ROME – The Vienna-based FC Mariahilf Women’s soccer club has apologized to the Vatican after a friendly match between the two Saturday was cancelled when several Austrian players lifted their jerseys exposing pro-choice slogans at odds with Catholic teaching on abortion.

Spectators gathered for the match had also brought banners criticizing homophobia, while conversely at one point during the game, homophobic remarks were reportedly shouted from the stands and heard on the field, prompting Vatican representatives to bring the game to a halt.

In a June 23 statement posted to FC Mariahilf’s official Facebook page, the club distanced themselves from the incident, but voiced regret, saying “We sincerely apologize to the Vatican team’s players and guests from near and far that the game was not played.”

“Abandoning it was never intended, and we were looking forward to the friendly match,” they said.

The Vatican women’s soccer team was recently launched in Rome under the umbrella of the Sport Association in the Vatican.

Composed of Vatican employees, wives of Vatican employees and daughters of Vatican staff, the team has between 20-25 players aged 25-50, most of whom are amateur players. The team is coached by Gianfranco Guadagnoli, who also oversees the Vatican’s men’s team.

In May the women’s team played against the AS Roma team, which plays in Italy’s Women’s Serie A, the country’s top professional league. They were invited by FC Mariahilf to Vienna for the June 22 match in honor of the club’s 20th anniversary.

In their statement, FC Mariahilf said the “sports highlight” of their anniversary celebrations should have been facing off with the Vatican, despite what they called “ambivalent” attitudes of some team members to the Catholic Church, saying “(soccer) knows no borders.”

“On the one hand, it was about the athletic challenge, and on the other hand [the goal] was to establish friendly and empowering collaboration within the club during the preparations for such a big event,” the club said, saying they were positive about the Vatican forming a women’s team, but called it “only a small sign of equality.”

After an open-air Mass Saturday morning, as national anthems were being played, three players from the FC Mariahilf team lifted their jerseys displaying pro-choice slogans painted on their stomachs, including one that read, “my body my rules.”

FC Mariahilf insisted that the incident was “independently organized and carried out,” and that they attempted to play the match as usual, requesting that anti-homophobia banners in the stands be taken down.

“Unfortunately, at this point we could not persuade the Vatican officials to play any further,” they said, and while stressing their commitment to tolerance and the voicing of different opinions, the club disassociated itself from the incident and the “ugly” and at times homophobic statements made among spectators, which were heard on the field.

As a team that has in the past displayed rainbow colors in support of the LGBT community, the club said it “understand the demands and message of our players, but we find the timing of the way they expressed it inappropriate and therefore we understand the emotion it’s caused.”

The Vatican is not expected to release a statement about the incident, and players and other Vatican representatives associated with the women’s soccer team have been advised not to grant interviews.

In a June 24 statement, the “Women in the Vatican” group — made up of women who work in and around the Vatican — said they “deplored and regretted” the incident, adding the team was “forced” to cancel the match due to “an inopportune and unpleasant provocation.”

They called the incident an “exploitation of sports” which not only offended the Vatican and team members, but also “the very idea of sport as fair competition between opponents, not between enemies.”

“Taking advantage of a soccer match to contest well-known positions of the Catholic Church in support of life and sexuality with actions, writings and banners was an inappropriate choice,” they said, stressing that in their view the actions pitted women “against other women.”

They said that welcome, dialogue and mutual respect are the values which should be promoted, and that the soccer field “is certainly not the place to lead an ideological battle.”

“Sport must be experienced as a place for encounter and promoting fraternity and peace. Otherwise the consequences are furthering the building of walls and creating increasingly deeper divides,” they said.

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