Le ministère pastoral du sport : bilan et perspectives par Carlo Mazza

It is curious to notice that within the specializations in theology today, there is not a specific sector dedicated to the So-called " Pastoral ministry of sport ". Actual trends in theology don't seem to be fascinated by an aspect of life that involves millions of people, sportsmen, fans, spectators. However, the lack of reflection on the part of theologians doesn't stem from a negative attitude or mental reservations on the part of the Church.

Rather, this is owed to the intrinsic difficulty of how to apply theological reflection to the sport phenomenon, especially when considered as a social and cultural phenomenon important for " understanding " and " communicating " the " mystery of salvation ". Because of this, even such a popular aspect of human life, such as sport, is considered void of " appeal " with respect to a real " theological " treatise. And for this reason, there are not many theologians willing to apply this " faith-seeking-reason " reflection to sport.

Therefore this present effort is merely an attempt that is both modest and limited from the methodical point of view. It simply seeks to sketch a rough outline of the pastoral ministry of sport with a minimal level of dignity, agreeable by a certain consensus, and with some degree of tested effectiveness on the practical level. In addition, this attempt supposes a few unavoidable assumptions, namely: the positive evaluation and acceptance from the Magisterium of the Church; the possibility of a theological foundation, and an initialized experimentation - although ongoing - on the part of the Church in this field.

After a preliminary and survey investigation, it seems that these above mentioned premises can be retained as most probable of certainty. We follow their course, mentioning each time their degree of feasibility and their level of implementation to date.


At this point I think it is proper to begin with John Paul II's explicit desire for the Christian community to " be in the front ranks in this area, in order to plan a special apostolate adapted to the needs of athletes and especially to promote sports which can create the conditions of a life rich in hope ". The words of the Holy Father evidently manifest an invitation to respond to the " needs of athletes " and to devise a special pastoral ministry that can sustain a practice of sport rich in " hope ". In reality, it is surely a matter of launching a pastoral initiative " ex novo ", which first aims at defining the original status of the pastoral ministry of sport, and, secondly, expresses a specific method and ultimately verifies its feasibility with regards to the evangelizing action of the Church. In a nutshell, this is what I will try to propose with this presentation.

I believe that the pastoral ministry of sport can be situated in both the theoretical and practical horizon of the Church's " mission ". As a matter of fact, it is only in the context of mission - considered as an action of evangelization addressed to men and women on the personal level and in the essential relation with their community - that the Church finds the real meaning for her presence, appreciation and concrete intervention with regards to the specific times and conditions of humanity. Nestled organically within the human environment - with all of its manifold activities, and multiple needs for self-improvement. success and satisfaction - the Church's aim is that of helping man to reach these many expectations while maintaining precise reference to his transcendent goal of salvation.

In this perspective, sport takes on an important significance: in the modern society, it represents a way of life, a horizon of varying interests, a mix of opportunities, an assortment of relations that create a " world of its own ". with its particular rules, beliefs, culture, and authority. With its extreme technological and technocratic rationalization and with its global media visibility, sport today is in such a position that it can influence everyday life, from work to leisure.

In reality, if the pastoral care of sport takes upon itself tout court this sense of mission, it is consequently engaged in the evaluation of a specific action of the Church, because the evangelic mandate of " announcing the Word of salvation " to all the world extends in particular to where men and women live out their lives, where they manifest the gifts they have received from the Lord as well as their limits, where they realize their aspirations, talents, hopes and projects.

In fact, given its primordial roots, sport is a " world " inhabited by people with a zest for life, universally fascinated by a practice and a performance that cannot be compared to any other human activity. Since sport is characterized by principles and values, convictions and customs, practices and gestures, languages and knowledge, it appears to naturally respond to the needs of human beings and of post-modern society; it can even be considered the faithful mirror of daily life.

Therefore, the pastoral care of sport shouldn't be considered as something extra-ordinary, or an exception to the rule, even if it is in some degree a specialization. Rather, it should be considered part of the ordinary pastoral action of the Church that simultaneously considers the different sectors of human life in a holistic and inclusive vision, without preconceptions. This criterion is based on simple empirical- practical observations, consequential to common reflections that are typical of pastoral judgments aimed at effective proposals. In reality this

is about the correct use of the classical method proposed by the Social Doctrine of the Church of " seeing " - " judging " - " acting ", according to the wise discretion regulated by the so-called " integrated pastoral approach ", where each aspect of the pastoral care finds its harmonic functionality and its authentic finalization.

On the other hand, it is evident that eventual aporias will emerge not only at the " seeing " level but also at the " judging " and " acting "   level, due in part to a lack of " theological-cultural " reflection and because of the precarious and confusing practical results in this pastoral field on the local level. Those who affirm the contrary possess a pastoral vision that is not in sync with the context which we are examining, as it is without any empirical verification as to what is actually being done at the level of the local Christian community, with regards to sport as an intergenerational and global phenomenon. Having priests who are sports fans is not enough to say that we are realizing a pastoral ministry to sport. Nor does the practice of sport in the parish oratory, as valuable and meritorious as it is, satisfy the appeal made by John Paul II mentioned above.

