The alliance between sport and Christianity: An unnoticed victory for Pope Benedict XVI

 

The resignation of the Pope came suddenly and the press reacted immediately. The comments of the press were not so much about the achievements of the Pope but about the resignation itself, this unbelievable act that had not happened for centuries. How should one evaluate this act? As a demystification of the office of the Pope? As a “Copernican change?” As a “modern management decision?” As the “most revolutionary step that was undertaken by Benedict XVI?”

Independently of how this step is being evaluated, one should not forget to speak about the Pope’s achievements and about the things that were said or not said about that which he had attained. From the perspective of the history and the philosophy of sport, his intellectual accomplishments were considerable. More than that: He gained a victory of which very little notice was taken by the public up to now—a victory of the alliance between sport and Christianity.

Pope Benedict XVI

After all it is this furtive victory that enables to put focus again on the average human person. On a human person like you and I who mainly does sport during his/her spare time and who is able to foster and develop thanks to doing sport. This new focus opens a wide horizon, because it does not concentrate anymore on the paid high-performance sport, which is only done by a few top athletes and which is able and supposed to capture everybody’s attention through top presentations in the media.

Let us be more concrete: Everywhere one complains about the loss of values and one criticizes the dwindling of attitudes, which with a more antiquated word can be described as virtues. If one makes an unprejudiced analysis of sport, one can notice that fundamental values and virtues were always inherent to sportive activity. For if one practices a sport with others and when one has to respect the rules and meet the requirements, one fosters a virtuous attitude.

This was pointed out by the Pope during his speech to the Austrian National Ski Team on Oct. 6, 2007. During this speech, he offered an exemplary list of basic values that sport can help to foster: “perseverance, determination, spirit of sacrifice, internal and external discipline, attention to others, team work, solidarity, justice, courtesy, and the recognition of one’s own limits, and still others’.”

During competitions it is possible to achieve basic values such as discipline and a humane attitude in a fascinating way and also to demonstrate beauty and determination. The striking point about it is that sport can become a school for life, because one does not only train to be successful in sport, but one also trains to live a successful life.

Hence, Benedict XVI underlined the following while receiving the participants of the World Swimming Championship in August of 2009 in Rome: “As has recently been shown sport, practiced with enthusiasm and an acute ethical sense, especially for youth become a training ground of healthy competition and physical improvement, a school of formation in the human and spiritual values, a privileged means for personal growth and contact with society.”

If some athletes when listening to such words have doubts about whether the Pope knows anything about modern sport, they certainly misinterpret his real intention. It is the Pope’s intention to defend from a Christian perspective the position of the human being in a person who practices sport. He wants to defend the position of all human beings by respecting all the different attitudes and possible failures. Thus, it is not surprising that one of the most important convictions of Pope Benedict XVI—maybe even the most important one—consists in the renewed recognition of a view of a human person that previously did not play an important role for the public opinion. It is the holistic view of a human person whose body, spirit and soul harmoniously relate to each other and form a single unity. This unity is possible, if the three components complement and enrich each other and no single component is being instrumentalized or regarded as absolute.

With these thoughts in mind the Pope affirmed in the speech quoted above held on the occasion of the World Swimming Championship: “The Church follows and encourages sport, practiced not as an end in itself, but as a means, as a precious instrument for the perfection and balance of the whole person.” Referring to the Bible, the Pope underlines the fact that sport can be considered as a “model for life” that has a positive effect on the “development of a person” and is a “component of human culture and civilization.”

Against this background, it certainly is no coincidence that the Pope on Feb. 11 in the declaration announcing his resignation not only refers to his mental but also to his physical strength, which also has to be paid attention to: “However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

If one thinks about these words in a deeper sense, it becomes clear that the Pope views a person as a holistic being who because of his bodily form can only move within certain limits. He does not want to deny the existence of these boundaries or attempt to instrumentally overcome them, as often is the case in the various forms of doping. He wants to accept them as a part of himself. If he succeeds in doing so, he is able to realize his personal development according to his actual phase of life. If he does not succeed, he measures himself by exterior standards that are inappropriate for his person, given the conditions and limitations of each personal biography.

Certainly, there are other convictions of Pope Benedict XVI regarding the relationship between sport and Christianity which deserve being treated, for example, his ideas on peace and international understanding. In a message he sent to the participants on the occasion of the opening of the 29th edition of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Holy Father placed great emphasis on the pacifying dimension of sport: “and I warmly hope that it will offer the international community an effective example of coexistence among people of the most different provenances, with respect for their common dignity. May sports once again be a pledge of brotherhood and peace among peoples!”

It is possible, therefore, to foster peace and a greater understanding among the nations by practicing sport in an appropriate manner, because sport with its “universal language” is able to address all those who directly or indirectly follow the sport event. An individual cannot decide or foresee whether this succeeds or not, but his faith will help him to continue hoping. And as Benedict XVI says after praying the Sunday Angelus on July 22, 2012 in occasion of the Olympic Games in London, he can pray “that in accordance with God’s will the Games in London will be a true experience of brotherhood among the earth’s peoples.”

It would be important to present not just these basic convictions of Benedict XVI. There are others convictions of his, for example, his ideas about ecumenism and education, that should be discussed. All of these basic insights should then be analyzed and evaluated. If this were done, one would then certainly see that Benedict XVI succeeded in creating a new view of the human person, which means a victory for both sport and Christianity.

Maybe one could then also notice that he succeeded in modernizing the Christian view of the human person. A modernization that does not focus on a complete new idea, but that is able to initiate a process within which the full development of the human person plays a central role. It is now up to us to take up this challenge, after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and to widen the actual horizon for sport and Christianity.

 Dr. Norbert Müller teaches sports science at the Johannes-Gutenberg University of Mainz and is a member of the International Olympic Academy’s Commission for Culture and Olympic Education. He is a member of the scientific commission of the Church and Sport working group of the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference. Dr. Karen Joisten holds a university lectureship in philosophy in Mainz.

 

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