ROME — Pope Francis, famous for his love of football, met representatives of the American version of the sport on Wednesday morning when the members and directors of the American Pro Football Hall of Fame visited the Vatican
“As many of you know, I am an avid follower of ‘football,’ but where I come from, the game is played very differently!” Francis said when he greeted the delegation.
The pope’s version of football is of course soccer, and he is a longtime member of Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro, a soccer team based in the Boedo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital.
Although American football might not be as popular outside of the United States, the NFL is still the most valuable sports league in the world, and is watched — if not played — across the planet.
It is also the home of the “Hail Mary” pass, coined by Catholic Hall of Famer Roger Staubach after he made a last minute, long-distance throw to lead the Dallas Cowboys over the Minnesota Vikings in 1975. He said he just “closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary” before making the extraordinary pass.
Among those meeting the pontiff were Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones— who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on August 5 — and six previous Hall inductees, including Curtis Martin, Ronnie Lott and Franco Harris.
“Our world, and especially our young people, need models, persons who show us how to bring out the best in ourselves, to use our God-given gifts and talents, and, in so doing, to point the way to a better future for our societies,” the pope said.
Francis spoke about “teamwork, fair play and the pursuit of personal excellence,” a common theme of his when meeting with athletes.
He said these are the values – “in the religious sense, we can say virtues” – that guide commitment on the field.
“Yet these same values are urgently needed off the field, on all levels of our life as a community,” – Francis continued – “They are the values that help build a culture of encounter, in which we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family. How greatly our world needs this culture of encounter!”
The Hall of Fame players presented the pontiff with a signed jersey and helmet, carrying the number 1 and bearing the name “Papa Francesco.”
.@RonnieLottHOF @curtismartin @francoharrishof getting ready in Rome the day before historic meeting with @Pontifex #VaticanHuddle pic.twitter.com/yiMSeu7a0f
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) June 20, 2017
The trip was organized by Hall of Fame board member Steve Schott, who has long been active in supporting different Catholic charities in the United States and around the world.
Francis is an avid sports fan, and has met representatives of different sports teams throughout his pontificate. Since 2014, the pontiff has endorsed a “Match for Peace,” annually bringing together soccer stars from across the world to play an exhibition game in Rome.
In October 2016, the Vatican hosted the first Global Conference on Sport and Faith, sponsored by Sport at the Service of Humanity, the United Nations, and the International Olympic Committee.
During this October meeting, Francis spoke about protecting sport from the “manipulations” of commercial abuse.
“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,” – the pope said in October – “In sport, as in life, competing for the result is important, but playing well and fairly is even more important!”