“Seeing the smile on your faces and the great happiness in your eyes when you have done well in an event – for the sweetest victory is when we surpass ourselves – we realize what true and well-deserved joy feels like!” Pope Francis said to a Special Olympics delegation last week. “We can learn from you to enjoy small and simple pleasures, and to enjoy them together.”

Emphasizing the sacredness of all human life, the Pope continued, “Every life is precious, every person is a gift and inclusion enriches every community and society. This is your message for the world, for a world without borders, which excludes no one.”

The Pope suggested that joy is at the heart of all sports: “the joy of exercising, of being together, of being alive and rejoicing in the gifts the Creator gives us each day.”

The Special Olympics World Winter Games is scheduled for March 14-25 and will take place in the Austrian state of Styria in March. Pope Francis received the delegation at Clementine Hall Feb. 16. The delegation included athletes, organizers, and other representatives, including Bishop Wilhelm Krautwaschl of Graz-Seckau, whose diocese covers the state of Styria.

Pope Francis told them sports help to spread “a culture of encounter and solidarity. Together, athletes and helpers show us that there are no obstacles or barriers which cannot be overcome,” he said. “You are a sign of hope for all who commit themselves to a more inclusive society … you will be, as the theme of this year’s event says, a 'heartbeat for the world'.”

“Sport is good for the body and the soul, and allows us to improve the quality of our lives,” he said. “The constant training, which also requires effort and sacrifice, helps you to grow in patience and perseverance, gives you strength and courage and lets you acquire and develop talents which would otherwise remain hidden. The constant training, which also requires effort and sacrifice, helps you to grow in patience and perseverance, gives you strength and courage and lets you acquire and develop talents which would otherwise remain hidden", the Pope told the athletes.

Pope Francis praised the athletes’ dedication and cited the Special Olympics athlete’s oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“The Special Olympics World Winter Games will be a wonderful moment in your lives,” he told the delegation. “I wish you joyful days together, and time with friends from around the world. I entrust you to the protection of Mary Most Holy, and upon you, your families, and all participants, I invoke divine blessings. And, please, pray for me too.”