If the pastoral ministry of sport is a " special application " within the " ordinary " pastoral ministry, this implies an understanding of both the nature of pastoral ministry and what the adjective " special " stands for in particular. In fact, if we take for granted the quaestiones disputatae referring to the authenticity of the pastoral theology in the academic field, we cannot do the same what is " special " regarding the pastoral care of sport as this has to be specified. grounded, and qualified in ecclesial praxis. Even within the field of pastoral care, it's a matter of passing from the phenomenon to the response. And this step must not be taken for granted. In other words, passing from what appears as an inconvertible pastoral datum to the solution: to what is supposed to be done or is already done in the context of Church's pastoral action.

In fact, in the case of sport, the phenomenon tends to arouse interest, passion, curiosity; the response calls for an effective initiative, carried out by real persons in concrete circumstances. If the phenomenon pertains to an abstract knowledge of reality, the response requires practical projects, objectives, people, means, time, methods, etc. In other words, what is needed is a " complex and organic system " of reference that can provided the " necessary " foundation for a real, authentic, incisive, adequate and long-lasting " evangelizing action ".

Obviously, the pastoral action is not just a simple list of " things to do "; it's not accomplished just by equipping or refining a functional " tool "; the application of reason, organization, and measurement are not enough. The pastoral action is more akin to a harmonic symphony where the dominant chord is the " work of God " as an occurrence of grace and the benevolent manifestation of His merciful love.  

Here, the co-protagonist is all that stems from the " work of man " while maintaining a correlation that respects the primacy of God and the freedom of man.

Without this clear correlation, there would emerge an excessive human instrumentalisation or the forcing of the will from without.

From this reason we can clearly deduce the urgency of a " mission theology " for sport. In fact, there needs to be an interpretative " guide " and a " line " of orthodoxy with respect to a " pastoral action " that is in conformity to God's salvific plan and consistent with the understanding of the sportsman beyond every risk of simply " doing " or even of " overdoing ".

From the heart of this prospective, we can see how the conditions for a serious and fertile pastoral ministry of sport hinge upon the decision of placing it completely within the Church's " mission ", so that it is, on one hand, respectably legitimated, and, on the other, not marginalized nor overexposed with reference to the fundamental task of evangelization. In our opinion, this " special " pastoral ministry needs to be formed and supported by five convictions like five great trestles which are capable, feasible, effective and long-lasting, building a " bridge " that can connect God to man and man to God, through sport.

A theological foundation This intervention does not pretend to develop in a highly rigorous or exhaustive way all those theological points that would be expected from a specialized dissertation. I will limit myself to giving an essential outline, under the profile of an " attempt ". In doing so, I hope to open the " intelligence of the faith " to an initial discussion that must be further explored in all its breadth and depth.

First of all, we must consider an empirical datum, i.e. the phenomenon of the body. The first point of reference for all sporting activity cannot be separated from its immediate and natural fundament which is the body. Starting from the body, sport expresses its nature, form, quality, potential, plasticity, resistance, duration, and all that the corporal dimension represents under the anatomical-physiological profile. Borrowing a phrase from ancient metaphysics, we can say that the body is literally the " materia signata quantitative ".   How-ever, the corporal aspect, while describing sport by its external appearances - by what is manifested - doesn't say everything about the body. The exhaustiveness of meanings concerning the body are studied primarily by the human sciences, but are also the subject of investigation by the philosophical, anthropological and theological sciences.

Therefore, from the intrinsic relation between body and sport comes the necessity of elaborating a map of values that becomes constitutive for the formulation of sport's principle of humanization and its unavoidable reference to the psychosomatic unity of the human being, from which sport attains and fulfils its identity. The principle of humanization and the fact of considering " man as unity in a duality " bring into consideration the anthropological profile of sport and, in a second instance, the creationistic-eschatological profile of man who practices sport. Therefore, it's a question about establishing how sport intervenes in the development and growth of the human person and how the " athletic-body " interfaces with the Judeo-Christian faith with respect to creation and redemption. It is enough to recall, in this regards, the words of St. James: " The body without the spirit is dead " ( Jas 2:26).

After a preliminary evaluation, we can note the emergence of some congruencies of value that a meticulous theological anthropology can easily outline and a broad soteriological theology will also affirm as possible to uphold. In the context of a deeper reflection, sport will also reveal a transcendent dimension and it will not be difficult to find visible traces of the salvific plan of God therein as a reflection of His eternal beauty.

Secondly. the " theological " view always refers to the " human per- son " who plays. Without a doubt, sport is a human activity. So, as expression of man, also sport is subject to the " ontological deficit " typical of persons who bear the consequences of being and acting. This " deficit " is perceived and identified according to ethical, religious and cultural categories, by which each human action is determined and judged. In this sense, human activity is marked at its origin by an intrinsic weakness, by its dramatic limitation.

Within the Catholic perspective, faith teaches that to compensate for this real and insuperable " gap ", the believer has to invoke and receive the mercy of the redeeming salvation offered by Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. In this outlook, the human abyss generated by original sin is definitely bridged, and men have been restored by grace to a condition of total integrity. With this gap now overcome and this gift received, man and his activities are now placed in reference to the level of perfection. This is also the case of sport, which, by its nature, tends to reach levels of excellence if not of per-section.

The relevance of this call was underlined by Benedict XVI in the Letter sent to Cardinal Severino Poletto in occasion of the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, 2006. The Pope writes: " Among the various human activities is sport, itself awaiting to be illuminated by God through Christ so that the values it expresses are purified and elevated both at the individual and collective level ". The verb " awaiting " refers to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans where he declares that " the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. . For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now " ( Rm 8:19-22).

