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VATICAN LETTER Aug-6-2004 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Off and running: New Vatican office aims to promote culture of sport

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- On your mark. Get set. Go: With little fanfare, the head of the Vatican's new office dedicated to "Church and Sport" is off and running.

The Vatican announced the creation of this new section within the Pontifical Council for the Laity Aug. 3, shortly before the start of the Aug. 13-29 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

"The upcoming Olympics and the millions of people from every part of the world who will be following it are once again a clear sign of how important sport is in our society," said the council's press release.

But the world of sport also has "gotten further away from its original ideals," thus revealing "an urgent need to recall those fundamental values," it said.

Leading the way in this mission by heading the new Church and Sport desk is U.S. Father Kevin Lixey, a member of the Legionaries of Christ.

"The timing is right," he told Catholic News Service Aug. 4.

With a steady stream of well-publicized doping scandals among professional athletes and it being an Olympic year, "People, even governments, are looking for that moral voice" and a reminder that the dignity of the human person comes above and beyond all else, he said.

Mega-million-dollar salaries for players, illegal drug-use, and unsportsmanlike behavior on and off the field have helped tarnish the golden image of the ideal athlete: healthy of body, mind and spirit.

Father Lixey said some of the ills plaguing sports mirror many of the things gone awry in society.

"It's the way a person treats their body -- to treat it as a means to an end whether it be sports -- we see it in Hollywood, too, or even a person who pursues a career in business just to make money and not for anything else," he said.

The new section at the Council for the Laity will act as "a point of reference" for international and national sports organizations and for sports groups at the diocesan or national bishops' conference level.

It will try to foster "a culture of sport" that promotes athletics "as a means for bringing about well-rounded growth of the person and as an instrument of peace and brotherhood among peoples," said the council's written statement.

Not surprisingly, the most athletic pope in memory, Pope John Paul II, instituted the new sports office. A once-avid skier, swimmer and hiker, age, hip problems and other ailments forced the pope to hang up his hiking boots.

But his love of sport and how it can be a "school of virtue" remain evident.

"Sport must be accompanied by moderation and training in self-discipline. It very often also requires a good team spirit, a respectful attitude, appreciation of the qualities of others, honest sportsmanship and humility in recognizing one's own limitations," said the pope May 30 in his 2004 World Day of Tourism message.

In a June 26 address to members of an Italian sports center, the pope said practicing sport, "if lived according to the Christian vision, becomes a prime generator of deep human relations and favors the building of a more peaceful and cordial world."

For more than 30 years, Vatican employees have used sport to foster friendships through intramural soccer tournaments.

Eighteen all-male teams with names like "The Saints," "The Gladiators," and "Virtus" play once a week in friendly five-on-five matches. All are vying for the coveted, year-end "Vatican Cup."

Swiss Guards battle it out against members of the Sistine Chapel choir. Vatican Radio staffers face off against teams made up of the Vatican's gendarmes, museum, postal or library workers.

"My intention was to let Vatican employees have fun and get to know each other," said Sergio Valci, who formally set up the intramural soccer program in 1972.

"Sometimes it brings people who wouldn't normally know each other together and shows the harmony that can exist even in a contact sport," he told CNS Aug. 4.

Curial officials and cardinals, too, are in on the sports kick. Whether as armchair athletes cheering on soccer, hockey, or basketball teams back home or as dedicated runners or tennis players, many squeeze in some time for sports during their busy week.

"Our office tends to be exceedingly busy, so my biggest sport is traveling to meetings," said an unnamed Vatican official, a self-described fan of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Retired Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy is a longtime tennis player, even doubling up with Cardinal Pio Laghi when they were stationed long ago at the nunciature in New Delhi, India.

Cardinal Cassidy said when he came to Rome, he often would spend a Friday or Saturday afternoon on one of the two tennis courts once located in front of the Vatican museums.

"Sport was a great break from work. Work was very intense, with long hours. With a bit of fresh air and exercise, I could go back refreshed," he told CNS July 29.

One cardinal who still laces up his running shoes despite several operations last year and being set to turn 77 in September is U.S. Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka, president of the Vatican City State commission.

"Any type of exercise is good for you. It helps you to relax, get rid of anxieties, worries, disappointment or anger," he told CNS Aug. 5.


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