ROME – Speaking to the athletes of the Special Olympics who will participate at the ‘United Football’ tournament, Pope Francis emphasized how sport has the power to dissipate differences and foster inclusion.

“Sport is a universal language that can overcome cultural, social, religious and physical differences, and it can unite people, rendering them participant in the same game and together protagonists of victories and defeats,” the pope said during the audience Oct. 13 in the context of the 50th anniversary since the beginning of the Special Olympics.

The ‘Unified Football’ tournament – more commonly called soccer in America – will take place at the Pio XI sports centre in Rome Oct. 13-15 and it will feature athletes with and without disabilities between the ages of 18 and 30, playing the most popular game in the world together on the same field.

A total of nine countries will be represented: Lithuania, France, Poland, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Romania, and Italy.

“This beautiful reality that you bring forward with commitment and determination, fuels the hope in a positive and fertile future for sport, because it turns it into a true occasion for inclusion and involvement,” Francis told the athletes at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

The pope encouraged them to never give up in showing the world the ability that sport has to create “more fraternal societies,” where every individual has an opportunity to fully develop his capabilities.

He also underlined the support and encouragement that the Catholic Church offers such sporting initiatives, which better the community and society as a whole. Francis also pointed to the stories that emerge of athletes overcoming poverty and marginalization, wounds and injuries.

“These stories show us how the determination and character of some can be an inspiration and encouragement for many people, in all aspects of their life,” the pope said.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics in 1968 and it’s a global sports organization that provides training and competitions for both children and adults with disabilities from over 170 countries.

“You are the symbol of a sport that opens the eyes and the heart to the value and dignity of individuals and people who would otherwise be an object of prejudice and exclusion,” Francis said.

The pope expressed his hope that the games be an occasion of “joy and serenity” – without forgetting fun – where “friendship and solidarity” may flourish.

As always, Francis asked them to pray for him and blessed the athletes, their families and the entire initiative.