VATICAN LETTER Sep-29-2006 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi
Building winners: Vatican works to put values back in sports
By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The square in front of St. Peter's Basilica is vast, flat and wide-open. In fact, the nearest breakable window is farther than most people could lob a ball, so perhaps that's why it made the perfect venue for a basketball game played in the presence of Pope Pius XII in 1955.
The Vatican also served as prime turf for a marathon bout of "calcio storico fiorentino," the Florentine version of nearly ruleless soccer that looks more like rugby and wrestling combined. During the Renaissance, Pope Sixtus IV peeked out his studio window every now and then to see how the grueling match, which lasted from midmorning to dusk, was proceeding.
Though it's no longer likely pilgrims will see hoopsters shooting baskets or cleats digging into turf, that doesn't mean the Vatican has called a timeout on sports.
Rather, the universal church is even more dedicated to being a presence in the world's sports stadiums, on the tracks, and in the hearts and souls of today's athletes, supporting them and an ethical sporting ethos.
In an effort to help parents, coaches, athletes, schools, parishes and sports associations, the Vatican has published a book aimed at "rehumanizing" a sports world that tends to glorify winning at all costs to the detriment of players and spectators.
Titled "The World of Sport Today: A Field of Christian Mission," the book was released in September by the Vatican's own fledgling sports desk at the Pontifical Council for the Laity. The special section was established in 2004 by Pope John Paul II as a way to help get the church off the sidelines and onto the playing field, helping promote Christian values in today's sports.
The slim, 146-page paperback compiles speeches and proceedings from the Vatican's first international seminar on sports held last November.
The seminar brought professional players, experts, sports fans and chaplains to talk about how the church could better promote authentic human values and the Gospel message in the world of athletics.
The book starts off with a historical perspective, beginning with ancient Greece, whose pan-Hellenic games helped imbue sports with the values of equality, fraternity and fair play.
Other chapters look at how those values gradually eroded, giving way to lucrative economic interests that, according to the head of the Vatican's laity council, have robbed sports of its true nature.
In the book's preface, Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko wrote that sports today are in the hands of a powerful industry "which produces dreams of power and success in millions of individuals."
Sports has become a fast-growing business, now valued at $213 billion, wrote another seminar participant, Clark Power, associate director of the Center for Ethical Education at Indiana's University of Notre Dame.
While sponsorships, marketing gimmicks and the general commercialization of sports help sustain an otherwise valid industry, they also feed a culture of materialism devoid of human values, he wrote in a chapter dedicated to sports and business.
The book points to a wide range of ills plaguing today's sports world, but it also dedicates several chapters to what the church, Catholics and people of good will can do to turn sports back into what Archbishop Rylko called "a school of humanity, virtue and life."
The consensus among contributors underlined the critical role parents and coaches play in molding young people's attitudes and interest in sports. Parents and coaches, they said, need to teach kids what sports really are about and how they should be played.
Because ethical values are already at risk in many modern societies, healthy, human-centered sports can make a world of difference in steering kids away from an empty or marginalized future, wrote another contributor.
Young people need "to create their own life project, to feel useful in society and to find solid models from which to take inspiration," wrote Edio Costantini, head of Catholic Action's sports association in Italy. Coaches, therefore, should not just be concerned with perfecting athletes' technique and skills, but should help kids "feel accepted, direct them and accompany them along their path, thus giving them hope," said his text on opportunities for renewing today's sports.
Parents, too, can do a lot in boosting their kids' self-esteem, identity and autonomy, he wrote, and they can "openly voice opposition to the negative things" affecting sports.
Sports, taught well and played right, have enormous potential in changing today's world by promoting peace and fraternity, many of the writers said.
They often quoted Pope John Paul -- the skier, canoeist, hiker and goalkeeper -- who said sports can answer today's needs.
The late pope said sports can free young people "from the snares of apathy and indifference," help free disadvantaged peoples and nations from poverty and help "eradicate intolerance" as people unite behind a common goal.
Sports, he said in his homily for the jubilee of sports in 2000, can enhance "love of life, teach sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human being."
That sounds like a game that could make everyone a winner.
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Editors: The Vatican book on sports can be ordered directly from the Pontifical Council for the Laity Publications Service, 00120 Vatican City. Its cost of 10 euros (US$13) includes postage and handling. Checks should be made out to: Pontifical Council for the Laity.
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