under the collar when their team is nailed for being offsides. Forward Daniel O'Mullane shows his disgust by stretching theatrically. The referee holds to the heavens a yellow card, which draws more screams and catcalls from the crowd.
But on the sidelines, the Martyrs' spiritual director isn't fretting over any football sins. The Rev. Dick Tomasek says soccer has many benefits for these young men, who spend hours studying and in silent prayer.
"I think they get a feeling of their wholeness. Body, mind and soul," he explains. "The mind and soul are exercised all the time in their life, but the body is not. This gives them a sense of their wholeness, of their manhood."
Saving souls through sports
The Church also wants these seminarians to return to their home parishes and start sports teams, a tradition that has died out lately. The Church sees it as a way to connect with kids. It had that effect on Tomasek as a student at his parish's grade school in Iowa in the 1950s.
"We got this young priest who took off his black shirt and in his undershirt, played basketball with us during recess."
He recalls that was when he started to think he could be a priest.
"I saw a priest doing something, enjoying it, being good at it and playing with us."
Clericus Cup officials hope this tournament promotes the priesthood, a calling that they admit needs some marketing. It no longer appeals to many men: They're turned off by the life of celibacy, the sexual abuse scandals, a world that's increasingly secular.
The Rev. Oscar Turrion understands that thinking.
"No one really wants to be a priest because, 'Oh boy, you know, I'm a loser and loner.'"
But the manager of the defending champions - the international seminary Collegio Internazionale Maria Mater Ecclesiae - says that's not the case.
"I don't feel like being a priest is to be a loser or loner. I do a lot of good things. I really feel myself to be a winner, a born winner."
A heavenly competition
The winners today are the North American Martyrs, 4 to 3. They'll face Turrion's team this Saturday in the semi-finals. During the regular season, the Martyrs beat Mater Ecclesiae during a closely fought game that was decided by a shoot-out. The winner of the upcoming contest will advance to the finals, May 23rd.
As the American and Brazilian players shake hands and congratulate each other, the losing goalie, Jose Felix Espinosa, says it's been great fun spending time with men who share the same mission.
"I am happy either to win or lose," he says with a laugh. "It's the same thing because God has won over all of us."
Both teams form a big circle on the field for what they call "the third period": the closing prayer. The game has strengthened not only their bodies, but their faith. Sweaty and tired, they give thanks.
Update: The Martyrs went on to defeat Mater Ecclesiae in the semi-finals and faced Redemptoris Mater, a squad of mostly Italian seminarians, in the finals. Redemptoris Mater won 1-0.