If all of creation suffers " the pains of childbirth " for the original fall and in view of its regeneration, then all of human experience also feels this need. Thus all of human activity, in its general and in its specific expressions - sports  included - necessarily welcomes the redeeming action of Jesus. These are in need of an efficient and purifying intervention and elevation that can occur when one acts under the power of grace. Indeed, we can perceive this " groaning and suffering " in the common experience of one's own limit. Particularly in sport, limit manifests itself as an obstacle: like an invincible hurdle, yet always that which must be overcome.

Thirdly, I wish to make reference to Genesis where we read that " God created man in his image " (cf. Gen 1:26). The human person is constructively " stamped " by the creative hand of God and is a manifestation of His " glory ". The term " glory " is heavily charged with meaning concerning the nature of God and His communicative power in favour of man. The human person feels God's glory within him, or, at times, as if its " weight " were resting upon him. In different forms- through human communication, human creativity and practical action-man manifests this glory. In fact, it has been said with effectiveness and truth that " the glory of God is a living man ". Therefore, within the totality of the universe, it is most of all in man, that the glory of the Lord is made visible.

Apostolic tradition proclaims that man's body is the " temple of God ". preserving the divine presence and manifesting the glory of He who resides in it. Here the body is not considered only for what it reveals but also for what it conceals: the mystery of God and the mystory of man. For this reason St. Paul writes: " Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ ?.. .Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you.. .therefore glorify God in your body " (cf. 1 Cor 6:19.20).

In this perspective, sport assumes a unique and singular importance: that of " manifesting " the glory of God through the utmost gratuinousness of the sporting action in its beauty, its harmony of forms, its perfection of movement. Man realizes himself through his body and, in doing so, manifests a sort of " epiphany " of God. Consequently, from this there emanates an air of sacredness that inspires awe and respect, and which allusively refers to the beauty, truth and goodness of God.

The three " theological " connotations that precede our reflection on the pastoral ministry of sport, cannot exhaust the vast horizon implied in such a theological-pastoral perspective. Through the light of the Spirit, these indicate a path to follow, while excluding others; they offer a correct and attentive re-interpretation of revelation while bringing a concrete newness to the geniality of evangelization.

The anthropological profile It is evident that the sport phenomenon takes its real starting point from the hermeneutic framework typical of the so-called " anthropological sciences ". This is due to both the nature of these human gestures and to the issues concerning its complex evolution with regards to modern view of humanity, from which new lifestyles and new individualistic ethics derive. Consequently, the characteristics that emerge reveal how sport, far from being just a physical-motor " datum ", embraces other dimensions as vast as the pharmaceutical. nutritional, psychological, socio-cultural and neurosciences.

Our anthropological inquiry has to be enlarged to include such areas as: the new rationality, modern human needs, the advance in biotechnologies, training procedures, the media influence, the transformation of the status of the athlete to a celebrity, the massive financial investments and the lucrative commercial and merchandising opportunities.

  This synthetically outlined panorama has an important role in forming public opinion, which is often auto-referential or shaped by advertising and media campaigns. Unfortunately, this tends to passively homologate mentalities and life styles.

A few questions will help us interpret the issue at hand. What is the aim of an anthropological reflection on sport? What does it say about today's sport phenomenon - so pervasive and diversified in its forms and levels of practice, but at the same time so homogeneous with regards to its cultural references, consumer motivations, organizational logics, and in its widely diffused expectations? Which identity of " man " emerges from its continual practice and from the aims that are expected of sport at present and in the future? If anthropology has as its subject man together with his historical-cultural evolution, his forms of public life, the languages and the meanings related to his coexistence on the territory with other races, etc., how is it able to trace a frame- work of the real " anthropological " condition of sport? These questions indicate the complexity of the issue and the real difficulty in finding an outline able of receiving a vast theoretical and practical consensus. In this regard, I will just list some general considerations, even if not really generic, to identify subjects, areas and spheres that, directly or not, influence the " sportsman " and determine his particular ''quidditas''.

The first point concerns the relationship between sport and the human being. This relationship is incorporated into and designed on the person in the concreteness of his physical and generational conformation, his sensorial-emotional reactivity, his endowment of will-determination, his intellective-cognitive ability and his social capacity. Therefore sport includes in a single and global act the multidimensional reality of the person, putting the person " in the game " with all his faculties and enabling him to verify the result of his performance under different profiles, in the internal and external reflection of himself.

A second point concerns the relationship between sport and those figures and elements needed for its realization. More in detail, we distinguish: the specialist (trainers, physiotherapist, doctor, companion, press agent, manager, etc.); the biochemical substances of different nature involved (nutritional, functional foods, synthetic drugs, etc.); the technical instruments (functional or specialist according to the different disciplines); media influence (information, comments, interviews, gossip, market, etc.). We are in front of a rich and multiple scenario that includes, at the different levels of operation, the interest and programming of specialized and professional subjects, different technological and experimentation domains, research and application labs, and academic masters and university training.

A third point concerns the relationship between sport and the " human environment ". Here we have to include the various environments that are involved and interested in the sports practice that are qualified as " emotional and sensitive places " of sport, such as: the sport community, the group of athletes, the fans and the clubs that organize them, the families, the " world " of those in charge of social communication, the managers and workers of the public and private sports facilities, the people in charge of the public security, etc. This wide and composite '' vital environment " supports sport, conditions its functioning, keeps the level of competition high and qualifies its social consensus, security and general order.

