LONDON — Not so very long ago, there were few U.K. Catholic parishes that did not boast a soccer — football, as they call it — team of one age group or another.

Indeed, dig deep enough, and one would discover major soccer teams with their roots in parish life. Yet, at some point over the last 50 years, that tradition has been lost. All sorts of reasons have been proffered, but the fact remains: A once-thriving Catholic U.K. soccer tradition has declined.

This downward trend is something that the John Paul II Foundation for Sport is seeking to counter. First announced by Pope Benedict XVI during last year’s U.K. visit, the new charity was officially launched at Archbishop’s House in Westminster.

It takes as its inspiration the late Pope’s teachings on sport. For example, “Sport … protects the weak and excludes no one … frees young people from the snares of apathy and indifference and arouses a healthy sense of competition in them,” and “sport trains body and spirit for perseverance, effort, courage, balance, sacrifice, honesty, friendship and collaboration.”

The foundation’s stated aims are to support the creation of new sports clubs in parishes and schools, encouraging all to participate in sport, particularly, at first, the young. Aimed initially at the Archdioceses of Southwark and Westminster, as well as the Diocese of Brentwood, in which the London Olympic site is located, the foundation aspires to be the Catholic contribution to the inspirational legacy of next year’s London Olympics.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster said as much: “What we hope is that the John Paul II Foundation for Sport will be part of the legacy of the Olympic Games. During the next year or so, there will be growing interest in sport, and we hope the foundation will encourage centers of sporting activity in our schools and in our parishes that will reach out, link up with other sporting initiatives, and give a network of opportunity for youngsters to enjoy sport, to learn through it, and to grow through it physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. That is the heart of this foundation.”

During the launch event, attended by the government’s Sports Minister Hugh Robertson, other prominent figures gave their support to the initiative. In a recorded message, 17-year-old world-champion British diver Tom Daley wished the foundation success, saying, “The (Olympic) Games give us a chance to marvel at what humans can achieve. For me, it is a result of talent, hard work and the support of many, including my faith. The John Paul II Foundation for Sport will give young people a chance to explore faith, values and friendship and many other important issues through the legacy of the 2012 Games. It is great to know that sport will play such an important role in their lives.”

Nevertheless, the chairman of the foundation’s board, Simon Lee, told the Register that you don’t have to be an Olympian to get something out of sport: “I think the foundation wants to make known Catholic teaching about sport. It is distinctive, it does have something to offer, and it does touch people in their everyday lives, whether they’re just running for fun in a charity marathon or, like Tom Daley, they’re diving in the Olympics. I think that’s tremendously important in itself because it brings people together. Everyone talks about sport, but do we really understand how to play it in the right way?”

He said that the foundation aimed to contribute to the legacy of the Games: “People often think that means a physical legacy, and that is a part of it. But there is also a moral and a spiritual dimension. When we really look, are we better people for our efforts to play sport in the right spirit? It can come from failure and repeated failure, but it can also come from trying to be the best that we can be, even at a modest level. Unless we talk about it and exchange views and understand the qualities of courage, as well as determination, then we won’t get that full legacy in a rounded sense.”

Noting that the foundation is open to all faiths, he described it as “a gift from the Catholic Church to the wider community,” highlighting the community-building aspect of the foundation’s goals.

Msgr. Vladimir Felzmann, the foundation’s chief executive officer and Catholic chaplain for sport, told the Register that one of his mottos was ‘Peace Through Sport’ — “peace in the individual and peace in the community.

“Because, through sport, people can discover who they are. … Through the physical they start thinking and feeling that there is something beyond themselves, which is, ultimately, God. Sport isn’t an individual thing; you do it with other people. That can turn a neighborhood into a community, so I’m hoping that it can bring peace into society in a way that hasn’t happened so far.”

Msgr. Felzmann suggested that this kind of community initiative was vital, “because people need a sense of belonging. Lots of gang members join a gang to have a sense of belonging; a lot of people have no sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, including no family.

“So, if you have a team — which is a wonderful sense of belonging because you’re working together, you’re training together, you’re failing together, you’re succeeding together — you create a real, genuine community. It gives you a great sense of self-esteem. This is something we can give to young people.”

Archbishop Nichols echoed these sentiments: “I think it’s inevitable that if people are engaged in sport then they’re not engaged in other more destructive things. So, there is the maxim: that we hope to go from gangs to teams, and that it’s better to lead a team than a gang — in that sense, to find identity and solidarity in a well-structured, competitive sport rather than by trying to assert strength over others through gang culture.”

Of course, the question is how the foundation hopes to achieve these worthy goals. Msgr. Felzmann says they have “a whole flotilla of ideas,” including “education, prizes, summer camps and all those sort of things — but it is to try to persuade parishes to open their halls.” He also said he wanted to open “the laziest buildings in the world, school buildings, which close at 5pm and don’t open till 8am the next morning. Opening gymnasiums, school halls, playgrounds from 6 to 10 in the evenings to give young people something to do — rather than sitting watching television or getting bored — developing their physicality and, through that, their personality.”

Added Lee, “In the days when I was young, schools were involved a lot in sport, but also Catholic parishes. For instance, ’round the Olympic Park, Catholic parishes would have had a boxing club, sometimes a gymnastics club or basketball after school, or netball, certainly soccer, cricket and so on. Somehow or other, we’ve lost that. There are some fantastic individuals doing great things, but we want to create more of those opportunities, and tell one another what we’re doing to get people to volunteer, to coach, to organize and to support.”

The foundation’s ideas may appear wide-ranging — papal-visit legacy, Olympic legacy and community-building, to name but a few — but their feasibility has already been proved. As Lee points out, the Church has pioneered such initiatives — now it’s time to rekindle that particular sporting flame.

James Kelly is a columnist for The Universe and a researcher at the University of London.