Could we be far from Pope Francis greeting champion athletes at the Vatican much like American presidents do at the White House?
It seems plausible eight months into his papacy, especially after he met with the presidents of the International Olympic Committee and FIFA – and the national rugby teams of Argentina and Italy – on Friday.
“Playing rugby is hard; it’s no walk in the park,” Francis said as he met the teams, who play in Rome on Saturday. “And I think that makes it useful to toughen the spirit, the will.”
Francis appreciates the “loyalty and respect” that sport encourages, EFE news agency reported, and has called for more “spiritual athletes.”
Rugby, Papa Francesco said, is a metaphor for life: sometimes it’s painful, but you can achieve your goals through teamwork and sacrifice.
“There are the famous scrums, which are sometimes hard to watch,” the pope said. “And then there are the individual maneuvers, races towards the goal.”
It “makes us think of life, because our whole life we are heading for a goal. We need to run together, pass the ball from hand to hand, until we get to it.”
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As for his meeting with FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, it was nothing more than “a meeting between two sportsmen – or at least two football fans,” Blatter told Agence France-Presse.
That’s underselling it, of course. The pope wants FIFA to reach Brazil’s poorest during the 2014 World Cup.
“The pope calls for football to help do something for the poor,” Blatter said. “(We will) do what we can.”
New IOC president Thomas Bach and the pontiff held a private meeting on Friday to discuss how sport can influence general society in a more positive manner.
Both men agreed sport can contribute to mutual understanding across nations, while proving different cultures can co-exist peacefully.
The IOC on Saturday will present Francis with the Olympic Order, the group’s highest honor. Rome is hosting European Olympic Committee meetings this weekend.
Francis is more than just a sports fan, though. He played basketball as a boy in Argentina for San Lorenzo de Almagro and still supports the sporting club’s football team (we're thinking point guard).
His interests extend beyond football and basketball, too. With guidance from John McCarthy, Australia’s ambassador to the Holy See, there is now a cricket club at the Vatican.
The cricket club is seen as a way to bridge the gap with countries like India and Pakistan.
“This represents the desire of the (Vatican) council to be in the peripheries, the outskirts of the world,” said Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca of the Vatican culture ministry.
In August, ahead of a friendly soccer match between Italy and Argentina, the pope encouraged players to embrace their place in society especially as role models.
The players responded after meeting Francis. Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, seemed overwhelmed.
“Without a doubt, today was one of the most special days of my life,” he said, according to the Catholic Herald. “We have to excel on and off the field.”
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