It goes without saying that the anthropological values seen in the " points " described above directly or indirectly intervene with a cultural reference-point that works as a support: they have to be analyzed separately then correlated into the pastoral " action ".

The ethical dimension

Sport activity, by its intrinsic nature, touches the ethical dimension as a human activity involving free choice, responsibility and a set of rules. There's no doubt that sport has an " ethical sense " and an ethical dimension. In reality we ask ourselves concretely, how ethics can be combined with sporting activity, what influence do they have on the entire practice of the competition, how they define professionalism, how they evaluate a sports organization, what impact do ethics have on the economy concerning sports and communication, what limits do they impose in using certain foods, medicines, technologies, etc.

As it is known, the ethical question implies a conscience illuminated by values and capable of sure discernment. Both prepare a judgment able of defining the adaptation of sports action to the inalienable dignity of the person and to the intrinsic nature of sport in general.

Since ethics represent an exigent criterion of " acting in sport ", they produce sport's motivations, behaviours and practices worthy of man and able of giving a high esteem to sport, preventing implosions and drifts of any type.

Here, the real ethical challenge in sports is revealed. In fact, the

sporting ethos is not an abstract dimension, but it concerns first of all the person who practices sport and his necessary environmental and cultural context. In this regard, the specific profiles are pointed out, in coherent relation between them, such as: the values of corporeity, the exigencies of the full development of the person, the sporting rules, the relationship between the people involved, the correctness of information, the use of training methods and techniques, the selection of med- ical-sanitary personnel. The correlation invoked assures that the horizon of values is shared and recognized by the so-called " sports community ". Otherwise, we will tend toward a decline of sport, invalidated by narcissistic subjectivism, pragmatic individualism, growing materialization, ethical relativism all " ideological " forms that threaten sports identity.

It is therefore a question of putting into action some concordant and strategic criteria. On the one hand, it is necessary to elaborate a general interpretative criterion that we can call " sports ethical principle ", an initial generating principle for every activity, thought or action, that goes through the " sport dimension of life " with all the imaginable implications. This principle is seen as a certain judgment criterion and it is based on the non negotiable dignity of the human being and on the non fungible integrity of life.

On the other hand, it is necessary to educate the conscience with the " essential sports values '' as a first condition for starting and consolidating an " ethical mentality " in sport, able of producing coherent ants and positive and virtuous dispositions, where the discrimen between good and evil is evident. The sporting " values " are not just good opinions, but are necessarily implied in the very nature of sport.

They have to be signalled out and made tangible, known and experimented, under the watchful and sharp guide of the conscience, in a context worthy of man and according to a clear vision of truth, justice and the objective good.

Finally, outlining a systematic table of " virtuous acting '' in sports seems indispensable. Its purpose is that of building up the " good and worthy life ", rich in passion, discipline, and specific skills, according to a set of sporting virtues such as loyalty, temperance, respect of oneself and of others, moderation, a sense of one's limits, and altruism. From here, there stems the urgency not only for an ethical and sectoral code, but also for people to live a life that is responsible, joyful, competitive, rich in significant relationships, and judicious with respect a persuasive cultural of being that is completely centred on success.

In a society devoid of values by consumer and nihilist distortions, sport manifests all the more the urgency of placing again at centre stage the ethical dimension considered as the necessary source from which we can draw the motivational lifeblood and the deterrent capable of checking the ruinous deviations that threaten the athlete (infringement, violations, doping, violence, etc.) at different levels of specialization and competition, and are harmful for sport itself. Here, pastoral initiative finds a favourable and propitious ground.

The educational purpose

According to a classic approach to thought and action, most of all in the Catholic field, sport has always found its most noble aim in the organic support it gives to a pedagogical program for adolescence and youth. In an age in which, as it is said, we are experiencing such an alarming educational crisis in the " universe of values " to the point of this being considered a " global issue ", the pedagogical role of sports seems not only correct and desirable, but also absolutely necessary and not to be postponed.

Certainly the " educational question " considers sport in its " public role " as a promoter of the common good and of citizenship, but more importantly it values its " personal role " since it is deeply related to the development of the person, (lifestyle, behavior, cultural context, etc.).

For this and other reasons, the importance of sport in the educational field calls for the competent attention of the Christian community and the investment of the best human and material resources, in particular in planning the harmonious growth of adolescence and young people.

As we can see, a massive anthropological change is occurring among the new generations. A change that distances them even more from the precedent and following generations and that is essentially " caused by bio-psychic factors (in the beginning of the 1900's the pubertal break arrived at the age of 17, now between the age of 11 and 12), the irruption of the web, the situation of the social relationships and tradition ". As a consequence, sport cannot simply make note of this in passive way as it would be unacceptable to continue with its practice while ignoring these anthropological changes.

Therefore sport, as a notable anthropological and social indicator, is directly involved and has to know how to envision and produce educational programs capable of facing the new emergencies, alone and together with institutions such as schools, family and, when possible, the Church. Furthermore, it seems to be commonly held that sport, on the strength of its ludic and appealing nature and of its fluidity and practicalness, is ever more in a position to efficiently balance the needs of freedom and discipline, creativity and rationality, individual achievement and social integration, which today's changes make all the more stringent.

In reality, we have to admit that also in sport, an educational omen is much easier than the educational 'praxis' because, in the ultimate analysis, it isn't immediately evident what " educating through sport " really means with regards to successfully " developing " all of a person's talents and future possibilities. Sometimes we have superficially thought that mere " playing " could be enough to educate and be educated. Today we are more judicious and critical in the conviction that engaging sport in the educational process implies a more competent vision of sport and of the child athlete who is to be educated; we have a more organic and focused approach to the real ways sport can help to reach the final objective.

