ROME — Sports can offer a unique witness of unity that can build a “bridge of peace” between men and women of different religions and cultures and promote solidarity, Pope Francis said.

In his first audience after restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were eased, the pope met with a group of Olympians, Paralympians and Special Olympians who were to take part in an international meeting of athletes sponsored by the Vatican sports association.

Unable to take part in the race due to the pandemic, the athletes met with the pope May 20 in the library of the Apostolic Palace shortly after his weekly general audience.

According to a statement by Vatican Athletic, the event will now take the form of a charity auction to benefit two Italian medical facilities that “have distinguished themselves in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic: The Pope John XXIII Hospital in Bergamo and the Poliambulanza Foundation in Brescia.”

In his off-the-cuff remarks to the athletes, the pope thanked them for offering their joy and happiness through “the beauty of sport.”

“This is an important thing: to understand how to give beauty,” he said. “This helps because what you are doing is not an exercise, let’s say, in speed or sports. That is true, but there’s more. It means giving to others.”

Recalling the apostles running to Jesus’ tomb on the morning of the Resurrection, the pope noted that while John, the younger apostle, arrived before the much older Peter, John waited for him before entering the tomb.

“This is a very beautiful thing that we must learn as humanity: To go at the pace of people who have another rhythm, or at least consider them and integrate them into our pace.”

In his prepared remarks, the pope said that while the athletes will be unable to have their planned meeting, their willingness to auction off their personal items for the hospitals who have faced the brunt of the pandemic is in keeping with the spirit of the event.

“It is an initiative to help and thank the doctors, nurses and hospital staff. They are heroes! They are all living their profession as a vocation, heroically, risking their own lives to save others,” the pope said.

Pope Francis encouraged the athletes to live their passion for sports as “an experience of unity and solidarity.”

“It is specifically the true values of sports that are particularly important in facing this period of the pandemic and above all, the difficult aftermath. And in this spirit, I invite you to run, together, on the track of life,” the pope said.