VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI says he is praying that the London Olympics promote world peace and friendship — a message the Vatican is increasingly emphasizing as it focuses renewed attention on the positive role that sports can play in society.
But while the message Sunday may be new, sports have long been a mainstay for the Vatican. The first soccer game was played in the Apostolic Palace in 1521 and every year the Swiss Guards face off against the staff of the Vatican Museums in a tournament.
A new movie — "100 Meters From Paradise" — about a fictitious Vatican team at the London Games won a rave review in the Vatican newspaper, but the prospects of the world's tiniest sovereign state actually fielding an Olympic squad are slim.
Oh sure, athletes abound among the Vatican's clerics and cardinals: Pope John Paul II was an avid skier, and Benedict's personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein has been known to play a mean game of tennis. The late head of the Vatican bank, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, took to the links at a Rome golf club and, in ancient times, many popes were accomplished game hunters.
Even Vatican guests have shown their athletic prowess. When foreign diplomats took refuge inside Vatican City during the World War II-era German occupation of Rome, the Chinese ambassador to the Holy See practiced his golf swing in the Vatican gardens, according to photographs in a new book "The Ears of the Vatican" by longtime Vatican reporter Bruno Bartoloni.
"Sports have always been appreciated in the Christian tradition," said Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, which has given ample space to Benedict's renewed message about the good that sports can bring to society.
He said competitive spirit, physical fitness and personal achievement are all "positive values" that the church has emphasized from its beginning.
Just last month, the Vatican's culture office opened a new "Culture and Sport" department, saying the sporting world was in need of a "cathartic" change to fight from spiraling into a profession dominated by money and drugs.
"Sports has to find its cultural aspect again, its profound spirit, and again be the educational reference point for young people," the Vatican's sports czar, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, said at the launch of the new office, which has a counterpart in the Vatican department for laity.
Benedict himself launched the London-based John Paul II Foundation for Sport during his 2010 visit to Britain, creating a charity that aims to "build spiritual character through excellence in sporting skills and fitness." When the CEO of the charity, Monsignor Vladimir Felzman, formally introduced it a year later, he delivered his speech on the interconnectedness of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth while doing 75 pushups.
"If you work at things, you gradually acquire," Felzman said of his own improved fitness. "Virtues are the same. You start by being impatient, but you learn patience."
The 85-year-old pope is more scholar than sportsman, but he is keen to pass the message along.
For the recent European Championships in Ukraine and Poland, he called for letting the competitive spirit take the place of antagonism, and how team sports in particular can help subdue natural tendencies towards individualism and egoism for the greater good of the whole.
On Sunday, his message was broader and aimed at all Olympic athletes, taking into account that the games are beginning as civil war is raging in Syria and as the United States copes with another outburst of deadly gun violence.
"In a few days from now, the Olympic Games are due to begin in Great Britain," he said from the papal summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo. "The Olympics are the greatest sporting event in the world, where athletes from any countries participate, giving it a strong symbolic value."
He said he was praying that, in the spirit of the U.N. call for a truce in all countries during the July 27-Aug. 12 games, the "good will generated by this international sporting event may bear fruit, promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the world."
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