Rome, Italy, Nov 24, 2022 / 07:30 am (CNA).
American seminarians in Rome began Thanksgiving Day with a race around the world's smallest country.
The 13th Annual Thanksgiving Turkey Trot around Vatican City State kicked off with an early start at the Pontifical North American College on Nov. 24.
More than 130 seminarians, priests, and Catholic college students gathered near the starting line at 5:30 a.m. with t-shirts proudly proclaiming "the world's only 5K to go around a sovereign nation."
The race brought the runners up the Vatican Hill and along the outside of the centuries-old 39-foot walls that encircle the Vatican Gardens before crossing in front of St. Peter's Square ahead of the final stretch up the Janiculum Hill back to the college. In total, the runners ascended 262 feet in just over three miles.
Deacon Matthew Schilmoeller from the diocese of Lincoln ran cross country for the University of Nebraska before he entered the seminary.
Thinking back on his track and field days, he said: "Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would be running around the sovereign nation of the Vatican City!"
Schilmoeller added: "As Paul says: 'Run so as to win.'... My life in running has taught me about discipline and about how acquiring virtue can be a slow process."
"Running humbles you to realize what your limits are on a physical plane, but it's a spiritual lesson because we need to live in reality and that is precisely where the Lord meets us and calls us into virtue and ultimately into his grace."
The winner of this year's race was seminarian Michael Maloney from the archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
"It was a very fun, close race between a few of us," he said.
Maloney, who is in his third year studying in Rome, recommends Villa Doria Pamphili park on the Janiculum Hill as his favorite spot to run in the Eternal City.
The tradition of running a Turkey Trot around the Vatican began in 2009 when a seminarian from Colorado Springs, now Father Jim Baron, wanted to do something different for Thanksgiving.
In the past decade, the race has grown to include a costume competition and participation from Americans living in Rome, including many colleges with students studying abroad. This year the University of Mary, St. John's University, and the University of Dallas registered the most runners.
At least one Italian also joined in the American tradition. Antonella Piccinin, who works for the University of Notre Dame as the director of student programs in Rome, has run in the Thanksgiving race four times.
Piccinin said that she has learned from the American students "to give thanks every day."
"And this is why I want to participate every year in this competition. It's fun and it brings together people from different parts of the United States—and also from Rome–- to be together and to give thanks," she said.
Deacon Alex Fry has also come back year after year to volunteer and cheer on the intrepid runners.
"Some people think living in Rome is just a total vacation, but there are certain points of the year where you really miss living in America, and Thanksgiving just happens to be one of those moments," Fry said.
"And it's so great to put on an event that really celebrates something that is uniquely American, which is this great holiday of Thanksgiving. And so to get together early in the morning and run around the Vatican is just one of the really special ways that we're able to do that here at the NAC."
Fry, who is preparing to be ordained a priest for the diocese of Dallas in May, has volunteered to help with the organization of the Turkey Trot for the past four years. He said that the race is just one of many celebratory events that the North American College has planned this week.
And they're off! ?? ????— Courtney Mares (@catholicourtney) November 24, 2022
Thanksgiving in Rome kicks off with a Turkey Trot around Vatican City State hosted by the Catholic seminarians at the Pontifical North American College pic.twitter.com/nnpblGHqfg
Following a Thanksgiving Mass this evening, about 100 seminarians and their guests will share a traditional supper, complete with 72 pies and pumpkin ravioli.
On Sunday, the future priests will also compete in the Spaghetti Bowl, a football game tradition for American seminarians that dates back more than 50 years.
Monsignor Thomas Powers, the North American College's rector, said he was excited to see the biggest turnout ever this year for the Turkey Trot.
"I think that this race is a great metaphor for our Catholic faith because we run together, we run to Christ, and we do it in the company of St. Peter and his successors. And that is what this race is about—running around the Vatican and being together as one family of faith," Powers said.