Sports

Sports and Spirituality on Vatican Agenda Before Paris Summer Games

U.S. Bishop John O. Barres of Rockville Centre, N.Y., poses for a photo at the International Conference on Sport and Spirituality in Rome May 16, 2024. (Photo: CNS/Lola Gomez)

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) — Sports have great potential to bring people together, to help them stay healthy and even to help them dream, Pope Francis said, which is why the pastoral care of sports is so important.

“It is important that the church reflect on the sporting experience and adequately value its evangelizing action,” he said in a message read May 16 at the start of the three-day International Conference on Sport and Spirituality organized by the Dicastery for Culture and Education and the French Embassy to the Holy See.

With the growing popularity of sports and with the approach of the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, the organizers said, it is important to understand the cultural roots of sports, identify the risks, “appreciate their importance in the building of a more fraternal society, assess their educational potential and, most importantly, deepen their spiritual relevance.”

In his message, Pope Francis said that more than once in his New Testament letters, St. Paul compares the Christian life to sporting events, especially to a race “whose prize is Christ himself. The discipline and temperance of athletes, as well as healthy competition have often been valued as metaphors for the virtuous Christian life. Today, too, this metaphor can be effective for all those who, in some way, desire and strive to please God and be his friends.”

And even for those who are not athletes, he said, sporting events bring them together, create community and “promote dreams, especially in the younger generation.”

“This is why there is a need for a pastoral care of sports and education in the genuine values of competition, purified of selfishness and merely material interests,” the pope said.

The big business of sports or an attitude of winning at all costs can disillusion young people and even lead to their abuse, the pope said.

“In sports, at all levels, there should never be a loss of the ‘amateur’ spirit, which preserves its genuineness,” he wrote. “And this style is closely related to the quality of the spiritual life of those who form the sports environment: managers, coaches, trainers and athletes.”

Bishop John O. Barres of Rockville Centre, New York, represented the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Rome event and shared the draft of a vision statement for athletics at the Catholic University of America in Washington where he is on the board of trustees. The statement emphasizes athletics as part of the evangelizing mission of the university as a whole and hopes to help Catholic athletes and coaches grow in their faith and demonstrate “a refined spirit of ecumenism and interfaith charity” with students and coaches who are not Catholic.

Catholic pastoral work in sports, the bishop said, would profit from a document like Pope Francis’ 2013 exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” addressed specifically to how sports programs can foster evangelization and growth in values, including the values of Catholic social teaching and human fraternity.

“Professional sports is a major for-profit industry focused on financial gain often at the expense of human dignity,” he said. “Athletes are often seen through the eyes of consumerism, huge salaries and celebrity status, manipulation and a throwaway culture rather than through the eyes of the glory of God and the dignity of the human person.”

“We need to articulate a bold evangelizing and global missiological vision for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, the World Cup, the Tour de France and the Super Bowl,” he said.