In his youth, Pope John Paul II was known in his hometown of Wadowice as “Lolek the goalie,” and this love for sport never left him.
He was an active sportsman for nearly seventy years and last week, it was discovered that one of the last Offices he established in the Vatican before his death, was the Church and Sport office at the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
The Office’s director Fr. Kevin Lixey told Vatican Radio:
“Pope John Paul II saw sport as a sign of the times, something to engage with and enlighten.”
Unity and community
Whether bringing together different communities at an amateur and local level, or helping to build unity as when India played Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup recently, sport can help construct that most precious of states, communion.
After all, when we support one team or person in any sport, it is surely the case that one of the things we are searching for is that communion. Think of the celebrations that happen in a city if they win the Premier League, or in a country when they lift an international trophy like the World Cup.
Some dismiss this simply as the herd instinct, or an absurd show of jingoism, but the Pope would not have done so, and neither does Fr Lixey when addressing the challenges professionals face and the seriousness of their effect:
“Athletes can be taken away from their home and family at a young age, and money and fame can be thrown at them.
“If they wish to witness to their faith we can help, but with the continual turnover in the people that play professional sport these days, it is important for the Church to meet young athletes.”
The Olympics in London
As a gathering of sportspeople, the Olympic games is unparalleled. It may not get much of a mention come next year’s Olympiad, but there is important preparation going on for Catholic athletes coming to the London games.
As Fr Lixey says:
“Many teams, especially the ones from predominantly Catholic countries, have chaplains, and in the Olympic village there will be services and multi-lingual chaplains.
“In London much has already been done, not only to reach out to the athletes themselves but also to the tourists and those coming to see the games.
“London may not be able to compete with Beijing in terms of spectacle, but they want to build a legacy in terms of the virtues and skills sport can give.”
For a look at some of this work, see the More Than Gold organisation and Catholic 2012. The Holy Father – the skier, mountaineer and goalkeeper, for whom every opportunity to announce the love of God to man was invaluable – would have seen the Olympics as a great opportunity, and so should we.
Of related interest: