The practice of sport, which dates back to the dawn of human history, has now become firmly established as a mass phenomenon without equal precedent. According to some scholars, sport’s capacity to engage huge crowds of people on a planetary scale, and to straddle geographic, social, economic and language barriers, makes it one of the most universally recognised components of popular culture.
The emotional – and not infrequently “all-embracing” – involvement that practising sport and watching sports events can generate, coupled with the process of globalisation and modern communications technologies, makes this a force that produces powerful experiences, but also gives rise to serious risks. Today, sport is in the hands of an influential and lucrative “leisure industry” which produces dreams of power and success in millions of individuals. Sport is often experienced as a kind of “ecstasy”, a way of evading the drabness of daily life. It has been said that in sport we can recover a euphoric sense of wholeness, autonomy and power that are often denied in the humdrum routine which is the destiny of most men and women. In many people’s lives, sport has acquired an importance that goes beyond that of mere amusement or entertainment. For many of our contemporaries sport has become a way of life, an essential element for meeting basic needs, such as self-esteem and self-fulfilment, and a factor that not only determines a sense of identity and belonging, but also the meaning of life itself. And that is not all: sport has become, in every respect, a surrogate for religious experience. It is a paradoxical fact that, in our secularised society, sports events have taken on the character of collective rituals, fraught with emotion. Stadiums and gymnasiums are like temples to this “new religion”. And this process, which is typical of our present age, is accompanied by radical changes in relations between people and their bodies. For we have moved beyond concern for personal health and personal grooming to the worship of the body and its physical dimension. In order to build up an image that is compliant with the canons of prevailing contemporary thinking, no sacrifice is too much to pay, and people do not hesitate to undergo strenuous physical exercise, rigorous diets, and even hazardous pharmacological and surgical treatments. The body has now become a raw material to be fashioned at will, following the absolute dictates of the current fad.
Our post-modern culture has become embroiled in a crisis that empties it of value only to fill it with the non-values that come from a nihilistic mentality that reduces the meaning of human life to an unbridled search for pleasure and consumption. This has far-reaching repercussions on the world of sport. Far from being used to achieve the healthy growth of the individual person, the practice of sport is increasingly threatening people; rather than directing them towards freedom, it is increasingly enslaving them, to themselves, to imposed fads and fashions, and to the interests which are concealed behind sports events. The causes of this process, which are robbing sport of its true nature, are manifold. One of the most important and prominent causes is the way the world of sport is being conditioned by the new overarching laws of the market. The economic dimension, which has been present in sport from the earliest times, is now predominant, with the result that sport is seen today as a branch of the economy in its own right. Sport has become big business, with all the negative consequences this entails. The spectacularization of sport has made it one more consumption commodity among so many others – in this instance, the consumption of results and records. This explains the quest for victory at all cost, even if by unlawful means. Doping and anabolic steroids are no longer newsworthy because they are so widely used. Yet they threaten the very sense of competitive sport while attacking the dignity of the human person, who is considered as a mere instrument, solely to guarantee the maximum performance possible, regardless of human limits. Then there are ideological and political forms of interference, when performance in a sport is considered to be a sign of the superiority of a particular political system or country. This is where, instead of uniting, sports competition become a factor of division and conflict, not only between competing teams but also between nations. Not to mention the very serious threat looming over the sporting world of competitiveness pushed to extremes, not infrequently leading to serious acts of violence.
However, today's sport must not be viewed merely in terms of abuse and deviance. We must resist the temptation to condemn it across the board. After all, the depressing picture of the evils that afflict this vast and diverse universe are only part of the story. For the world of sport still has its sound environments and still has generous people who striving to reclaim the ideal of sport as a real school of humanity, virtue and life. These are important signs of hope, and not only for the future of sport. They must therefore not be neglected. For in sport, too, what is above all at stake are humanity and culture, and culture is the indispensable substrate that underpins a truly human life.
In the lively debate on sport – in which sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and radio, television and newspaper journalists are involved, in addition to ordinary sports fans – the Church has certainly spoken out with authority. Of all the Pontiffs of the 20th century who have addressed the world of sport, John Paul II stands out for the great attention he paid to sport and to the body. Not only did he speak about sport, he even practised it after becoming pope. This is why in his meetings with sports men and women, his speeches on the subject have always had a special value. Athletes saw him to be a man who truly shared their experience.
John Paul II addressed the problem of sport with great realism. He was well aware that “In addition to a sport that helps people, there is another that harms them; in addition to a sport that enhances the body, there is another that degrades it and betrays it; in addition to a sport that pursues noble ideals, there is another that looks only for profit; in addition to a sport that unites, there is another that divides.” He was deeply convinced that, despite this ambivalence, practising sport must be considered not only as a source of physical well-being but also as an ideal of a courageous, positive, optimistic life, and as a means whereby individuals and society can fully renew themselves. John Paul II always forcefully emphasised the educational value of sport, which can inculcate such important values as love of life, spirit of sacrifice, fair play, perseverance, respect for others, friendship, sharing and solidarity.
