Sports and Faith – “Giving the Best of Yourself” the first ever Vatican Document on sports

This is the time of the Football World Cup and many of us in our Jesuit education community are enthusiastically following this worldwide event. Physical education and sport is an important aspect to the life of Jesuit schools around the world, sometimes to the extent that some schools are often identified with their sports teams. In its first ever document about sports, the Vatican calls sports “an arena of human activity where the virtues of temperance, humility, courage, patience can be fostered and encounters with beauty, goodness, truth and joy can be witnessed.” It was published on 1st June 2018 by the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life with the title: “Giving the Best of Yourself. A document about the Christian perspective on sport and the human person.”

The 52-page document highlights the Catholic Church’s positive view of the important values inherent to sport. It also considers the impact of sports on society, the pursuit of the common good and the unity of the human family.

Pope Francis wrote a letter to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect to the Dicastery, which also serves as an introduction to the document. Pope Francis calls sports “a meeting place where people of all levels and social conditions come together to reach a common aim” and also a “formative vehicle” which serves the integral development of the human person, especially the youth. 

“The need for others includes not only teammates but also managers, coaches, supporters, the family; in short, all those people who, with commitment and dedication, make it possible to ‘give the best of oneself.’ All this makes sports a catalyst for experiences of community, of the human family…. We reach great results, in sports as in life, together, as a team” (Pope’s Letter to Cardinal Farrell). 

In this photo provided by the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano, Diego Armando Maradona presents Pope Francis with an Argentine national soccer team jersey bearing the name Francisco on it, in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 ahead of an inter-religious match for peace. The friendly soccer match, supported by Pope Francis to promote the dialogue and peace among different religions, was scheduled at Rome’s Olympic stadium. (AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

“We need to deepen the close connection that exists between sport and life, which can enlighten one another,” writes Pope Francis, who often fondly recalls how he and his family cheered on his favourite football team when he was a young boy.

Fr Patrick Kelly, SJ, an associate professor of theology at Seattle University, served as an expert contributor to the revision of the document and spoke at the press conference for its release in Rome. Fr. Kelly was interviewed by Salt and Light Catholic media, where he called to mind Pope Francis’ image of Jesus knocking on the door from inside the church wanting to get out into the world to be with the people. The Church was attempting to do this with this document, he said.  He also spoke about a Catholic “play ethic” referencing St Thomas Aquinas. The enjoyment a person experiences in play, however, is directed toward the end of the recreation or restoration of the person. […] This “play ethic” was the central influence on late medieval preaching about games and sports and led the humanists and early Jesuits to provide time for play and sport during the school day and later Catholics to do the same, including in the United States, writes Fr Kelly (America Magazine, June 07, 2018).

Healthy competitions can be a meeting place for  people of different cultures, which in turn can help them to have a glimpse of the unity of the human family. As Pope Francis puts it, “This is possible because the language of sports is universal; it extends across borders, language, race, religion and ideology; it possesses the capacity to unite people together, by fostering dialogue and acceptance.”

In our Jesuit Schools network there are wonderful examples of this universal language spoken. In the Global Stories section we have stories and photos about competitions and tournaments from different regions of the world. One example of embracing sports as a “formative vehicle” is Expressions 2018 a Painting and Drawing competition on the theme of Peace and Sports, brought to the global community by St. Lawrence High School in Kolkata, India. This competition encourages global thinking, creativity, collaboration and sharing around this theme.  “At a young age children need to be encouraged to participate in games and sports thus enabling them to become beacons of CHANGE in our society. A sound mind in a sound body ought to bring about change in attitude for a more peaceful coexistence in our world. The intention is to nurture children through this medium to grow into responsible citizens” (Rahul Mukherji, SLOBA). 

Winners Expression 2017

Schools and universities are ideal places to promote an understanding of sport aimed at education, inclusion and human promotion. Parents and families play an important role, in dialogue with teachers and school management, in shaping school sports activities in such a way that they will lead to the integral development of students (Giving the best of yourself, p. 23).

Sports, while a deeply human activity that invites participants to give the best of themselves, it is also a call to aspire to holiness, it can also be practiced with a Christian spirit.

Like the athlete during training, practicing sport helps us to give our best, to discover our limits without fear, and to struggle daily to improve. In this way, “to the extent that each Christian grows in holiness, he or she will bear greater fruit for our world” (Gaudete et exsultate, 11). For the Christian athlete, holiness will, therefore, consist in living sports as a means of encounter, personality formation, witnessing, and proclaiming the joy of being Christian with the people around oneself (Pope’s Letter to Cardinal Farrell).

This new document can help our schools reflect on the relationship between sports and faith. A great resource to help awareness and reflection on sports as a personal development and community building tool is the Daily Examen on Sport, which can be used in the classroom or on a school level. This booklet on the Examen also contains a session on Sports called “The Monday Exaem, Reviewing the Weekend Sport (Ross Jones, SJ). 

Click the following link to download the document:  “Giving the Best of Yourself. A document about the Christian perspective on sport and the human person.”

If you have inspiring stories about faith and sports in your school, please share it with our global community.