Many American Catholics have been surprised by the attention Pope Francis has given to sports. Even more remarkable is the profoundly Christian prism through which he views athletics. Living in a culture in which sports appear to epitomize secular values, we find the Holy Father’s enthusiasm — some journalists have gone so far as to call him “sports mad” — rather mystifying. But there is a context to the pope’s interest in athletics, a story that has not really been told.
Growing up in the largely Italian immigrant barrio of Flores in the heart of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio – the future Pope Francis—was immersed in the ethos of the Athletic Club of San Lorenzo. Such European style associations, of which there were hundreds in the Argentine capital at this time, were voluntary clubs whose members paid dues, elected officers, and sponsored an array of amateur and professional teams, culminating in world-class soccer. The San Lorenzo club enjoyed the distinction of have been founded some thirty years earlier by a Salesian of St. John Bosco, in order to provide street youth a place to play. In exchange for the playground, they agreed to attend Sunday Mass and catechism class.
In the Flores Barrio, religion and sports went hand in hand. As the eldest of five children of a middle class Italian immigrant family, the young Borgoglio took pride in the fact in fact all in his family were card-carrying members of the San Lorenzo Athletic Club. “Cuervos”, Spanish for “ravens,” was the name San Lorenzo fans gave to themselves out of affection for the black cassock worn by their founder, Salesian Fr. Lorenzo Massa. The red and blue team colors were taken from the image of Mary Help of Christians, a popular Salesian devotion. Each year, in honor of the founding of the club, the Eucharist was celebrated in the street before thousands of fans. The unity and enthusiasm of the cuervos, mostly members of the lower classes, left a lasting impression on the young Borgoglio.
When Bergoglio was ten years old, the San Lorenzo soccer team, having won the Argentine National Soccer championship, traveled to Europe and defeated both Portugese and Spanish national teams. Borgolio later recalled “wonderful memories” of going to the stadiums and the joyous Sunday moments” watching games with his family members. More than a contest, such events were a celebration of community.
It is therefore not surprising that as Pope, Francis has frequently alluded to sports. Meeting with the heads of the Italian sports federation in May 2014, he noted that “”Today, soccer, too, is immersed in a world of big business, with advertising, and television.” In this context, he urged them to be proactive, to “restore dignity”…and not allow “the economic side of sports to taint everything….”
On the same occasion, he reminded a group of professional soccer players: “You are at the centre of attention and many of your fans are young, very young; keep this in mind, think about how your behavior” both good and bad, speaks volumes and influences others. Always be a true sportsmen.”
Despite the problems related to the commercialization of modern athletics, Pope Francis emphasizes the positive side of athletics.Addressing some 40,000 young boy and girl athletes in St. Peter’s square he counseled them. “And you, Boys and Girls…you are called to behave like true athletes, worthy of the jerseys you wear. I hope you can merit them everyday through your commitment as well as your hard work.” But he also showed that had not forgotten his own youthful experiences. “I hope you can taste the beauty of teamwork,” he admonished them. “No individualism! No playing for yourselves. In my homeland, when a player does this, we say: “This guy wants to devour the ball all by himself!”. No, this is individualism: don’t devour the ball, be team players. To belong to a sports club means to reject every form of selfishness and isolation, it is an opportunity to encounter and be with others, to help one another… I recommend that everyone get to play, not just the best, but everyone, with the advantages and the limitations that each has, indeed, focusing on the disadvantaged, as Jesus did.”
In a church that has long seemed to favor pious reflection over physical exertion, Francis has been outspoken in encouraging competitive sports. He is grateful to the Salesian priests and brothers of his youth for encouraging a competitive, if sportsmanlike, demeanor on the playing field. “Only by remaining a game,” he told a group of young people, “ will it do good for the body and spirit…. Challenge yourself in the game of life like you are in the game of sports. Challenge yourself in the quest for good, in both Church and society, without fear, with courage and enthusiasm. …Don’t settle for lukewarm lives, “mediocre even-scored” lives: no, no! Go forward, seek victory, always!”
Pope Francis’ support of athletics is more than lip service. On September 1, 2014, Pope Francis hosted an international – interfaith soccer game in Rome’s Olympic Stadium. The event was noteworthy in that it occurred amidst the intense violence then taking place between Jews and Muslims in Gaza. Well known soccer figures of diverse faiths: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Buddhists, participated. Stars of former years came out of retirement for the occasion, including Diego Maradona, the Argentine sports hero who led his team to a World Cup championship in 1984.
Prior to the game, millions of television spectators, worldwide, viewed a brief recorded message from Pope Francis. “This game is symbolic of the union of team members in which “no one plays for themselves,” but rather for one another. He said if more people join in, playing as a team, the process multiplies…[and is] the seed of peace.” The message, leavened by time, evokes ideals and memories of earlier golden days in Flores when the spirit of sportsmanship still seemed to prevail, and the San Lorenzo team ruled the soccer field.