Playing For God In The Vatican

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The way the Vatican sees it, playing for God is a loftier mission than playing for gold. Historically, the Catholic Church has exhorted athletics as a way to promote the virtues of Christianity but in today’s world, the Holy See is actually participating in sports and not just preaching it.

In the summer of 2018, the Vatican released a 52-page document on the subject of sports, referring to the discipline as “…a very rich source of values and virtues that help us to become better people...”.  Among the pronouncements is that sports can be enjoyed on Sunday as a way to celebrate family life and community, but not if it’s used to avoid Mass.

The report was the first of its kind in the annals of the Church and it follows a period of increased participation in sports by the age-old institution.

Just a year earlier, a group of 30 track & field athletes made up of men and women who work in the Vatican established the Athletica Vaticana.  Their purpose is to share the Church’s spiritual message through sport.  Dubbed the “pope’s runners”, they pounded the pavement in the first ever ‘multireligious’ half-marathon, which started and ended near St. Peter’s Square.

A few months later, Vatican officials were formally invited by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take part with an observer status in one of the IOC’s sessions ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Games.  

The opportunity allowed the Catholic institution to experience the Olympics from the inside.

Until then, the Church was still an outsider that merely sat at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.  So, is Rome prepared to assemble a divinely-inspired group of athletes who will strive for glory in international sports?

The concept seems to be at odds with religious teachings of harmony, humility and brotherly love. Even on the sporting stage, it’s not in the vocabulary of God’s representatives on earth to encourage self-glory or national glory.

But metaphors are different. St. Paul used game references to explain Christianity to gentiles and St. Thomas Aquinas saw virtue in sports, which were later incorporated into the programs of Jesuit education.

A spiritual enclave in the heart of the Italian capital, the Vatican is also a globally-recognized sovereign state that already engages in sporting events.

The Vatican Cricket Team is an amateur squad that was formed to establish ties with countries and regions where the game is popular and the faith is different, such as India and Pakistan.

Wearing yellow and white jerseys ghosted with an image of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican City national soccer team is comprised of ‘Holy’ employees from the police department, postal service, government agencies, and the Swiss Guard.

Though not part of FIFA, the team has squared off against top European franchises Monaco and Borussia Monchengladbach. Their best performance was a draw against Monaco in April, 2017.

The team’s current coach is Gianfranco Guadagnoli, a former goalkeeper. One of the reasons he got the job is that he never received a yellow or red card (violations) while playing.

It was John Paul II who established a sports department inside the Vatican in 2004 in order to “reinvigorate the tradition of sport in the Christian community”. The popular Pontiff was reportedly a goalkeeper in his youth and an ardent supporter of Crakovia Krakow, a team from his native Poland.

A few years later, the Vatican launched the “Clericus Cup”, a tournament contested by teams representing seminaries around Rome. The event is held each year with 16 squads vying for the temporal trophy.

In their inaugural match in 2007, the teams fielded a mixed bag of nationalities and were reminded at kickoff- “You are playing in view of St. Peter’s Cupola, so behave well”.

With a spiritual twist to the standard rules, blue cards are handed out to offenders instead of yellow and red.  The punishment received is five minutes on the sideline for reflection.

Jokes and hopes aside, Vatican City, with only 900 inhabitants and a focus to the heavens, is unlikely to seek athletic greatness on the international stage.  

But its involvement in sports is a welcome reminder that professional games and competitions should always strive for purity and integrity.  

Other articles enjoyed: The Special Olympics at 50, The Unknown Olympics, A Season of Cups & Trophies, Memorial To The Munich Massacre

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