Aumônier d'une équipe professionnelle par Vittorio Trani

By way of introduction, I am a Conventual Franciscan Friar from the Province of Rome. For 29 years, I have been a chaplain at the " Regina Coeli " prison here in Rome. I guess I am " doing my time " for my sins here on earth. Last May. a special soccer match was held at " Regina Coeli ": the national team of prisoners against a team composed of Italian priests. The trainer of the soccer team " Lazio " generously dedicated his time to coach the team of inmates. I let down my fellow priests as I rooted for the teams of inmates since I am their chaplain and the prisoners won! It was a great event that I hope will be repeated in the future.

For fifteen years, that is, since 1992, I have collaborated as a sport's chaplain for the " Società Sportiva Lazio ", a first division soccer team in Rome. It all happen by circumstance, soon after the death of Padre Lisandrini. (This " little friar " was quite a personality in Italy. Not only was he a fan of Lazio, but he practically lived with the team as he would travel to the away games as well. ) When the Lord suddenly called him home, Dino Zoff, the team's trainer at that time, together with the director, asked me to fill in as the team's chaplain. So I began, and I have exercised this role continuously for fifteen years. I have experienced the ups and downs of the team, such as the year 2000 when Lazio was at the top having won the European Championship, and the past few years when it has been further down in the rankings. However, it has always been a great experience.

On the Saturday evenings before the home games, I celebrate mass for the players and the technical staff. Obviously, this opportunity for evangelization presents itself each time in a different way, according to the people who are present. The number of participants varies as the players change from year to year, and also the team's directors change frequently. Presently, those who participate in the liturgy include: staff members; some players on a regular basis; others who attend from time to time; other players not at all. We currently have two Muslims and two Orthodox Catholics on the team. The Orthodox sometimes attend and obviously the Muslims do not.

Special events are also organized for Easter and Christmas. We have always chosen to gather as a family during the Lent or Easter season. This past year we chose Ash Wednesday and it was a very beautiful experience. Although I feared that this choice may not have been properly understood or would be poorly attended, I was surprised to find just the opposite to be the case. At times we make generalizations and believe that in certain environments or among a specific group of people the sacramental signs of the faith will not be adequately appreciated. But here I was happy to discover this not to be the case as the group was very responsive to this liturgical moment and its meaning. In other years we have had the Easter blessing of homes, or have celebrated the Easter Vigil together. Whatever it may be we chose one event during Easter to come together as a family according to what works best for the particular circumstances of the team. On the other hand, regarding Christmas, there are players who collaborate each year in preparing a Nativity scene outside of the locker room. This is now a longstanding tradition and normally remains throughout the month of January in memory of Christ's birth.

In addition to these liturgical functions, are added the occasional priestly services such as the preparation and administration of the sacraments such as marriage. baptism, and confirmation to the players and their family members.

At times I have asked myself: " Why are you here in this environment? " We have already heard the answer in the words of those who spoke before me. but let me say that I think our presence is important.

In this particular context. or, this " inner circle " of professional athletes, there are many reasons why the presence of the priest is quite relevant.

In order to understand this. it is necessary to understand the workings of professional soccer, and above all, the players, and how it is that they are perceived from the outside world. People hold these professional athletes in great esteem, as if they were superhuman, or even of a divine nature.

This attention and praise can greatly influence their attitudes and behaviour, especially since they are often alone. far away from their family, suddenly very rich, and surrounded by people who are constantly praising them. The great majority of these players lack the psychological strength and savvy to handle all of this pressure. Thus, there is always the risk that all of this can get to their head. Discipline can also become a problem as celebrity status and money can throw them out of balance, not only as athletes, but even more so as individual persons.

In the world of professional soccer, it is known that the young players especially need someone who can help them to recover their sense of balance after being throw into this new and dangerous situation.

Here the priest can be of help. Especially if we understand what the players are going through. Some people will tell you that as a priest you are wasting your time in trying to help them. It is not a question of wast- ing time. Rather, it is a matter of trying to help to recuperate what can easily be lost in the environment that they are immersed in.

Another motive which justifies the presence of a priest in the world of professional sport is the good you can do in helping the athletes and the people who work with them, to open their eyes to the needs of others. There was once a Lazio coach who was not Catholic but had a great admiration for the Pope and Catholicism.

During his many years in Rome, he had placed me in charge of a several initiatives of solidarity and charity that he himself would actively promote. I helped him select some projects designed to help the poor, especially children. With his contributions, we were able to build homes for many poor families in Brazil. Obviously, this was as very positive experience. In fact, there are several works of charity that are supported by the players themselves. All of these initiatives have helped to mature their sensitivity to the needs of the poor, not only the material needs, but also the needs of those going through a period of suffering or sickness. Having accompanied players to children's hospitals I have seen first hand how their presence was a great comfort for the children. But also. I saw how they were eye-opening experiences for the players and helped them to avail themselves more readily to attend to the needs of others.

Let me share with you one event that occurred in a hospital in Rome.

There was a child there who was recovering from serious psychological problems. This boy was a big fan of the player Fiore, who at that time was playing for Lazio. One evening over dinner I spoke to coach Mancini about this situation, and how beneficial it would be for this child to meet Fiore. So it was decided that all three of us, Mancini, Fiore and I would pay this child a visit after a practice. We informed the parents who had prepared a room for a little reception without saying anything to their son.

What a great surprise it was for the child when we showed up. I still remember the joyful tears on that child's face, as he realized that he himself, among the many doctors and children of the hospital. was the reason for the visit of such famous people. It was like an injection of happiness and a source of extraordinary encouragement for this boy. This is another valid reason why I remain in the world of sport: to open the hearts of these players to the sufferings and needs of those around them.

I have chosen not to get too involved in the life of the team or to keep up with all social engagements and have remained on the side- lines. I show up only for the more significant moments. For example, when there is the inauguration of a new fan club, I will attend as it is an opportunity to give a Christian significance to this large event. I will also attend some fan club events, primarily those of particular significance, such as the encounter of the Lazio dubs formed of handicapped persons. There is a club in Rome made up of more than 300 boys and girls in wheelchairs. The encounter of this club with the players is for them a beautiful experience. This opportunity for these children - who are at times marginalized due to their physical disability - to be front and centre with their favourite sport's heroes is a moment of joy and sustains them in facing their difficulties.

In conclusion, I would like to reaffirm my belief that we as sport chaplains must be engaged in the pastoral care of this sector. I am absolutely convinced of this. We must not abandon the world of sport, leaving it void of a priestly presence. even if it is true that some do not share our faith or participate in what we offer. As mentioned previously, we must establish a relationship at the human level with all of these people, which sooner or latter, will bear its fruit. Even if the number of practicing Catholics is lew, a professional sports team always provides a pulpit by which so many others can be reached, such as the fans of the team and others related to the team, and society in general.