ROME – When the Italian police got word that about 200 homeless, immigrants and disabled persons would be attending the Golden Gala, an international athletics competition at Rome’s Olympic Stadium on Thursday, there was no small amount of confusion.
“They called me up and said: ‘The pope’s poor? What are you talking about?’” Giampaolo Mattei recounted, wearing the bright papal yellow shirt of Athletica Vaticana, the Vatican employees’ amateur track club, which he represents.
Usually the “Curva Sud,” the southern curve of the oval shaped stadium, is home to the most adamant supporters of the Roma team, who inflame the section by singing guttural chants and waiving the team’s yellow and red colors. But on May 31 other flags, representing Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Eritrea, Egypt and many other countries, flapped above the seats of the home team ultras, meaning the hardest-core fans.
The biggest banner read, “With Pope Francis for a better world,” brought by the Auxilium cooperative, a group dedicated to caring for the elderly and marginalized, which organized the outing along with the community of St. Egidio, dubbed “the pope’s favorite movement” under Francis, and Athletica Vaticana members.
The Office of Papal Charities, charged with exercising charity to the poor in the name of the pope, sanctioned the event and bought the tickets. It’s part of a series of outings, including trips to the circus and a pizza night, which the pope has offered for those most impacted by what he calls a “throw-away society,” but it’s the first one centered around sports.
Immigrants, disabled persons, elderly and the “pope’s poor” walk up the steps to the #GoldenGala in Rome’s #stadioolimpico Thursday evening. Check @Crux tomorrow to read my article on the event. pic.twitter.com/9N5upBTsAO
— Claire Giangrave (@ClaireGiangrave) June 1, 2018
In another Vatican first, the department for Laity, Family and Life headed by Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the following day brought out a new document aimed at offering a Christian prospective on sports called, “Giving the best of yourself.”
“The document we are presenting doesn’t pretend to answer all the questions and challenges posed today by the sporting world, but aims to ‘recount’ the relationship between sport and the experience of faith, and to offer a Christian perspective on sport practices,” Farrell said during a press conference at the Vatican on Friday.
While speakers said it was just a fortuitous coincidence that the document was published only 12 hours after the “pope’s poor” left the stadium, there’s no doubt that Francis – an avid soccer fan himself – has taken a keen interest in the sporting world, from sending delegations to the Olympic games to inviting South Korean taekwondo athletes to perform after his weekly general audience to promote a message of peace.
“We need to deepen the close connection that exists between sport and life, which can enlighten one another, so that the effort to surpass oneself in an athletic discipline also serves as a stimulus to always improve as a person, in all of life’s aspects,” the pope wrote in a lengthy letter to Farrell in light of the new document.
“This pursuit puts us on the path that, with the help of God’s grace, can lead us to the fullness of life that we call holiness,” the letter reads.
The document touches on a variety of topics concerning sports, from Catholicism’s theological understanding of the body and the human person to the challenges facing the sporting world today, including doping, corruption and abuse.
The text, which is 52 pages long in its English translation, repeatedly presents the function of sports as a unifying force “in a world rife with questions about migration, nationalism and individual identity,” adding that in this context, it’s “one of the few realities today that have transcended the boundaries of religion and culture.”
This view, the document says, doesn’t just embrace athletes, coaches and sporting associations, but also fans.
“Spectators during sports activities and games watch and support together as one body of fans. This common feeling across ages, sex, race, religious belief, is a wonderful source of joy, and beauty,” the text reads, while acknowledging that the role of spectators can at times also be “ambiguous.”
Examples of destructive fan behavior aren’t hard to find. In soccer, for instance, the mayhem unleashed by “hooligans” is well known. In South Africa, ten rowdy fans recently appeared in court after engaging in bloody brawls after an April 21 match between local teams Kaizer Chiefs and Free State Stars; one of the ten was caught on camera kicking a security guard in the face.
Moreover, across Europe some hard-core soccer fans have been increasingly aggressive in voicing racism and anti-Semitism. When one Italian squad brought in a black substitute this season, for example, fans chanted, “We don’t want the Negro.”