To achieve these lofty objectives sport nevertheless needs to discover its deepest ethos, and comply with the basic principle of the primacy of the human person. He therefore urged people adopt a healthy approach to sport, so that sport is not practised as an end in itself, giving rise to the danger of becoming a vain and harmful idol, but to make it a meaningful instrument for the comprehensive development of the person and the construction of a society made more to the measure of Man. “When understood in this way, sport is not an end, but a means; it can become a vehicle of civility and genuine encouraging people to put the best of themselves on the field and to avoid what might be dangerous or seriously harmful to themselves or to others.” In other words, for John Paul II, the world of sport is an important areopagus of modern times, awaiting apostles who are ready to boldly announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And it was precisely the relationship between sport and evangelisation that was chosen as the theme of the International Seminar on “The Christian mission in the field of sport today”, the proceedings of which are published in this volume. The seminar was held in Rome November 11-12, 2005 under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and officially inaugurated the work of the “Church and sport” Section of the Pontifical Council that was begun in 2004 at the request of John Paul II. It was established as a point of reference within the Holy See for all national and international sports organisations, and to act as a kind of “observatory” for the world of sport at the service of evangelisation, which is the Church's fundamental task.
The first part of the seminar which took a historical view of sport from ancient times until today, was given by Maria Aiello, an expert in the history of sport and sports law. She addressed a number of issues regarding the origins of sport: the linkage between physical exercise and education, the framing of sports law, relations with politics, the ever-increasing importance of the political implications of sport, and essential ethical demands. She was followed by Professor Dietmar Mieth, Professor of Moral Theology at Tübingen University (Germany), who spoke about sport in contemporary society and culture, emphasising the values and principles that are essential for framing a Christian ethos of sport. These two addresses were followed by a Panel Discussion on the “Problems and challenges of sport today” with interventions on “Sport and business”, “Sport and violence”, “Sport and doping”, and “Sport and the media”.
The second phase revolved around the opportunities which sport offers the Church to realise her evangelising mission, above all among young people. This was introduced with a talk that was entitled “Sport: resources for renewal and future prospects”, given by Edio Costantini, President of the Italian Sports Centre, who addressed the educational and formative dimension of sport, also with reference to Italy's long-standing tradition of parish clubs, known as “oratories”, which he holds as a viable model that can always be adapted. He was followed by Mgr. Carlo Mazza, the Director of the National Office for the Pastoral Care of Leisure Time, Tourism and Sport, within the Italian Bishops’ Conference, who spoke on “Sport in the light of the Magisterium of the Church”. He set out an organic summary of the popes’ teaching on sport, and offered a number of stimulating guidelines for identifying new ways in which Christians can be present in this field, and for making the most of the rich patrimony of teachings and resources that already exist. Speakers at the Round Table on the theme “Sport: the frontier of the New Evangelisation” touched on such themes as Catholic sports associations and sport chaplains, pastoral care at major sports events, and the Christian presence in sports institutions. In the debate that followed, emphasis was placed above all on the role of trainers in the human and spiritual formation of athletes, pointing out, for example, that in some countries children may only spend 20 hours a year with a catechist but more than 200 hours with a coach in the practice of sport that is managed by the local parish or a Catholic school.
As the Secretary of the Pontifical Council, Bishop Josef Clemens, pointed out in his conclusions, there is no doubt that the first step towards a more organic pastoral ministry by the Church in the world of sport must be to undertake the commitment to disseminate the principles of a sound anthropology which recognises and valorises all the dimensions of the human person.
The Seminar was attended by 45 people from 18 different countries, with different experiences in the world of sport: scholars, leaders of Catholic sports associations, professional athletes, coaches, and representatives from the Bishops’ Conferences of Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland, which have instituted “Offices for the pastoral care of sport”.
The establishment of the “Church and sport” Section has been warmly welcomed by people involved in sport throughout the world who see this as a palpable sign of the Church’s concern for this important dimension of contemporary culture and in recognition of sports educative potential in the development of the human person. In fact, many have written to express their desire for the Church to make a contribution to help resolve the serious problems affecting sport today. Taking account of these expectations, the Seminar also dealt with sport as a “field of commitment” for Christians and for all men and women of goodwill, seeking to encourage the search for pathways that can truly restore the true face of sport, and lead it back to the lofty ideals in which sport has its roots and which have animated it throughout history.
In his Message to the 20th Winter Olympics, Benedict XVI prayed that the incarnate Word, the light of the world, “may enlighten every dimension of humanity, including sport. There is nothing human, save sin, which the Son of God by becoming flesh, has not valorised ... Sport is one of the human activities which is also waiting to be enlightened by God through Christ, so that the values it expresses may be purified and elevated at both the individual and the collective levels”. The Church – “expert in humanity” (Paul VI) and “the Good Samaritan of humanity” (John Paul II) – is called to bring the light of Christ above all to those places where humanity runs the risk of getting lost, compromising the talents with which the Creator has endowed it.
S.E. mons. Stanisław Ryłko