But this is not the right place to voice additional dismay about the complex relation between " sport and education ". Here, even if briefly, I just want to mention some crucial sport-pedagogy problems of pastoral interest.

If sport intends to be educative, it has to favour the person's " developmental stage " and " individual character ". The two references imply a type of sport that is individualized, focused and consistent with the specific conditions of the subject. We are then dreaming of a " sport adapted to the subject ", as it is at a professional level. But without taking this level into account, if sport wants to educate, it has to remain in conformity to the subject's conditions, with programs that respond to qualities, aptitudes and personal experiences and well defined technical-athletic criteria.

If sport wants to educate, it has to be able to avail of " highly trained " people, that is to say true " educators " who are prepared not only in technical matters but also enriched with a humanity that is cultivated, mature, and responsible. It is not about finding " academically " equipped people, but rather, people who are " passionately " concerned with accompanying athletes in an evolutionary process that begins with an initial agonistic tension, rooted in a self centred determination, and passes through a deeper questioning by a subject whose self identity is not yet well-defined. We hope that those who accompany these athletes, well aware of their lofty mission, be, first and foremost, inspiring educators before being technical trainers or coaches.

If sport wants to educate it has to know how to combine play on the field with life off the field and with its own terminology. In the end, it's about creating a harmonious and virtuous interplay that is capable of respecting and distinguishing the three fields - life, game, sport - each with their own autonomy. At the same time, it does not seek to separate them artificially but to coordinate them with wisdom, measure and proficiency. Here, the " educational " aspect plays a central and original role as it draws out the good from personal abilities, worthy intentions, material instruments, experiences, cultural traditions and spiritual sensitivities.

Obviously, the " educational priority " as applied to sport requires a long term, broad based approach with adequate ways and means for control. It is a complex and ongoing work that has need of well equipped anti defined " fields " and willing and united " workers " who are endowed with patience and enthusiasm. Pastoral efforts in this specific field are very promising as there is much to be gained by the many opportunities and multiple levels of implementation.

Spirituality in " the world of sports "           

          The pastoral approach to the " phenomenon " and the world of sport musts necessarily entail a care for its spiritual dimension. This affirmation is founded upon the classic definition of the person, as living organon, dynamic and historical, made of " spirit, soul and body " (Cf. 1 Thes (:23 ).   Being a creature called to perfection, man intrinsically belongs to the spiritual dimension. From this point of view, all criticisms that tend to devaluate or deny the " spiritual " profile in sports err in that they consider this a mere product of an imposed structure or ideological prejudice.

According to a clear Catholic view and after what has been said above, sport, as it is practiced by the person, reveals a " spiritual dimension " that, just like the " corporeal dimension ", needs to be cultivated, incremented, and significantly " implemented " in the sports practice, while avoiding a commingling or an overlapping, in which these roles and their proper moments are confused. On the other hand, we have to stress that " a spirituality of sport " is not an artificial replacement of a sports mentality with particular sacred signs (even if these are not to be eliminated as they are legitimate personal expressions). Rather, it is that which inspires this sporting mentality from the inside, just as the soul does for the body, offering it a higher quality and deeper meaning. Just a few clarifications also in this case: To those who practice sport, even if at different levels, it is clear that when sport is seen only in the horizon of corporeality and material instrumentality it has many negative consequences. In fact, when this narrow vision is applied to sport activity, it causes a degeneration of the naturalness, transparency, beauty and gratuitousness of sport. Consequently, many other problems arise in the area of personal motivations and at the existential level: the seduction of success, with the persuasive drive of advancing one's career through the use of drugs, and, finally, the temptation of corruption. In order to face these dangers, a normative deterrent is not enough if it's not supported by strong ethical and spiritual inspirations.

Moreover, a search for meaning continues to arise in both youth and adult athletes. This stems from the sports practice and with the interaction of the same, and contributes to the quest for higher and more meaningful reasons for the simple " practice of sports ". This personal need frequently causes states of anxiety, dissatisfaction, isolation and the consequent phenomena of alienation, desolation and psychological trauma. A correct spiritual harmony of the athlete highly con- tributes to an overall personal balance, a   honest competition, the acceptance of one's limits and an openness to fraternity.

A " spirituality of sport " appears as an obvious need. It has to be created according to the athlete and it has to be proposed in its " theological " integrity without admitting magical or mystifying forms, without giving indulgence to sacred " gestures " or fostering superstitious illusions. While respecting personal feelings and religious " experiences ", the proposal of spirituality in sport aims at establishing a transcendent consciousness that gives a deeper sense to the sporting life, placing God within it as the ultimate point of reference. This requires a real and ineluctable foundation that can orientate the athlete towards a holiness of life, taking inspiration from the one and only model, Jesus Christ, who John Paul II defines as " God's true athlete ".

We can see how a spirituality of sport made " incarnate " becomes a source of light, wisdom and farsighted vision in facing the problems related to sport; it becomes the " place " where we can experiment attitudes in line with the Gospel; it promotes educational and catechetical formation and facilitates the celebration of the Lord's Day, participating in the Sacred Eucharist, according to the most appropriate circum- stances, times and places. In this probative perspective, a spirituality of sport tends to form in athletes a sensitivity towards what is of real and endless value, namely, the recognition of the " Glory of God " in sport, gratitude to the Creator for all the beautiful things given to humanity, and the building of solidarity and fraternity.

