LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Despite continuing to suffer from what the Vatican has described as a lung inflammation that’s forced him to curtail his schedule and skip an international trip, Pope Francis nevertheless met Wednesday with members of the Scottish soccer team Celtic on Wednesday, a day after they played the Rome soccer team Lazio in the UEFA Champions League.
Celtic Football Club is the traditionally Catholic team Glasgow, one of Scotlands largest cities. It has a fierce rivalry with Rangers, which is traditionally Protestant.
The two teams dominate Scotland’s soccer league, but Scottish flags – which can be found almost everywhere else in the country – are not common in the teams’ stadiums: Celtic fans fly the Irish tri-color, while Rangers fans fly the Union Jack or even the Northern Irish flag. As late as the 1980’s, Rangers had an unofficial ban on Catholics playing for them.
Their matches – the two teams meet several times a year – often lead to anti-religious verbal abuse and even violence.
Francis said he was pleased to welcome Celtic to the Vatican, noting their 2-0 loss to Lazio.
“While it is true that winning rather than losing a match is always preferred, it is not the most important aspect! More vital is the example you give when winning or losing, both on and off the field,” the pope said.
“An example that embodies the virtues of courage, perseverance, generosity and respect for the God-given dignity of others. Indeed, Celtic Football Club was founded in 1887 with the specific goal of alleviating poverty in the City of Glasgow. This was truly a charitable undertaking for the sake of the most needy of our brothers and sisters.”
“Yet, how much the world of football has changed since then. In particular, the financial footprint of the ‘Beautiful Game’ has greatly increased, and at times can risk making football only attractive for reasons of monetary profit,” Francis continued.
“The valued legacy of your club, then, places a heavy responsibility upon your shoulders, reminding you to be good role-models, especially for young people. The standards you are called to set concern not only your abilities as sportsmen and the classic qualities required to excel, but are also about your personal integrity. In this regard, men and women should see in you not just fine footballers but also people of kindness, big-hearted men who know how to be wise stewards of the many benefits you receive from your privileged positions within society,” he said.
“With these brief remarks, I pray that you will continue to remember and bear witness to everything that makes sport genuinely good and noble. May Almighty God bless each of you and your families. I wish you a safe journey home to Scotland, and ask you, please, to pray for me!” Francis added.
After Celtic Chairman Peter Lawwell presented a Celtic Cross to the pope, Francis continued his statement.
“I wanted to say one thing to you. In sport, the most beautiful thing is gratuitousness, that beauty of playing together,” he said.
“Please, never lose the amateur spirit! This is the beautiful thing: The amateur spirit, where sport is for sport. This means a great deal. Thank you for this. It doesn’t matter if we have won or if we have not won, it doesn’t matter. Everyone struggles to win, but victory is not the goal, that can be defeat: Victory is the entire process of playing together, playing as a team. Maintain the amateur spirit. That is the most beautiful thing about sport. Thank you for this visit,” Francis said.
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers presented the pope with a Celtic home shirt signed by the squad, with “Francis” written on the back.
At the end of the meeting, the pope added a small nod towards Scotland’s own “Uisge Beatha” – the name for whiskey in Irish: “And a final piece of advice. It has come to my attention that you have in your land a very important specialty, a special ‘milk’ … A little is fine!”