On 6 and 7 November 2009, the “ Church and Sport ” Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity held a seminar on the theme “ Sport, education, faith: towards a new season for Catholic sport associations ”. It was an occasion to look at the opportunities that Catholic sporting associations can offer to furthering the Church’s mission. The seminar was held at Villa Aurelia in Rome, and there were around ninety delegates from the five continents participating.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his message sent to Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko for the occasion, stated: “ sports have considerable educational potential in the context of youth and, for this reason, great importance not only in the use of leisure time but also in the formation of the person ”. The Holy Father observed that this was particularly true for activities “ in parish youth centres, schools and sports associations, with the aim of assuring the new generations a human and Christian formation ”.
The Pope pointed to the importance of the Church being present in the sporting world of young people. He said that “ through sports, the ecclesial community contributes to the formation of youth, providing a suitable environment for their human and spiritual growth. In fact, when sports initiatives aim at the integral development of the person and are managed by qualified and competent personnel, they provide a useful opportunity for priests, religious and lay people to become true and proper educators and teachers of life for the young. In our time when an urgent need to educate the new generations is evident it is therefore necessary for the Church to continue to support sports for youth, making the most of their positive aspects also at competitive levels such as their capacity for stimulating competitiveness, courage and tenacity in pursuing goals. However, it is necessary to avoid every trend that perverts the nature of sports by recourse to practices that can even damage the body.”
Pope Benedict’s words draw attention to the enormous potential that sporting activities, connected to the Church, can have in the human and Christian development of young people, and they help us to see the contribution of the Catholic faith to sport.
In Cardinal Ryłko’s introductory speech, he gave a brief description of four characteristics that distinguish a Catholic sporting association. An association can be said to be truly Catholic when it promotes and manages sporting activity on the basis of Christian principles, that is, if it is truly “ directed towards education ”; if it devotes time and resources to preparing trainers and educators to fulfil their mission; if it appreciates the social aspects of sport, like fellowship in human relations; and if it directs the youth involved in sport towards God.
The Most Rev. Carlo Mazza, former bureau chief in the Italian Bishops’ Conference office for sport and leisure, discussed the contribution of various popes regarding the identity and mission of Catholic sporting associations. In quoting Pius XII, he emphasised that the Church, in emphasising the institution of a Christian sporting movement, certainly did not aim to take over and monopolise certain activities. It aimed rather at integrating something that was lacking in an idea, an activity or an undertaking that, through excess, defect or absence of basic ideas, did not respond to, or worse, was entirely contrary to Christian dignity.
Bishop Mazza recalled the importance that the popes of the past century attached to sporting activity in the Church because, in respecting the dignity of the human person, it can become an example and a “ leaven ” in the vast world of sport. Drawing upon the teaching of the Magisterium, Bishop Mazza, several times chaplain at the Olympics, explained that, if there is to be a new season, then Catholic sporting associations must do more than guarantee pastoral concern for human beings, but must also ensure that the association itself is an environment that educates for life. It should be a place where human and personal relations between trainers and athletes can flourish and where the charism of unity that is inherent in sport can have greater results.
Professor Mike McNamee from the University of Swansee spoke about the educational purpose of sport and how virtues can be developed through sporting activity. In acquiring virtue, he said, “ practice makes stable, not perfect ”. Therefore, it is of fundamental importance that children are trained in sport by people of moral integrity who can be models of excellence as well as trainers of a sport.
A panel discussion on “ training true champions ” looked at how a “ win at all costs ” mentality —something that is rampant in youth sports— can be overcome. Demetrio Albertini, an Italian former world football champion, spoke about how his success in sport was more a gift than due to any personal merit. He said that much help was received from his family, trainer, and the other members of the team. Sir Philip Craven, former wheelchair basketball champion and currently president of the International Paralympics Committee, spoke of the significance of becoming a champion in spite of a physical handicap. It is precisely because of this handicap that a testimony is given of how difficulties challenge people to give the best of themselves. Another speaker in the panel discussion was Valerio Bianchini, a basketball coach, who has led several professional Italian teams to victory. He told us how the task of a coach requires much time, patience and discipline, and that these factors give each one of the players a sense of discipline and self-esteem and hence bring forth the champion that is within each young person. These are skills which are not only very useful for team play, but also for so many circumstances in life.
The first day of the seminar concluded with a personal reflection by writer and former Olympic rower Susan Saint Sing. She illustrated the similarities between the effort and suffering we experience in sport as we accept discomfort and injuries, and the effort and suffering that we must endure in life.
The second day opened with a talk by Edio Costantini, president of the John Paul II Foundation for Sport. He spoke about some new approaches and strategies that could and are being tried out in Italy and elsewhere by Catholic sporting associations in order to foster this educational component. In times of a serious crisis in education that threatens the youth of today, Costantini emphasised the fact that youth sportng associations are the one of the only meeting places for an age group that tends to prefer the solitude of the personal computer. These associations can be places for acceptance and guidance, and especially of hope, for young people who cannot find meaning in their lives. They can be encouraged to resist the tendency prevalent in sport to consider people as homo economicus and to restore that of considering them as imago Dei, when relating with others.
Another panel discussion was held on the second day of the seminar to specifically explore the opportunities that these sporting associations offer for witness to be given to Christ. In addition to pointing out the explicit witness to the gospel that a trainer can transmit to the athletes, it was also seen how sport can build bridges between people of different faiths even where people are divided by prejudice or war.
In his conclusions, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Bishop Josef Clemens, asked these Catholic associations not to give way to the assaults of secularisation, but rather to confirm once again their own Catholic identity and to be a “ creative minority ” in the vast world of sport. He recalled the words of Pope Benedict XVI pronounced in his homily at the start of his pontificate: “ Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way of letting Christ enter fully into our lives? ” The Pope responded to this question: “ No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. […] He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return ”.
Our hope is that this third seminar held by the “ Church and Sport ” Section on the specific mission and Catholic identity of sporting associations may serve to motivate all those engaged in youth sport as volunteers, trainers, or in other capacities, to take full advantage of the many wonderful opportunities that sport offers to help in the pastoral care of young people.