Receiving participants in Italy’s most prestigious international swimming competition on Saturday, Pope Francis said that while we may live today in a “liquid” society, marked by a lack of points of reference, swimming is anything but a “liquid” sport, even if it takes place in the water.
“Your sport happens in the water, but it’s not ‘liquid,’” Francis told the swimmers. “On the contrary, it’s extremely ‘solid,’ requiring constant commitment and strength of spirit.”
The pope defined sports as a kind of “celebration,” one “not without content, because it transmits values that are ever more necessary in a society such as ours.”
The encounter took place early Saturday afternoon in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, and was organized by Italy’s National Swimming Federation.
Given the familiarity swimmers have with water, Francis offered them a quotation from St. Francis of Assisi’s famed Canticle of the Creatures: Laudato si’, mi Signore, per sora acqua, la quale è molto utile et umile et pretiosa et casta. (“Praise to you, my Lord, for sister water, who is very useful and humble, the prettiest and chaste.”)
That quotation is the source of the title for Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, the first papal encyclical devoted to the care of creation.
Francis told the swimmers that because of their direct contact with water, they can play a role in building a “different culture of water,” one that recognizes water as the source of life, including Christian life in the form of the sacrament of baptism.
“The water in which you swim, dive, play and race,” he said, “recalls a series of points: the value of the body, which should be taken care of and not idolized; the need for an interior life, and the search for meaning in what you do; the strength and courage to resist weariness; a clear vision of which landing to seek in life, and how to reach it; and the value of authenticity, which means transparency, clarity, and interior purity.
“Through contact with the water, you learn how to make clean again everything that’s polluted, both in sport and in life,” Francis said.
Pope Francis, an avid soccer fan, has spoken repeatedly about the value and importance of sports during the course of his papacy.
Last fall, Francis spoke at a conference on sports and faith put together by Sports at the Service of Humanity, a network sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council of Culture. The gathering was also backed by the U.N. and the International Olympic Committee.
“Sport is a human activity of great value, able to enrich people’s lives; it is enjoyed by men and women of every nation, ethnic group and religious belonging,” Pope Francis said on that occasion.
“Our religious traditions share the commitment to ensure the respect for the dignity of every human being,” he said, “so it is good to know that the world’s sporting institutions have taken so courageously to heart the value of inclusion. The Paralympic movement and other sporting associations sustaining those with disabilities, such as the Special Olympics, have had a decisive role in helping the public recognize and admire the extraordinary performances of athletes with different abilities and capacities.”
As he did with the swimmers on Saturday, Francis also talked about the importance of sports remaining pure.
“It would be sad for sport and for humanity if people were unable to trust in the truth of sporting results, or if cynicism and disenchantment were to drown out enthusiasm or joyful and disinterested participation,” he said.
“In sport, as in life, competing for the result is important, but playing well and fairly is even more important!” he said.
Such is Francis’s commitment to sports, he’s enlisted major global athletes as partners in some of his most prized initiatives.
For instance, when the Scholas Occurentes effort to bring schoolchildren around the world together using technology was introduced in the Vatican in 2013, soccer stars Lionel Messi and Gianluigi Buffon joined Francis in making the presentation.