In 2 Timothy 4:17, St. Paul famously proclaimed, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” The Vatican has given the verse more literal meaning through the establishment of an official track team earlier this month. According to the Associated Press, the Vatican has “the aim of competing in international competitions as part of an agreement signed with the Italian Olympic Committee.” Beyond the Olympics, the team joined the Italian track association and will compete within various international competitions. Current team members include Swiss Guards, priests, nuns, pharmacists, and professors. The track team is the first legally established Vatican athletic team, although there is an unofficial soccer team and a cricket team.
The team’s stated purpose extends beyond mere competition. According to Michela Ciprietti, a pharmacist-runner, it seeks to “promote culture and running and launch the message of solidarity and the fight against racism and violence of all types.” He further added, "During the races we challenge each other, at the end we hug each other, no matter what your religion or country of provenance." As such, the team includes two Muslim migrants as honorary members of the team. Various secular examples exist where sports have provided a vehicle for the Holy See’s desired cultural influence, most notably in the Berlin 1936 Olympics when Jesse Owens won four gold medals and blunted the propagandistic effects of the games.
The Church understands sports as a vehicle to promote Christ’s will beyond secular symbolism. Sports have been used metaphorically to explain elements in the faith, such as in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 when St. Paul uses a “mini-parable” about sports to explain his methods of preaching and devotion to God. Further, the Latin phrase “athleta Christi,” meaning “Champion of Christ,” was a title granted to early Christian soldier martyrs, most notably St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes.
Even beyond metaphors and titles, the Church has issued teachings regarding the role of sports individually and societally in our faith. In 2004, Pope St. John Paul II instituted the “Church and Sport” section within the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Further, in 2018 the Church issued the document “Giving the Best of Yourself” as a “brief presentation of the views of the Holy See and the Catholic Church on sports.” It outlines sports as a vehicle to a number of virtues and theological concepts, such as understanding the dignity of all people and promotion of equality through the lens of each person as created in God’s image rather than deriving value from varying abilities. Sports unite people in various cultural situations and teach solidarity within teams as a means to overcome division. Further, the document describes sports as a proper unity between body and soul which allows us to combat both disregard for our bodily being and raw materialism.
As quoted within the document, Pope St. John Paul II stated: “The Church considers sports as an instrument of education when they foster high human and spiritual ideals and when they form young people in an integral way to develop in such values as loyalty, perseverance, friendship, solidarity and peace.” As Catholics, we must recognize the pastoral role of sports. It may be years before the Holy See track team will be on any major podium, but we must recognize and pray for their purpose beyond that. Although, it will be fun to root for them all the same.
Featured image: © European Union 2014 - European Parliament via Flickr