There is anthropological shift taking place in advanced societies that could be more beneficial in as much as it is a more fluent, synthetic and unified approach with regard to the sports practice. Taking into consideration the positive aspect of this cultural change, it can help us to better understand sport as a unifying exercise of the subject in which we have a fruitful harmonization of the components of " spirit, soul and body " already mentioned. In order to uphold this dynamism, we have to make room for the human spirit as an integral part of this equation.

In such a perspective, soul, spirit and body appear equally no-present and active in their specific function, coordinated in light of the overall perfection of the sports practice. From here we can deduce how a well equipped spirituality, while adequately cautious, and fittingly integrated into athletic exercise, can be something good not only for sport itself but also for the whole " eudemonia " of the person. This being said, we can also easily see how sport needs a real and efficient spirituality if it wants to remain a human phenomenon that is comprehensive to the totality of the person, charged with deeper meaning, as a propitiator of convivial cultures, and a source of individual and common goods that seek a " civilization of justice love and peace ". Here, the pastoral intervention is directly united to the overall aim of Christian education.

In summary, we can say that the " pastoral care of sport " expresses an " ancillary " aspect when compared to overall pastoral care while remaining in perfect sync with the Church's " mission ". In fact, it is often presented as a " special pastoral action " that harmonizes with the Church's initiative in this complex phenomenon called modern culture.

In order to be believable and well-founded, the pastoral care for sport has need of a specific " theological " investment, an " anthropological " qualification, an " ethical " valorisation, a " pro-educational " stance and an ongoing " spiritual " cultivation. We can say that these five " arches " constitute the " structure " of a pastoral ministry suitable for sport.


To attempt to " take stock " of the pastoral ministry of sport to date is very difficult and risky and maybe even empirically impossible due to the scarcity of general information and statistical elements subject to a homogeneous evaluation. But most of all, any attempt that tries to categorize the pastoral care of sport in its existing forms runs the risk of making excessive intellectual and retroactive operations or in any case an analysis that is largely debatable from the formal and historical-practical point of view.

On the other hand, some reasoning shows that, when the Church began to be interested in sport, a sort of " Catholic history " of sport started to be written. Obviously the Church was driven first of all by " educational " and " pastoral " reasons and not with the intention of " kidnapping " sport as a type of lure or marketing tool. For our present " attempt " it is correct to make a distinction between the " educational " and " pastoral " implications in order to have a more objective " assessment ", and to outline, at the very least, the " processes " that took place,   the " figures " involved and the " acquisitions " made.

No matter what the solution to the described perplexities is, I will try to sketch an outline in view of a rational " assessment ", summarizing five " traits " that characterize the long journey made by the Church trying to approach and penetrate the sports " phenomenon ".

The leadership of the Papal Magisterium

A first " trait " of this pastoral journey from its beginning to the present is rooted in the relationship between the Church's Magisterium and sport. There is no doubt about the crucial importance that the teachings of the Supreme Pontiffs have had on the Church's public opinion since the beginning of the last century. The different interventions have marked and identified the judgments, the qualities and the modalities of the Church's " presence " in sports and have determined the form and style of the Christian engagement at the local level.

The contributions offered by the Pontiffs outline a vision of sport intrinsically related to the total development of the person with regards to the humanistic profile, but most of all in function to the moral values. We obtain a conceptual orientation that points out the role of sports as subordinate to the spiritual duties and intent on safeguarding the personal and Christian discipline, taking for granted the positive and temporal autonomy of sport.

There is no doubt that the essential perspective insistently traced by the Papal Magisterium takes its form from the educational value of sport and from ethical decisions made therein. From these two directives there has been much attentive listening and following from the " Catholic world ". So much so that in this perspective, these became the motivational foundations of all sports activities.

In the course of time as sport evolved, the Pontiff's teachings open to new horizons outlined by society. At the same time, the eye towards sport becomes more " critical " in trying to defend the fundamental values of the human being respect to a sport that tempts to thwart them.

The Papal outlook is pointed towards the pursuit of the " values-virtues " obtainable through sport and the prevention of possible deviations, while promoting an authentic sporting ascesis.

The engagement of Catholic organizations

Another evident " trait " of this pastoral ministry is the engagement of Catholic associations in sport. If the sudden expansion of the modern sports phenomenon has intensified the sports practice, this has also promoted the emergence of specialized organizations able of supporting sport at all levels. Consequently, on the Catholic front, the Pontiffs immediately found the generous and passionate support from the laity who willingly engaged in the " association movement " with a strong social rooting.

With real operational efficiency, concretely realized on the local level, Catholic associations carried out a laudable task. In a certain sense, they were key pioneers and quite fundamental in experimenting with various " sport practices ", in elaborating a " culture of organized sport ", in affirming the " humanistic value " of sport, and in diffusing the popular practice of sport. This association " activism " even brought about the flourishing of Catholic professional athletes at a national and international level.

We cannot forget an important function carried out by Catholic associations in the field of the sporting movement in general : that of  being a great bulwark in defence of the Christian values in sport in a time in which the socio-cultural setting was marked by populist and materialistic ideologies, political enslavement and tendencies aimed at undermining the credibility of the educational intention of sport.

