Giving the best of yourself: Why the Catholic Church cheers for sports

Mark Haas

Have you ever wondered if God is a sports fan?

While many of us here in Colorado may want to believe that an orange sunset is a sign that God is a Denver Broncos fan, he’s probably not picking sides on Sundays.

However, in a recently released document from the Vatican, it’s clear the Catholic Church believes that God is at least a fan of sports and the ways they can enrich the lives of individuals and make the world a better place.

“Those who are part of the sports world exemplify virtues such as generosity, humility, sacrifice, constancy and cheerfulness,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter that was released with the document. “Sport is a very rich source of values and virtues that help us to become better people.”

The Vatican document, titled ‘Giving the best of yourself,’ describes the Church’s role and relationship with sports, potential dangers in the sports world, but also the many benefits that come from participating in athletics.

“Sport can offer us the chance to take part in beautiful moments, or to see these take place,” the document explains. “In this way, sport has the potential to remind us that beauty is one of the ways we can encounter God.”

The document was prepared by the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, and while it acknowledges much has been written and said about sports and the Church before, this is the first official Vatican document that pulls it all together, with citations from Pope Pius X (1903-1914) to Pope Francis (2013-present).

The document is addressed to “all people of good will,” and is meant to “help the reader understand the relationship between giving our best in sports and in living the Christian faith in every aspect of our lives.”

Giving the best of yourself

“To give the best of oneself in sports is also a call to aspire to holiness,” according to Pope Francis, who says sports can be a great instrument of formation and sanctification, especially for young people.

To be good at a sport it takes commitment, something often lacking in a “throwaway culture.”

“The Christian life resembles a marathon rather than a short sprint,” the document explains. “Sport helps us in this regard by teaching that it is worth embracing long-term challenges.”

For example, this July a World Cup champion will be crowned in soccer, capping a one-month long tournament, but the result of years and even decades of hard work, sacrifice and dedication.

For the athletes, they’ve probably been playing since they were young kids, proving themselves at various levels to earn a spot on their national teams.

For the countries, the qualification process takes a couple years to secure a spot from their region to play on the world stage.

Pope John Paul II once said: “We admire the feats of great athletes, who sacrificed themselves for years, day after day, to achieve those results. This is the logic of sport; it is also the logic of life: without sacrifices, important results are not obtained, or even genuine satisfaction.”

Not everyone will end up a winner though, because in sports, like in life, you don’t always get the outcome you want. However, those experiences can be equally valuable.

“Performing a sport always involves an encounter with failure, frustration and challenge,” the document says, but from that comes the courage “to keep going when the odds are stacked against you or your team, to try and do the right thing, morally and physically when you are losing badly (and) to hold the group together as a team when being seen as an underdog.”

Teamwork and Togetherness

“I also hope you can taste the beauty of teamwork, which is so important in life,” Pope Francis told a group of young athletes in 2014. “To belong to a sports club means to reject every form of selfishness and isolation, it is an opportunity to encounter and be with others, to help one another, to compete in mutual esteem and to grow in brotherhood.”

Sports has the power to bring together people of different backgrounds, whether it be on the same team, or bringing nations together at the World Cup and Olympics.

Or, as Pope Benedict XVI put it: “Sport can bring us together in the spirit of fellowship between peoples and cultures. Sports are indeed a sign that peace is possible.”

And because sport has the power to transcend differences, Christians have an opportunity to share the Gospel.

“Every occasion is good for announcing Christ’s message, ‘whether the time is favorable or unfavorable’,” Pope Francis wrote, quoting 2 Timothy 4:2. “Sport can open the way to Christ in those places or environments where, for different reasons, it is not possible to announce Him directly.”

Winning, but not at all costs

While the Vatican document says plenty about the best parts of sports, it also spends considerable time addressing when sports can be at their worst.

A “win at all costs” mentality can lead to corruption, cheating, abuse, violence, discrimination and a loss of dignity for individuals – all things the Church says she must work to protect against.

That doesn’t mean the Vatican views the final score as unimportant, as the document concludes with one last quote from Pope Francis.

“Challenge yourself in the game of life like you are in the game of sports… Don’t settle for a mediocre ‘tie,’ give it your best, spend your life on what really matters and lasts forever.”

Featured image by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

COMING UP: The seven deadly sins of World Cup diving

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Tensions rise, flags wave high, people cry, and players … players dive. Okay, that’s not all that happens in a World Cup – there’s a lot of good stuff – but we also can’t ignore it. The practice of diving seems to have become part of the game. Fortunately, the VAR (Video Assistant Referee system) is helping refs be less gullible and make the appropriate calls. Even then, it’s worth looking at these soccer “sins” that end up corrupting the beautiful game.

Slothful moves

Trip Seconds GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

We’ve all seen that dive in which the forward can well keep running after a tackle but dives as soon as he sees the ball is a bit too far and is not convinced he can get to it. This ancient tactic seeks to fool the ref as it tries to do the least work possible for greatest result possible, many times faking a penalty kick. We’ve also all experienced those times a player dives to kill time when his team is winning.

Soccer Players GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Angry-bird dive

Dive GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Players tend to get a bit heated and end up doing stupid things. And it seems that when they do, the following move is to dive as if the other player had done it. But, don’t despair, there’s hope. Players usually have the capacity to refrain from punching. They’d rather headbutt the enemy before diving. This gives them a lesser chance of not getting expelled. At least they keep some sanity.

(Zidane’s headbutt is, of course, an exception.)

Zidane GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Envying-another’s-Oscar kinda dive

Dive GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

An envious player is the one who just can’t get past other players’ best dives. Okay, maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration. But sometimes it seems that the game is about who is able to pull off the best diving move to trick the ref into calling a foul. This leads players to devise all sorts of creative (and overly exaggerated) dives and Oscar-worthy moves.

Soccer GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Dive with pride, roll if denied

Danko Lazovic Flop GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

A player will never admit he faked a foul. Even if the ref books him or if VAR confirms his acting, a player will not step back. For him, it will always be a clear foul and he would swear with his life that was the case, even if he knows it wasn’t. And trying to convince the ref that this is the case, the player will roll for as long as possible to see if the ref takes him seriously.

Referee GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Greedy-needy falls

Copa America Centenario Mexico GIF by Univision Deportes - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s not enough just to fool the referee with a dive. If the ref believes it, the player will want more by begging for a yellow or red card. It all comes in a package. The player will want to make the most out of his acting piece. At the end, it’s the nature of the soccer player to argue with the ref, no matter what happens.

Soccer Mexico GIF by Fusion - Find & Share on GIPHY

Gluttonous agony

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Don’t let the fit body fool you. Some professional players are more gluttonous than they seem! A glutton is never content with what he has and always wants more to fill his belly and life with excess of things. In the same way, some players are never content with deceiving the ref once. They have a performance of falls and dives for any minor reason: a simple touch on the arm, face, or (worst of all) the hair.

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Honorable mention (Footage of the ball definitely hitting Rivaldo in the face):

Soccer GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

And then there’s Suarez’s more literal example of gluttony:

World Cup Football GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The lustful escape

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Let’s not take this one too literally. But we can say that just like lust can become an “easy escape” of momentary experience for a person struggling to confront the challenges of life, players tend to look for an “easy escape” to a challenging game by diving in the goal box,  – not to mention the pleasure they find in diving and fooling the ref and everyone else.

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