by Mons. Melchor Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, Undersecretary of the Council
In December 2011, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi created a new office in the Pontifical Council for Culture dedicated to sport.
The infant department "Culture & Sport" has the task of establishing a dialogue with the world of sports, which is one of the most important cultural phenomena of our time. Evangelizing the world of sport presupposes a cultural discernment, and this, in turn, a cultural analysis to detect sport’s dynamics, values, and expectations.
Between the Church and the world of sports there has long been a strong relationship. But in recent years it has become fragile. In Italy and in other parts of the world, the Church was famous for its "oratories", centres which, contrary to what the name would suggest, are focal points for all the leisure activities related to the parish, among which sport has a special place. So much so that in Italy, the "oratorio" is synonymous with parochial sports fields. The “oratory” institution has a long and venerable tradition going back to St. Philip Neri and the many activities he designed to rescue the youth of Rome: singing, theatre, tours, pilgrimage of the "Seven Churches", and of course, the teaching catechism and the introduction to the life of prayer in a festive atmosphere. In more recent times, St. John Bosco, inspired by this idea and invoking the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, invented the "festive oratories" which is at the origin of the Salesians. San Jose Murialdo, in Venice, invented the "boards" with very similar purposes, where sport has a special role.
In the English speaking world, sport has played a role in the formation of Catholic schools and institutes. Sports in Catholic Colleges are instruments for social promotion in the midst of a cultural environment hostile to Catholicism. It is enough to mention the legendary “Fighting Irish" of Notre Dame University in the United States, a true icon of American Catholic university sports.
As in many other situations, also in the world of sport, there has been a divorce between faith and culture. Schools and parishes have been abandoned to their fate. Sport when unhooked from its connection with initiation into life-giving faith and the realities of the spirit, has become a victim of the consumer market: often the parish sports activities have gone from being well-used educational resources to being mere financial resources, creating revenue by rent. In many cases, the structure is preserved, but deprived of the pastoral purpose for which it was created. The same issue is faced by cultural use of many parish and diocesan buildings, such as halls, schools and cinemas and these cultural realities need to be continually rooted in the Gospel reality.
In a world so culturally and pastorally challenged, the area of sports has seen a gross commoditization, becoming mere spectacle and athletes’ inspiration competes with the promotion of brand names and consumer products. Here the Pontifical Council for Culture wishes to open a new channel of dialogue, recovering "the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish" of those who live in this environment. This is not just to evangelize the world of sport nor make it an instrument of catechesis, but to discover and appreciate a world with all its contradictions and tensions, which are full of high values that reveal the essence of the human person and so inevitable the locus where we can discover the face of God.
This new department "Sport & Culture" works closely with the section "Church & Sport" created in the Pontifical Council for the Laity by John Paul II, the first pope in history who was an athlete.
In addition to various projects to examine the theological and anthropological dimensions of sport, exploring the rich potential of the category of "play", the Department currently contributes to the School of Thought organised by the Office for Sport and Recreation of the Italian Episcopal Conference. This is a training course aimed at those responsible for sports ministry, which seeks to help leaders of sports groups and associations in the various dioceses and other church groups, to make the best of the opportunities sport provides for a good education and as a spiritual tool revealing God's face.
Melchor Sanchez de Toca