Pastoral interest : between " passivity " and " awakening "

In light of the significant changes that occurred after the Second World War that established new religious, cultural, socio-political and economic scenarios, the Church asked for a pastoral response that was more considerate of the new needs and expectations. The Council " responded " by acknowledging leisure and sport as emerging realities of widespread approval, and also gave its own positive evaluation to the new social phenomena. 

Certainly the revival of sports activity at the oratory-parish level has to be interpreted as part of the aggregation movement, as a support to the development of leisure time, and as a response to the growth in the demand for sports as well as the need of physical and psychological well-being. These " conditions " represent both a turning point and a starting point for initiatives orientated in satisfying this new demand and the new needs of the younger generations.

The fact is that the " traditional " pastoral care, strongly structured on fixed schemes, manifested a certain lack of interpretative preparation. Afterwards it took note of this, initially in a more functionalist and exploitable way, i.e. intent in satisfying pragmatically the ludic-sporting emergencies, then in a more reflective and far-sighted way, intent in joining the praxis with the contents of a Christian vision of sport and life.

In this perspective, granted the difficulties, we still see a " revival " of a pastoral interest that places itself within the framework of the crucial relationship between the Church and a society of well-being. The implications of this are unfolded and established in the horizon of an apostolic opening towards the typical modern phenomena. In reality, the " revival " of this pastoral care seeks to re-establish a relationship with the vast young sectors that are drifting away from the Church, trying to regroup adherence through significant and appealing activities, even if it has only a modest ideal and limited doctrinal-cultural outline to follow.

Searching for the " pastoral sense " of sports

On the other hand, the Church's pastoral efforts to engage in the world of sport, although driven by good intentions and a sense of urgency, have eventually turned out to be " short of breath ", because they consisted in a pastoral praxis characterized by generosity but not equipped with a clear and well thought theory to back it. Therefore, the search for the sense of an ongoing and systematic pastoral engagement in sport was unavoidable.

In particular, there was the need to define the object, the method, the aims, the targets, the quality and the role of the pastoral care of sport. Above all, it was necessary to state the reasons for supporting the engagement of the laity in this new " areopagus " of the Gospel proclamation and with a better understanding of the overall goals to be reached with respect to the general plan of pastoral action.

The great effort towards a " conceptual formulation " aroused a prolonged interest in ecclesiastical fiends. In fact, the pastoral engagement took the form of a consistent and renewed lay initiative, with a specific strategy. On one hand, it highlighting the structural deficiencies already mentioned, and on the other, it advanced the reflection on sports values, the urgency for more competency and programming on the part of organizations, and the necessity of having the right means in order to better educate and form its adherents.

" Programming " innovations

Once this process of this formulation was set in motion, it revealed the necessity pastoral care of sport to elaborate its own proper " plan ". Not only did it need a correct " theological " foundation and a systematic insertion in the Church's general pastoral care at the local level, but it also required its own specific " plan " that could lead to an educational-spiritual process in benefit of the Christian community and, in particular, of the youth and teenagers and their accompanying mentors, in a context of joint responsibility.

A highpoint was reached during the papacy of John Paul II through various discourses, but, particularly, with the celebration of the Jubilee for the world of sport ( 1984 and 2000) and the publication of the Pastoral Note of the italian Bishops Conference on " Sport and Christian life " ( 1995 ), which were visible signs of a " systematic " attention to the sport phenomenon. The authoritative discourses on the part of the Magisterium caused the local Church to be more conscious of this field and consequently, revealing a more stable and " programmed " interest, beyond the that which was merely occasional and temporary. 

In fact we witness what usually happens once you start a pastoral process: the acceleration of demands that lead to determining choices that are always more complex and in need of new human resources and financial investments. On their part. these requests require a more demanding specialization, and while revealing the delicate and dynamic union between the values of faith and the values of sport, they beg for improvement of the pastoral evaluation with regards to the " world of sport ".

From this simple schematization, it is not difficult to outline in synthesis an " assessment " of the pastoral care of sport. According to the " trends " and the significant " vicissitudes " mentioned, we can deduce a gradual participation of the Church in two different ways. The first, as represented by the Magisterium, is that of a more illuminated and focused participation that has perceived the positive elements of the new sport phenomenon. The other form of participation is represented by the more vast lay involvement. Consequently, it is more pragmatic and practical as it consists in supporting the educational effort of the Christian communities.

Briefly, we could say that an " assessment " of the pastoral ministry of sport, first of all, takes into account the important role of the Supreme Pontiffs. These have opened the door to understanding sport as an intermediary value and have called upon coaches and directors to act in such a way that respects the integral formation of the athletes and is attentive to impending risks, while respecting the supremacy of the person, the defence of life, and the spiritual and moral elevation of the athletes.

The contribution made on the part of the " association " movement has also been fundamental as they have translated theoretically elaborated concepts to the pedagogical and practical level where the " presence " of the Church emerges through a widespread base of sports activity, inspired by Christian and human principles. Finally, we have to underline the fact that the local Christian communities have under- stood the pastoral opportunities offered by sport for evangelization.

This can be seen in the case of the parish " oratory " which has been welcomed as a great educational resource.


To a certain degree, the path we have tried to outline charts the course to follow for the pastoral care of sport at present and in the immediate future. From the various input that has been gathered, we can try to give a general outline capable of consolidating the " ways " already undertaken while offering some new goals with regards to establishing the Church's " presence " within the world of sport that is more attentive to its evolution in modern society and more specialized in its " evangelization " efforts. I will just present some possible " perspectives ".     

