Pope Francis receives a Catholic Charities jersey and an autographed soccer ball Sept. 2015. CNS photo

Editorial: A game changer

  • June 14, 2018

Sport is a pervasive phenomenon of 21st-century culture. Therefore, asked the Vatican, “how could the Church not be interested?”

The answer is that the Church believes it must take an interest in the games people play and in the many ways, positive and negative, that sport impacts modern society. That thinking was motivation for an enlightening new document that makes a compelling case for why the Church, more than simply joining the huddle, should craft the game plan regarding how Catholics experience sports.

The 52-page document from the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, is the Vatican’s first formal pronouncement on sport. Published because “the Church wants to raise her voice in the service of sport,” it should be read by all Catholics interested in sport, particularly athletes, coaches and administrators, but also sponsors, fans and parents. The voice it raises needs to be heard at a time when virtues once intrinsic to athletic competition often seem forgotten on playing fields that are frequently sullied by a win-at-all cost attitude, and by commercialism, cheating, gambling, drugs and even violence.

What makes this Vatican document particularly notable is the  belief that the Church must be more than a spectator. It calls on Church leaders to offer moral leadership by engaging directly with sport organizations, and it urges the creation of an “apostolate for sports” to encourage Church-led sports initiatives at the diocese and parish level. It also urges pastoral plans be formed for athletes and coaches, the development of specialized “sports chaplains” to guide elite coaches and athletes, and encouragement of lay pastoral support for coaches, officials and teachers so they can evangelize a Christian vision of sport.

The Church has a long history of embracing cultural activities that inspire mankind. Art, literature, science, architecture, education and music are just a few areas which for centuries have been lifted up by the hands of the faithful. Pursuits of beauty and knowledge are ways to celebrate the glory of God and have always been important to Catholics. Sport is no different. It’s just taken the Church longer to realize it.

“Sport can offer us a chance to take part in beautiful moments, or to see these take place,” says the document. “In this way, sport has the potential to remind us that beauty is one of the ways we can encounter God.”

Like the arts, sport is universal. Games of one type or another are played in virtually every nation on Earth. In that sense, sport also resembles the universal Church. At their finest, the Church and sport both embody commitment, humility, sacrifice and solidarity — virtues which should be celebrated and promoted on the world’s playing fields.

This document is a worthy first step towards making that happen.

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