None of those tensions were felt among the immigrant families, homeless persons and elderly who occupied the usually turbulent Curva Sud.
A young girl from Syria enthusiastically clapped as Christian Coleman from the United States, one of the fastest runners on earth and fresh from a meeting with the pope the day before, sprinted across the track. Her shirt, worn over her flower-spotted dress, featured a quote from Francis: “I’m not dangerous, I’m in danger.”
Furkan, 18, left Turkey three weeks ago and translated the enthusiasm of his family for being at the event into English.
“I like Pope Francis, he’s good,” he told Crux, adding that while he likes soccer more he was enjoying being at the stadium.
Mina Azami, 25, originally from Egypt, shared this positive view of the pontiff.
“Pope Francis is a good person. He helps immigrants with money, housing and other things,” she said.
A row of elderly women, who bravely yet shakily scaled the steps to reach the stadium, pleasantly ate from the dinner box offered by the organizers as they cheered excitedly for the light-footed runners and the bulky, pirouetting discus throwers.
One of the most adamant shows of enthusiasm took place when the Kenyan Hyvin Kiyeng won the tight 3,000 meter steeplechase, which was entirely dominated by female runners from Kenya. The excitement in the Curva Sud was palpable as the children cheered and the African flags waved more vigorously.
When it comes to running, Mattei said, “the world turns upside down, because Africa is the leader and everyone else follows.”
The power of athletes to inspire people, and especially youth, was also a key element in the pope’s letter.
“We know how the new generations look at sportsmen and are inspired by them!” Francis wrote. “The participation of all athletes of every age and level is, therefore, necessary; because those who are part of the sports world exemplify virtues such as generosity, humility, sacrifice, constancy, and cheerfulness.”
While the positive aspects of sports were all on display Thursday at the Olympic stadium, the Church in its recent document did not hold back from criticizing and pointing to issues, challenges and contradictions that infect many sporting events today.
“No less than doping, corruption can ruin sport. It is used to exploit the sense of sporting competition of players and spectators who are deliberately cheated and deceived,” the text reads. Francis himself has condemned corruption in all aspects, including sports.
A letter recently obtained by Crux, for instance, documents that Francis has received a report with accusations of cases of slavery found in Qatar for the building of the infrastructure of the World Cup. According to Argentine Guillermo Whpei, President of the Foundation for International Democracy, who informed the pope that allegedly some 2,000 immigrants died in the construction of the tournament’s facilities, Francis wrote a letter to the international soccer association, FIFA, asking for an explanation.
“The Church is always involved in any kind of disorder, in sports and in all human activities,” Farrell said during the press event.
The document also points to the instances of abuse that occur in the world of sports, as has recently been the case with the U.S. gymnastic team.
“The Church will do whatever is possible when it is under our control to guarantee zero tolerance for any sexual, physical and moral abuse,” the cardinal said, adding that this is especially important when it comes to children.
The new text also states, “Sports that inevitably cause serious harm to the human body cannot be ethically justified.”
While speakers at the press event denied that this was a direct rebuke to the controversy concerning brain injuries in sports such as the rough-and-tumble of American football, the document does say that “in cases where we are only recently learning about the harmful effects of a particular sport to the body, including damage to the brain, it is important for persons from all segments of society to make decisions regarding these sports that place the dignity of the human person and his or her well-being first.”
The department for laity also had something to say about the possible introduction of e-games at the Olympics, warning that they don’t foster the team building and conflict resolution that traditional sports entail.
In its conclusion, the text points to “how the experiences people have while participating in sport – of joy, encounter with others different from themselves and the building up of community, growth in the virtues and in self-transcendence – can also teach us something about the human person and his or her destiny.”
As one of the immigrant families waited in line to pass their ticket, two Italian girls walked by, one making the quick assessment from the mother’s veil and olive skin that they were foreigners.
“Don’t tell me these people are also coming!” she said.
“Beautiful people,” the other girl answered as they entered the stadium, “these are beautiful people.”