This past weekend, tourists milled around St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the holiest sites in the world, snapping selfies and experiencing Michelangelo's art through their phone’s camera lens. A few hundred meters away, in a 500-year-old palazzo, 120 students coded for 36 hours straight at the Vatican’s first-ever hackathon. This, it would seem, is the Holy See of the 21st century.
“When I heard about it, I thought it was a joke. Vatican, hackathon—it didn’t add up,” says John Franklin, a senior at Northwestern University who found out about VHacks, the event's official name, while participating in another hackathon in 2017. It wasn’t until he saw the event’s themes—creating technological solutions for encouraging social inclusion, promoting interfaith dialogue, and providing resources to migrants and refugees—that he realized it was not only real, but something he wanted to take part in. “I thought, ‘This is unique,’” he says.
And, apart from the unusual experience of hacking inside a room that dates back to 1490, it did prove to be special for Franklin. “At other hackathons, I’m creating, like, a shopping API or something for social media,” he says. “Here, I felt like my pitch means something to people.”