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2░ SEMINAIRE INTERNATIONAL DU VATICAN
Aum˘nier Ó la coupe du monde de football par Alfonso Lopez

In June of 2006, I was able to accompany the Mexican National soccer team to the World Cup as their chaplain. Although I had occasionally celebrated mass for some professional teams in Mexico, this was a totally new experience for me. This opportunity to spiritually assist these players along with their families and the many Mexicans who were there with the team in its host city of G÷ttingen was very interesting and gratifying for me as a priest.

What is the benefit of having a chaplain at the World Cup? What does he do? Certainly he does not score goals ! Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to repeat the words of the president of the Mexican Soccer Federation, who said the following at the end of the mass of Thanksgiving: " Father, I would like to thank you for being with us because your presence as a priest has made our days together as a team both more human and more Christian ". I think this is precisely what the priest brings to these events as his presence within the world of sport - even professional sports - can make it a more human and Christian activity. What does a priest actually do at the World Cup? In my case, I was able to celebrate Mass in Spanish each day for the players and their families, as well as for the directive and technical staff and the Mexican fans who were staying in the same hotel and wanted to attend Mass. In fact, it got to the point where I was celebrating two masses a day as those who couldn't attend mass in the morning due to their commitments would come in the evening. These people did not want to miss this opportunity to encounter Christ daily in the Eucharist. In addition to celebrating Mass and hearing confessions, I attended people in spiritual counselling.

However, it should be noted that it was not so at the beginning.

The first day after our arrival. I posted a schedule for mass and confessions (as we were in Germany everything was to be well ordered). yet, only a few people from the team showed up. It was then that I realized that the players were not going to come on their own and that I must go out in search of them. So I dedicated a lot of time under the hot sun attending the team's practices in order to get to know the players. I often had to wait for the right moment to present myself and strike up a conversation with them. Yet. as a result, Mass attendance steadily increased. I think this was in part due to the fact that the players came to know the priest not in the sacristy, but rather, there on the sidelines in their world of soccer.

As professional coach Arturo Salah mentioned: " The priest needs to win the respect of the players ". I think the way to gain their respect is through service: by being a good shepherd who is always attentive to their needs and always available to help them. The players need to know that we are there to help them spiritually. And this applies to all those who make up the team, from the president to the players as well as the technical staff on down to its last member. Because of this, by the end of the World Cup, I had a long line of people including the team's cooks, technicians, and water boys, who wanted either go to confession or ask me for a blessing before their flight home the next day. All of these people were made to feel a part of the team and sought out the team's chaplain as well.

I also came to realize how difficult it is for the players to make time for their spiritual life during these intense moments. I noted how some players who were attending daily mass had to sacrifice some of their time for breakfast or had to rise earlier than the rest. Because of this, these same players became the spiritual leaders of the team and encouraged others to attend mass by their example.

My presence among the Mexican team seemed quite providential right from the start in order to help the team through a tragic moment.

Soon after our arrival in Germany, I was awakened in the middle of the night and I was asked to be the one to tell our goal keeper that his father had suddenly died. When I arrived to his room I found several players already gathered outside the goalie's room in a sign of solidarity in this moment of suffering of their fellow team mate. After speaking with him, I invited all those present to pray for the repose of the soul of his father and for him and his family. All of us knelt down in prayer before an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (an image of Our Lady was never lacking! ) and with great fervour we prayed some " Hail Mary's " for the these intentions. This brought the team together in a unique way and also marked the general tone for the rest of the World Cup in which the team lived in a spirit of unity, charity, and faith.

For the sport chaplain however, the critical moments are not only those of tragedy. For the athletes, the moment of the game ...   the moment of competition, is also very important because it is there that their entire career is on the line. It is the moment when their life as a professional hangs by a thread as all of their years of training and effort are put to the test. It is an important moment when the priest can and should be present to the players in a special way.

Five hours before our decisive game with Argentina. we had the celebration of the   Eucharist, promoted by the team's spiritual leaders.

The mass was attended by all. As we were all very nervous. I told them: " Look, all of us, myself included, are extremely anxious about this game. But only one thing really matters - that we simply give the very best we can. If we give our best, we have given everything. No one can ask for more than this..." At the end of the mass. all the players spontaneously knelt down before an image of the Blessed Mother to place all their efforts in her hands. Although we did not win that game, many said it was one of the most intense, most battled games of the Word Cup. It was hard to swallow this defeat, but we were left with the satisfaction of having given our very best. The following day, we celebrated the Sunday Mass in thanksgiving for the many graces we received during these emotional and unforgettable weeds that were lived with much joy, charity and faith.

During this seminar. someone pointed out that the chaplain needs to share in the human part of the athlete's lives in order to allow them the opportunity to approach us regarding the spiritual. This was my experience as well. I noticed how players would eventually have the courage to approach me to seek my advice or help regarding spiritual matters. But also, I noticed how difficult it is for some of them to open up. I noticed some players who seemed to want to speak with me but were hesitating to do so for some reason. Two of them waited until the last day to tell me: " Look Father, we would like to talk to you about something … we need to have our marriages blessed ". One player had been civilly married for five years and the other for four. They were not happy watching their fellow players receive Christ in the Eucharist while they remained in the back with their arms crossed; they wanted to receive Christ in the Eucharist. I am happy to say that one was married in the Church soon after the World Cup and the other is taking marriage preparation classes in order to do the same. There was also the case of a Mexican player who had not been able to arrange for his one year old to be baptized as he was playing in Germany. I was able to help him find a Spanish speaking priest to help him with this. If they are given the opportunity, sooner or later these players will approach you in order to seek help in resolving their spiritual needs.

Even now, a year after the frenetic activity of the World Cup, I have been able to stay in touch with many of the players of the Mexican team. It seems that God was able to plant in all of their hearts a desire to grow in their Christian vocation. Now they are now seeking other priests to help them to cultivate this.

This beautiful experience at the World Cup has opened my eyes to the importance of the pastoral ministry to sport in the Church.

Although in many countries this pastoral ministry to sport is new, it seems that God is anxiously awaiting that priests learn how to transmit Christ to these athletes as they are leaders of society and have such a great impact in the lives of children and youth. It is important that we always and everywhere bear witness to who we are as priests. and this includes the world of sport, which has a particular need for evangelization. At the same time. the world of sport has great resources to tap into - namely. the noble hearts of those athletes who aspire to lofty goals.

who possess great ideals, who know how to fight and to win, and, above all, how to conquer themselves. So I would like to conclude by encouraging priests, especially those who work with youth. to be more present as a priest within the world of sport.