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Pope Francis recognizes ‘the tremendous power that sport exerts in the modern world’ at the 2022 ‘Sports for All’ summit

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Pope Francis smiles after being presented with a rugby ball at the "Sport for All" summit in the Vatican audience hall Sept. 30, 2022. (CNS photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY– The Vatican synod hall became a stand full of cheering fans, pumping fists, clapping and shouting encouragement as instructed by Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, who led some 200 people in a group exercise.

“Imagine you’re in the stands … and there’s a track behind me with a 100-meter race to be run,” Shriver told athletes, coaches, representatives of international, national and local athletic organizations, and people of faith in attendance Sept. 29 — nearly 250 people from about 40 countries at the “Sport for All” summit at the Vatican Sept. 29-30.

Shriver asked everyone to imagine that at the starting line there is a child whose parents were told, “I’m sorry,” by the doctor who delivered the baby, whose mom lacked prenatal care, whose school had said, “I’m sorry, we don’t have a program for your child” or who was never invited to someone’s birthday party.

“And there she stands on the starting line,” he said.

“I’m going to sound the gun, and I want you to cheer” for the child by name, “using your own name,” he said. Shouting: “On your marks, get set, go!” Shriver turned the attentive audience into a boisterous crowd of wild enthusiasts.

After the imaginary sprinters crossed the finish line, Shriver said, they threw their arms in the air, knowing the place they came in was immaterial to their victory of, “I did it.”

In a world where sports is defined by naming winners and losers, what happens when everyone in the race has value? he asked. “What’s the spirit that flows through people when they watch, when they cheer,” when they join together?

When done right, Shriver said, sports can meet people’s “starvation” for purpose, meaning and belonging, and, according to the aim of the summit, everyone, no matter their age, abilities, gender, income, legal status or environment, must have access to the concrete and intangible benefits of sports.

The international summit was co-sponsored by the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life and the Dicastery for Culture and Education to promote sports as a way to foster important values and spiritual growth, but with an added emphasis on inclusion.

Summit participants signed and presented Pope Francis with a final written declaration Sept. 30, recognizing “the tremendous power that sport exerts in the modern world.” The document has been published at SportForAll.va.

Meeting participants Sept. 30, Pope Francis urged athletes to fight against a throwaway culture that “treats men and women as products, to be used and then discarded.”

Sports can risk becoming “a ‘machine’ of business, profit and consumer-driven showmanship, which produces ‘celebrities’ to be exploited. But this is no longer sport,” the pope said. “Sport is an educational and social good and it must remain so.”

When sports is promoted as a “life-giving activity” and focuses on forming mature personalities, socialization and education, “playing a sport can become a way of personal and social redemption, a way to recover dignity,” and overcome isolation or exclusion, he said.

Thomas Wurtz, founder of Varsity Catholic, a division of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) with outreach to student athletes, told Catholic News Service that college athletes in the United States often face mental health challenges and may struggle to find time to go to Mass and grow in their faith.

Many experience great anxiety or isolation because of the intense pressure to perform and the training-traveling schedules they follow, he said.

FOCUS’ work with athletes aims to spiritually “support them amidst this intensity” so they know that God “helps them have peace and hope and flourish as a whole person,” body, mind and soul, he said.

Having their identity be rooted in being a beloved child of God and not just being a star athlete also helps students if they suffer injury or eventually leave sports when they start careers, he added.

Jesuit Father Patrick Kelly, professor at University of Detroit Mercy, told CNS that lots of young people drop out of sports because “it’s not fun anymore” with too much emphasis on winning, getting noticed for scholarships or overuse injuries from doing one sport year-round.

Dr. Joseph Dutkowsky, an orthopedic surgeon from Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, told CNS he once challenged professional ballplayers to do more to help physically and mentally challenged fans.

Pope Francis greets a young person at the “Sport for All” summit in the Vatican audience hall Sept. 30, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“I told them, ‘It’s really great that you guys have handicapped seating for your stadiums and it’s no longer behind the post or next to the bathrooms,'” he said. “But that’s not enough. ‘These kids need to be on the field with you because they are just as competitive as you are'” and they want to experience it for themselves.

Players jumped at the chance, he said, and now, each year they have six former major league baseball players come to Doubleday Field to teach baseball to about 50 children and adults.

Dr. Dutkowsky saw the same enthusiasm and joy in elite dancers from the New York City Ballet when the company asked him to help start a free program that lets kids with physical disabilities, particularly cerebral palsy, learn the beauty of movement from its dancers and live piano accompaniment.

The greatest impact is on the dancers, he said, who discover the joy of celebrating what the kids can do.

The dancers and ballplayers “fight over” who gets to work with the kids, he said, and when he asked them why, “they said, ‘these kids don’t judge us.'” The kids “let them express and live their passion and enjoy it for what it is.”

Dancing or throwing a ball “becomes a blessing, instead of a job,” Dr. Dutkowsky said.

“The drive to be humanly perfect is killing our kids right now, giving them anxiety, depression and addiction,” he said; people should be encouraged to be perfectly human, instead.