Departments Seek to Foster True Sportsmanship

Priest with “Church and sport” section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity discusses "culture and sport."

As sporting events take center stage during this Olympic year, and Italian soccer suffers from yet another match-fixing scandal, two Vatican departments have teamed up to help foster a better understanding of sport as a privileged place for dialogue among Church, culture and youth.
The Pontifical Councils for Culture and Laity held a press conference at the Vatican June 14 to present the new collaboration, which will involve the Pontifical Council for Culture’s new department dedicated to “culture and sport” working closely with the “Church and sport” section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. The John Paul II Foundation for Sport will also take part.
To find out more about the initiative, we spoke with Legionary Father Kevin Lixey, a Michigan-born priest who heads the Church and sport section of the Laity Council. Father Lixey announced July 2 he was leaving the council to return to ministry in the United States. He is succeeded in his post by Legionary Father Daniel Massick.

How did this initiative come about?
The Holy Father has said the Church cannot not be present in sport — this was also his message for the European soccer tournament [Euro 2012]. And here in Italy, above all, they’re suffering with this crisis in soccer. So, we thought, why don’t we do something? We have been doing work on this over the past year in a quiet way, with the collaboration of these two dicasteries, really just to show that the Church is present in an active way, whether it’s in general in the world of sport or on another level, gearing up to the Olympics and the European soccer championship. We began this initiative around Christmastime at a Mass with Italian sports people.

Why have this collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Culture?
From day one we’ve seen sport as a cultural phenomenon. The Pontifical Council for the Laity has taken it on as a task given by the Holy Father, but obviously it is cultural as well. So this is taking advantage of the richness that exists in the Vatican dicasteries to work in synergy on something like this. We’re very happy to have this extra help. The world of sport is so vast, and this is an opportunity for much study, reflection and action. It shows the Church is interested and is trying to promote the good of sport.

Pope Benedict XVI recently said the Church cannot be indifferent to sport in his message to Euro 2012. How central are ethical aspects in sport, especially now, with so many major tournaments taking place?
The Italians are up in arms because they see people manipulating games — sport is in crisis for them — so it’s very much felt, and, with the Vatican being in Italy, it’s felt even more. Ethics starts at the grassroots level. This may sound like a broken record — we keep repeating this — but we need to have, through the dioceses, through people at the local level, (individuals) helping in their sports programs, helping the coach, helping the people involved, and helping parents to understand the right perspective about sports. I think that’s where we’re at.

What are your plans for the upcoming London Olympics?
We’ve been taking sort of a backseat, taking a coordinating role. This really goes back to Athens [Olympics of 2004] and the chaplains in the program there. The fact there is a sports office in the Vatican becomes a point of reference. Chaplains in Germany, for example, didn’t know the chaplains from Italy, so we put them together. We had a sports seminar almost five years ago that gathered sports chaplains from around the world and that continued in Johannesburg in South Africa for the World Cup there. So there’s a network that’s being sown, little by little. But just by being in this office as a coordinator, we’re allowing this synergy to happen. We’re trying to help a diocese in London and another two elsewhere; they’ve been at our seminars and been in contact with our people as well. It’s also been interesting coordinating for Brazil [venue for 2014 soccer World Cup] and getting ready for that event. So we’re trying to connect with that.

The doping issue often comes up, especially at the Olympics. What approach do you take to this?
It’s a temptation for them, even at the Paralympics. People don’t hear this too much, but, even there, there are doping tests because people want to win just as badly. It’s part of human nature: to want to win at all costs. But there’s a need for honesty, to be honest with oneself. What does that gold medal really mean if you haven’t obtained it in a fair way? So this idea of winning at all costs was something we hit home at our last seminar and is something we’ll be continuing to talk about: what it means to be a true champion. Today, the testimony of a volleyball player helped us to see that winning is not everything. There are also lessons to be gained from losing. I remember one man from Austria who told me about his failure at the Olympics many years ago. He said it helped him to meet his wife. He would never have met his wife, have a family and everything had he not had that loss. So loss can also be gain in that sense. This is also a lesson from sport which we don’t always consider: Lessons can be learned not only from the discipline of sport, but also from losing.

How concerned are you that winning can become idolatrous?
It’s always lurking behind the corner. There’s also the temptation to idolize sportsmen, put them on pedestals, and maybe they themselves don’t feel able to live up to [such a standard]. But there’s this idea that there’s something deeper inside, an intuition for greatness that we talked about today, an intuition to overcome our mediocrity. And sports, in a way, encourages us in that sense. Maybe it’s not that high, but sports do lift us up to other heights. Maybe it’s just one step along the way to something greater. That’s the intuition we have behind all this: that there’s something in the human person that seeks to perfect themselves, to better themselves. It’s a phrase from a [famous] Dominican who said [the intuition for greatness] is part of the human heart itself.

Yet always to keep Christ in the center.
Yes, a holy life seeks purification. John Paul II would say that Christ is really the greatest athlete because he has taken the devil square on and he has been victorious. So we need to see that this is really who our hero should be.

Edward Pentin
writes from Rome.