ROME — Going into St. Peter’s Basilica, you will find that there’s a strict dress code stating “no shorts or sleeveless shirts allowed.” The same dress code has always applied in most places in the Vatican.

Yet, between 1905 and 1908, an exception to the dress code was allowed every Sunday, when hundreds of children and youth from Rome’s oratories were allowed, under the sponsorship of Pope Pius X, to use two famous courtyards for athletics encounters and championships.

“Gymnastics and the outfits, including shorts and sleeveless shirts, were at the time, scandalous,” said sports historian Antonella Stelitano. “And it was said to be a scandal to do gymnastics in front of the pope.”

According to the historian, who has several books written on popes and sports — including Pope Pius X, Olympics and Sports, published in 2012 — one of the more conservative cardinals of the time questioned the then pontiff about these encounters, asking: “Where do you want to go to with all these young men doing gymnastics, with their arms and knees exposed.”

And the pope reportedly replied “Caro mio, in Paradiso.” [My dear, to Heaven].

Pius X was known by those close to him as a man who could never stand still, to the point that the Vatican gardens were the first place they’d look for him if he went “missing,” since he liked to walk while he prayed. He was also the one responsible for moving the papal apartments from the first floor of the Apostolic Palace to the third, so he could go up and down stairs long before it became mandatory advice from every doctor in the world to their overweight patients.

In addition, his right-hand man, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val was a great sportsman who swam and did athletics while growing up in England, where his father served as a diplomat in London.

Stelitano told Crux that Pius X’s decision to open the Vatican’s two main courtyards – San Damaso and Belvedere – for gymnastics competitions was rooted in the fact that he had recognized that “physical education and gymnastics were a way to keep the boys in the oratories, and that it had an educational role.”

A basketball game is played in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Pius XII in 1955. (Credit: CNS photo/Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity.)

This attitude towards sports stems from his years as a parish priest – a rarity for popes – when he would organize games of boccie – the Italian version of lawn bowls – for the men who had attended Sunday Mass in the courtyard of his parish. His belief was simple, the historian said: “He knew that the men would go to the local bar, drink and play cards, while if he presented them with an alternative, they would remain outdoors, doing something healthy, and be home – and sober – for Sunday lunch.”

However, this idea of sports as a way to keep people of all ages linked to the Church and away from trouble long predates St. Pius X.

“When St Philip Neri first came to Rome from Florence in the 14th century, found it to be a city full of crime and danger,” said Jill Alexy, an American theologian in Rome and a former youth minister. “And one of the ways in which he hoped to evangelize the city of Rome was by reaching what we nowadays might call young adults through games and through play.”

“St Philip Neri became known as the saint of great joy, but he also became known as the second apostle of Rome because, by trying to appeal to popular veneration and popular activities, but also by having very intense personal piety, very linked to tradition, and celebrating the great sacred mysteries and giving great care and attention to liturgical beauty, he helped to serve the fire of the Holy Spirit,” Alexy told Crux.

Therefore, she said, “we can’t help but note the similarities between Pope St Pius X and this great saint who preceded him. He too was a pope very dedicated to making the great sacred mysteries of the Mass and the sacraments liturgically beautiful and stunning. He was a pope of great personal piety and intense private prayer, and yet there is this other lesser-known aspect to his ministry, which was to reach out to those who perhaps were tempted by danger or criminality, and to evangelize them through popular activities, through play and games.”

Popes, sports, and overcoming conflict

In February of 1905 Pope Pius X met with Baron Pierre de Coubertin, widely acknowledged as the father of modern Olympics, who wanted the support of the Catholic Church for Rome’s 1908 Olympic Games. There are no records of this meeting in the Vatican archives, according to Stelitano, yet she’s seen the correspondence between Coubertin and Del Val, and the baron had made an annotation in his calendar marking that he’d met with the pontiff.

“He did not get Pius X to give him public support for the Olympics, because it was a tense diplomatic moment, and the Vatican did not give any political support,” the historian said. “However, Pope Pius X promised him a clear gesture in support of sport.”

As a result, in 1905 a major international gymnastics event was hosted at the Vatican, during which the pope gave a speech that is considered the first Vatican manifesto on sport.

“I admire and bless from my heart all your games and pastimes, gymnastics, cycling, mountaineering, boating, running, walks, competitions, contests and academies, to which you devote yourselves,” the pope told participants. “Because the material exercises of the body will admirably influence the exercises of the spirit; because these entertainments, while requiring work, will remove you from idleness, which is the father of vices; and because finally the same friendly competitions will be in you an image of emulation in the exercise of virtue.”

Another key element of the Sundays at the Vatican sports events, Stelitano pointed out, was the fact that people with disabilities were invited to participate too, and there were teams for the deaf and also the blind.

Stelitano has dedicated most of her professional life to study the history of sports, with particular attention on the intersection of the Olympic Games, the United Nations and the Catholic Church, and has come to the conclusion that sports “really presents a convergence of values related to the dignity of the human person and solidarity, and they have the capacity to influence politics and peace.”

“Sports promote values that can even help overcome conflict,” she said. “During the Olympics opening ceremony, you have the flags and the national anthems, but this year, you also had a ‘Refugees Team,’ evidencing that sports is truly universal, and what brings the athletes in the Olympics – or any games – together, is not so much a flag but the universality of sports.”

Stelitano said Pius X was the first pope “to intuit the importance of sport,” noting that all the popes after him dealt with sport.

Before becoming Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), then-Father Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti requested to join the Italian North Pole expedition, as he was a leading Alpinist – he even wrote a book called Climbs on Alpine Peaks. Alas, those leading the expedition didn’t want a priest in the team.

Pius XII (1939-58) was also big into mountain sports and was a boxer in his youth.

Arguably, few popes embraced sports as much as John Paul II (1978-05), who was soccer goalkeeper in his youth and an active gymnast who never relinquished his swimming, kayaking, skiing or mountain climbing, and opened the first Vatican office dedicated exclusively to sports.

Yet for Stelitano, the speeches by the Polish pope on the matter are, in fact, among the less inspiring ones. Instead, she favors those delivered by Paul VI, who once made a parallel between the athletes competing in the European water-skiing championship and Jesus walking on water; or by then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, who would become Pope Benedict XVI.

“Some of the things Ratzinger wrote about sports could really be considered essays by the International Olympic Committee, with a depth in his reflection on this matter that I think disorients the Church itself,” Stelitano said.

Meanwhile, though on record saying that he had two left feet so he always ended as a goalie when playing with his friends, Pope Francis too is know for having enjoyed sports, particularly soccer, thought more as an spectator than a player: he’s the most famous member of Argentina’s San Lorenzo soccer club.

He’s welcomed national teams of several sports, and in 2016, he became the first pontiff to actually address the Olympics by releasing a 90-second video for the Rio games celebrating the role of sports in building world peace: “Sports make it possible to build a culture of encounter among everyone – I dream of sports as the practice of human dignity, turned into a vehicle of fraternity,” Francis said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma