The world of sport today: a field of Christian mission


Our “Church and sport” section conducted an international seminar on the theme “The Christian mission in the field of sport today” this past November 11th and 12th at the offices of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. It was a unique and historic event for both this new section as well as the Holy See in that it was the first time a Vatican office had dedicated a seminar to the study of the global phenomenon of sport. The idea behind the seminar was to conduct a preliminary analysis of the vast world of sport in all of its complexities in order to offer to the members of the dicastery as well as its participants a panoramic overview of sport, while at the same time bringing into focus the most critical questions and challenges that directly concern this section.

The first day consisted in an analysis of the global phenomenon of sport together with its anthropological, cultural, educational, and ethical repercussions within contemporary society. His Excellency, Archbishop Stanisław Ryłko, initiated the work of the seminar with an opening address that situated sport in two important contexts: a global context that involves both the spectator as well as the amateur or professional athlete; and within the context of a new evangelization -sport considered as an appropriate field for the Church’s mission of extending Christ’s Kingdom. The Italian sport historian, Dr. Maria Aiello, offered a review of the development of sport from ancient Greece up to the modern day. This was followed by a talk on the theme “Sport in contemporary culture” by Dr. Dietmar Mieth, moral theologian at the University of Tübingen, who outlined some of the values and principles upon which a Christian sport ethic could be elaborated.

That afternoon’s panel discussion on “The problems and challenges in today’s sports” confronted such issues as commercialization, violence, doping and the use of media in sport. Among the panelists were Jesuit professor and former college coach, Rev. Vincent Capuano, SJ of the University of Salta, Argentina; Professor Clark Power of Notre Dame University, USA; Elaine Raakman of “Just Play Sports” of Canada; Dr. Pasquale Bellotti of the University “La Sapienza” (Italy); and Fabrizio Maffei of “Rai Sport”, Italy. The president of the “Centro Sportivo Italiano”, Edio Costantini concluded the day with a talk on the “Opportunities and resources for renewal” in sport, exploring its educative and formative dimensions especially as viewed through the rich tradition in Italy of the parish oratory which is still a viable model today whether affiliated with or independent from the parish.

The second day of work began with an organic synthesis of the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church regarding sporting activity, conducted by Msgr. Carlo Mazza, director of the “Office for tourism, leisure and sport” within the Italian Bishops’ Conference.

Msgr. Mazza noted that of the more than 200 discourses on sport found in the writings of the Pontiffs from Pius X up to the present, three speeches were from Saint Pius X, twenty attributed to Pius XII, thirty five to Pope Paul VI, and more than 120 from Pope John Paul II. As the writings of the Magisterium serve as the foundation and orientation of our present work as well as a guide for an ongoing study and research in this field, this conference animated the rest of the days’ work which explored some of the ways a Christian presence can be fostered in the world of sport and qualified some of the specific resources and structures within the Church that can be further developed to serve this end.

The panel discussion entitled “Sport: frontier of the new evangelization” featured panelists from a wide range of fields of pastoral work in sport: Prof. Norbert Müller, long time consultant to the International Olympic Committee and an expert on Pierre de Coubertin; Jeff Suppan, Major League Baseball pitcher from the St. Louis Cardinals; Clément Schertzinger, president of F.I.C.E.P., a Catholic sports federation prevalent in Europe; Msgr. Fortunato Frezza, chaplain of the professional soccer team “Roma”; Arturo Salah, former coach of Chile’s national soccer team; and Rev. Hans-Gerd Schütt, chaplain of the German Olympic team. In the discussion that followed, several people commented on the significant role that the coach can have on the players’ human and spiritual development.

In some countries, for instance, children spend only twenty hours a year with a catechist, but often spend more than 200 hours a year with a coach in a sports program run by the local parish or Catholic school.

In the afternoon, Rev. Kevin Lixey, LC presented the goals and objectives of the “Church and sport” section in order to receive feedback from the participants in light of what was seen during the seminar. Two specific fields of work flow out of the seminar: the academic field that will continue to study the teachings of the Church regarding sport; and the field of pastoral work in and through sport that will seek to discover and promote the “best pastoral practices” that are being implemented at the local level. His Excellency Bishop Josef Clemens, in concluding the seminar, pointed out the need for the “Church and sport” section to be a point of reference and a proficient voice for the world of sport. He also noted the unique window of opportunity that sport opens to the Church as it searches for solutions to the problems of violence and doping that can only be resolved with a sound anthropology of the person that recognizes and values the spiritual as well as the bodily dimension. In this regard this section could also serve as a possible bridge between believer and non believer as well as an “areopagus” of ongoing reflection and dialogue.

The seminar also served as a means of gathering an initial group of persons who have expertise in various fields of sport. Forty five participants from 18 different countries teamed up with our dicastery, representatives from a range of fields that included scholars, directors of Catholic sports associations and sport apostolates run by lay movements, professional athletes, coaches, team managers, and representatives from National Bishop Conferences who head up a similar office for the pastoral ministry of sport at the national level. In fact, we were pleased to have in attendance representatives from the “Church and Sport” offices of the National Bishop Conferences of Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland. This active participation from nearly all continents of the world revealed some of the unique aspects to consider in promoting a pastoral ministry for sport at the local level, and at the same time, it provided an opportunity to exchange ideas and gather suggestions and initiatives that can be of service to the Universal Church.

The seminar has provided us with an initial, yet comprehensive foundation upon which to construct the future work of this section. We hope that the proceedings from the seminar, which will soon be published in Italian and English, can serve as a preliminary guide for those involved in pastoral work through sport. While being well aware of the dangers that sport can occasion when the centrality of the human person is ignored, we are more cognizant of the pastoral opportunities that the sound practice of sport can afford. At the General Audience of September 21, 2005, as Pope Benedict XVI greeted participants of the “Calcio-Cares” initiative in collaboration with the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, he pointed out that “Sport, when it is a discipline practised with respect for the rules, can become an educational tool and a means of important human and spiritual values”. This section, while working in collaboration with sporting associations, athletes, scholars, movements, religious orders and bishop conferences, will seek to renew this educational and formational potential in the exercise of sport at all levels, in order that it can be at the service of the person and the proclamation of the gospel, as well as a place of friendly encounter and dialogue among peoples.

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On 1 September 2016 the

Pontifical Council for the Laity
ceased its activities.
Its responsibilities and duties
have been taken over by the
Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.