Theological-pastoral reflection

First of all, an appeal for a greater theological appreciation and grounding of the vast and complex phenomenon of sport is much desired. As we already said, if this pastoral care is to survive, it needs to be continually nourished by a systematic theological investigation regarding the most pertinent issues. Therefore, one of the future aims within this perspective consists in conducting an all-round theological reflection on sport, gathering the best studies in the field and confronting them constantly with the teachings of the Supreme Pontiffs.

With regard to this, I would like to propose the elaboration of a " theological-pastoral dictionary of sport " as useful tool for teachers in theological faculties and seminaries, as well as priests and the laity engaged in the world of sport at different levels. A " dictionary " can not only be of " service " to the " faith seeking understanding " concerning sports, but it can also be a stimulus for an ongoing thought and line involvement of specialists in this ecclesiastical " project ".


These remarks open the horizon to the field of the pastoral care of sport. From what I said, we can clearly see the need of a " practical organization " of this action. For example, it needs the preparation of a pertinent " method ", a set of appropriate " tools ", a regularity of actions, concentrated and integrated with the ordinary pastoral care of the Christian community.

As to this, a big advantage could come from the possibility of availing of a " pastoral vademecum " for a more significant and organic presence of the Church in the world of sport. It could be a useful consulting study aid, of a moderate, practical and immediate nature, designed to answer to the " athletes questions " and the expectations of the people engaged in the sport praxis: from the spiritual life to the different problems concerning the vast world of sport, from the athletes to the managers, doctors, etc. it's not a summary but a pocket handbook, sufficient for daily use.

" Christian " culture of sport

The " world of sport " is ever more in need of a " sports culture orientated by Christian principles " as we firmly believe that only a well- inspired " culture " can impact sport with Christian values. This much felt need requires the formulation of an interpretative key for the reality of sport that be penetrated by the light of faith.

In this direction we can deduce that if pastoral care wants to be incisive, it has to be systematic and well " planned ". It has to be able to offer tools, analysis, and proposals in such a way as to implement these " ideas " into the practice of sport and to inculcate in the dominant sport " culture " an alternative that is credible, feasible, and efficient in achieving those sporting aims that are in accordance to the Christian vision of the person.

This point appears to be the most urgent and the most fundamental with respect to the pastoral praxis in sport. In fact, in order to be heard and followed, this pastoral ministry needs convincing ideas which can create an educational passion for the present sports phenomenon. It also needs educators who are capable of helping those who practice sport and live by sport to find a deeper sense of " meaning " in all of this.

The laity engaged in this " field "  

The " world of sport " is presented as a especially apt field of " apostolic engagement " for the laity. It is therefore necessary and urgent to invest in the laity at all levels of the " sport system " since the response to the pastoral challenge of the world of sport is mostly up to them. The lay faithful are immersed in the different levels of responsibility and decision, where general and practical choices are made, where they can influence the sport plans and programs, where the different policies are adopted and where the present and future of sport is determined.

For these reasons, the pastoral ministry of sport must concern itself with the training of the laity, above all lay " volunteers ", in order to equip, educate and assist them with knowledge and prudence, with far- sightedness and clarity, through appropriate stages of formation, through the sharing of valuable experiences, and with adequate facilities.  

The task and role of the " Christian " association

One last point concerns the need of valuing the role that the various associations play in the advancement of sport. Due to their expansion at the local level, sport associations are key in gathering together the youth and authentically guiding them, while also promoting the widespread practice of popular sports as that which is salutary and beneficial for families as well as even providing a multidisciplinary sport training that is more serious.

In this sense, the presence of groups and sport clubs in the ecclesiastical world constitutes a conditio sine qua non for the introduction of an ongoing pastoral care that is motivated by Christian principles and values. Our secular society is also in need of sport clubs that can act as an important leaven in the world though their dedication to, and their promotion of these Christian values and, in doing so, offer an " alternative " model of practicing sport.

The general " perspectives " presented above are the fruit of the analysis we have made. At the same time, however, they project an ideal, long-term path to follow that we hope would provide many fine opportunities for the announcement of the Gospel in the world of sport.

Briefly we can say that these future " points " for the pastoral care of sport reveal how much this " special pastoral action " is in need of the following: a " structural " consolidation through an evident and well accepted theological foundation; a clear selection of the best methods and pastoral practices; the thorough training of the entire " managerial board ", to the point of being gifted with a " missionary spirit "; specific competence and an overall commitment to education.

Moreover, considering the above outline, the pastoral care of sport needs a set of essential means to facilitate its diffusion, grounding, and credibility. This will only be possible if we, with common sense and communion of wills, agree to create a global and " integrated " pastoral approach.


With this presentation, I hope to have given stimulus to a systematic and general reflection on the vast and vital field of sport, observed through a Catholic perspective and in the light of the extraordinary heritage given tows by the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiffs and the ecclesiastical tradition. The aim has been that of showing the plausibility of the " pastoral care for sport ".

On the other hand, I am well aware of the limits I face in doing so and of the provisional character of a " speech " about such a topic as this. Nonetheless, I am also convinced of the fact that there is no need to be afraid of building thoughts and actions on solid bases that can have a great consent in the Church's public opinion and throughout the vast audience of the " world of sport ". The underlying reason is to be found in the great desire for the " gospel " to find a " little window " or, even better, an " open door " to run its " course " on the fiends where   sport is practiced, followed and loved.