Everybody knows that in the year since being named pontiff, Pope Francis has turned the Catholic Church on its head. He has espoused relatively progressive views on homosexuality, marriage and divorce, contraception, women and the poor in an institution long bogged down by rigid doctrine. But few may have noticed that the great equalizing force of sports has also played a prominent role in the so-called People's Pope's first 12 months.
A Fan of the People: The Argentine-born Francis is a huge soccer buff. The man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a lifelong supporter of the Buenos Aires-based Saints of San Lorenzo, named in honor of a priest who allowed kids to play on church grounds instead of city streets in the early 20th century. In December, he celebrated the team's Argentine First Division championship, welcoming players who presented him with the winning trophy and goalie glove. The Vatican PR machine used the event to reveal that it had issued twice as many tickets for Francis' general assemblies as it had in Pope Benedict's first year, evidence of this pontiff's wide appeal.
Bigger than the Beautiful Game: Of course, soccer is Argentina's national pastime. In August, Francis welcomed Lionel Messi and other stars from the Argentine and Italian national clubs to the Vatican ahead of an exhibition match played in his honor. The meeting allowed Francis both to add to his growing collection of soccer jerseys and to implore the athletes to use their fame for social good. "Dear players, you are very popular. People follow you, and not just on the field but also off it," he said. "That's a social responsibility."
He also lamented violence and discrimination in the sport, marked by recent fan brawls and racist chants toward players of color. Mario Balotelli, the black Italian striker who has borne the brunt of these taunts, was the only player to get a private meeting with Francis, who as the first-ever Latin American pope can relate to being cast as an outsider.
Beyond Borders: A year into his reign, Francis has met with international sports leaders to discuss how sport can be used to society's benefit. In November, he met with International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and the Argentine and Italian national rugby teams. To the athletes, he extolled the spiritual virtues of sports, which he said engender "loyalty and respect," and pointed to a particularly taxing sport like rugby to develop strength of will and "toughen the spirit." He reiterated to Blatter his wish that FIFA would use the upcoming World Cup in Rio to help Brazil's poor. He and Bach talked about how sports provide common ground between different countries, creating a basis for mutual understanding.
On that point, Francis has put his words into action. In October, the Vatican launched its first-ever cricket club, an initiative led by Australian ambassador to the Holy See John McCarthy intended to promote interfaith dialogue. While cricket is often associated with the English gentry, the sport's enormous popularity in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh provides an opportunity to engage with the largely poor and non-Catholic populations in those countries. "This represents the desire of the council to be in the peripheries, the outskirts of the world," said Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca, head of the sports department in the Vatican's ministry of culture.
Maintaining Perspective: Pope Francis hasn't been shy about criticizing what he sees as corrupting influences in sports, however. At that same meeting with Olympics officials, he denounced the commercialization of sports, warning that the incentive to win and profit at all costs reduces athletes "to mere trading material." Instead, he wants us to remember that "sport is harmony, but if money and success prevail as the aim this harmony crumbles." He said that sports serve as a great metaphor for life, with people working toward an ultimate goal; but as in life, sports shouldn't just be about money and trophies -- the allure of which often overshadow the personal, spiritual gains we make in both.
The pope also hears the objections of those who think we place too much importance on sports. In January, he delivered a sermon calling out less enthusiastic worshipers and asking his flock to pray with more audible exuberance. "You're able to shout when your team makes a goal, but you cannot sing the Lord's praises?" he asked. Even in this he's bucking the status quo, asking his congregation to forget about old Catholic norms of decorum and opt for the visceral, emotional reactions that seem to come so easily to sports fans.
Given Pope Francis' athletic affinity, and stated desire to visit the U.S. soon, I hope he stops by Yankee Stadium. He would be the first pope to deliver mass in the new stadium -- the old "Cathedral of Baseball" had hosted three previous pontiffs, including Francis' predecessors, Benedict and John Paul II. It would be fitting for this populist, Latino pope to speak in a stadium located in the country's poorest Congressional district in a borough that's more than 50 percent Hispanic.
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