Vatican City, 10 August 2004 — The new office aims to regain the original ideals and spirit of sports, and to eliminate every form of unethical behavior that can undermine them, such as violence, racism, excessive economic interests, corruption and doping.
The pope, a passionate sportsman, has played football and involved himself in canoeing, skiing, swimming, cycling and hiking. Even after becoming pope, he kept swimming and skiing, and followed major sporting events on television.
In his pontificate, John Paul II became ever more conscious of sports as an increasingly important dimension of human life worldwide. However, certain “tendencies” are “increasingly alienating” many sporting activities from “the original ideals of sports,” and he concluded it is “urgent to recall the fundamental values in this field.”
The pope wants the Church to awaken to this reality and to give much greater attention to all involved in sports — athletes, players, coaches, managers and fans. He views sports as “one of the nerve centers of the contemporary culture and one of the frontiers of the new evangelization.” He also sees it as fertile terrain for the Church mission in the twenty-first century and a crucial area for fostering harmony and friendship between people and nations.
With that in mind, he created a new Vatican office totally dedicated to “The Church and Sport” and set it up within the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
The Vatican announced the new office on August 3, as China and Japan prepared to compete in Beijing for the Asian Football Championship, and shortly after similar championships took place in Europe, Latin America and Africa.
The office is meant to be a clarion call to all bishops, priests, religious men and women, and lay people to take part in this important mission to the world of sport, and to encourage all engaged in sporting activities to bring out what is best in their respective sports in terms of human values and ideals, and to eliminate whatever negative elements may have developed and now contradict those ideals and fundamental values.
The new office will be a focal point for the Church’s mission to the world of sport, and a point of reference for the whole sporting world. The pope has entrusted it with five major tasks:
1) Within the Church, to be a point of reference for all national and international sports organizations.
2) To stimulate local Churches to provide pastoral care for those involved in sports, and to encourage the necessary collaboration among Catholic sports associations.
3) To foster a culture of sport that promotes a vision of sports activities as a means of integral personal growth, and an instrument at the service of peace and brotherhood among peoples.
4) To propose the study of specific themes related to sport, above all from the ethical point of view.
5) To organize and sustain initiatives aimed at arousing the witness of Christian life among sports people.
Setting up this office could be regarded as the logical consequence of the pope’s own keen interest in sports, and his personal dialogue with athletes and other sports people throughout his 26-year pontificate.
He gave particular expression to this interest when he insisted that the 1984 and 2000 Jubilee Years programs include a day dedicated exclusively to sports people. His speeches on those occasions offer a key to understanding the kind of contribution he expects the new Vatican office to make.
Addressing athletes from all continents at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on Oct. 29, 2000, he proposed what may be considered a charter for the new office when he called on everyone in the sports world to engage in “an examination of conscience,” because “it is important to identify and promote the many positive aspects of sport, but it is only right also to recognize the various transgressions to which it can succumb.”
On the positive side, he highlighted the importance of playing sports, explaining that it can help develop “important values” in the young, such as “loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing and solidarity,” “self-sacrifice,” “a healthy sense of competition,” and “eradicate intolerance” and “transcend differences between cultures and nations.” In other words, it contributes to the “integral development” of the human person and friendship between people.
From a Christian point of view, he spoke of sport as a gift from God “in which the human person exercises his body, intellect and will, recognizing these abilities as so many gifts of his Creator.”
He said, “Sport can be a school of virtue and an instrument of peace between peoples,” and underlined the “great responsibility” of athletes because “they are called to make sport an opportunity for meeting and dialogue, over and above every barrier of language, race or culture.” He also asserted, “Sports can make an effective contribution to peaceful understanding between peoples and to establishing the new civilization of love.”
In his view, today’s global interest and engagement in sport are “a ‘sign of our times’ capable of interpreting humanity’s new needs and expectations” for peace and harmony, and to overcome division, violence and hostility.
Alluding to negative elements that have distorted sports in recent decades, he observed, “The educational and spiritual potential of sport must make believers and people of good will united and determined in challenging every distorted aspect that can intrude, recognizing it as a phenomenon opposed to the full development of the individual and to his enjoyment of life.”
He did not explicitly mention the negative elements, but they are well known. For instance, athletes take or are given drugs to enhance performance, sponsors and others exploit the athlete’s image, clubs treat players as merchandise and pay astronomical, “scandalous” sums of money for them, and media turn them into idols. Other aspects include the violence that has crept into sports, also among fans, as well as elements of racism.
On other occasions, this pope has explicitly referred to one or another of these issues. In a speech in October 2000, he rather diplomatically hinted at these issues by calling for a serious check on abuses. He said, “Every care must be taken to protect the human body from any attack on its integrity, from exploitation and from any idolatry.”
His hope is that such an examination of conscience will motivate managers, technicians and athletes with new zeal and creativity, “so that sport, without losing its true nature, can answer the needs of our time.”
He also hopes that a renewed vision of sport will help develop an activity “that protects the weak and excludes no one; that frees young people from the snares of apathy and indifference, and arouses a health sense of competition in them; that is a fact of emancipation for poorer countries and helps them eradicate intolerance and build a more fraternal and united world; that contributes to the love of life, teaches sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every person.”
Five days after setting up the new office, the pope returned to the subject of sports at his summer residence on August 8, when he noted that the 28th Olympic Games of the modern era would open in Athens the coming week.
He sent his best wishes to all participants and said it was his “heartfelt good wish” that “in a world, today disturbed and sometimes shaken by so many forms of hatred and violence, the important sports event of the games would be an occasion for a serene meeting, and help to promote understanding and peace between peoples.”
He concluded by placing not only the Olympic Games but also “the whole world of sport” under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Gerard O’Connell covers the Vatican as a correspondent for UCA News and other news orga
© UCAN 2004 – UCAN (Union of Catholic Asian News) is linked to UCIP (International Catholic Union of the Press). With several offices around Asia, UCA News is the largest Asian Church news agency. Posted on Religioscope with permission.