A new Vatican document has advised families that playing sport together on Sundays is a good way of coming together in joy and celebration, but only when these pursuits aren’t used to excuse them from attending Mass.
The Vatican’s first document on sport, Giving the Best of Yourself, was released by the Dicastry for Laity, the Family and Life and addressed “to all people of goodwill”.
Pope Francis gave the document his seal of approval in a letter to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastry. He said he read it “with joy”. Sport is, he continued “a meeting place where people of all levels and social conditions come together to reach a common aim… a privileged area around which people meet without any distinction of race, sex, or ideology and where we can experience the joy of competing to reach a goal together.”
The document states: “The bond between the Church and the world of sports is a beautiful reality that has strengthened over time, for the Ecclesial Community sees in sports a powerful instrument for the integral growth of the human person. Engaging in sports, in fact, rouses us to go beyond ourselves and our own self interests in a healthy way; it trains the spirit in sacrifice and, if it is organised well, it fosters loyalty in interpersonal relations, friendship, and respect for rules.”
It goes on to talk about honouring fair play, stating that sport “must be an unavoidable occasion to practice human and Christian virtues of solidarity, loyalty, good behaviour and respect for others, who must be seen as competitors and not as mere opponents or rivals.”
Athletes, it added, “have the mission to be educators as well, since sport can effectively inculcate many higher values, such as loyalty, friendship and team-spirit.”
However, the document warned of some of the pitfalls of playing sport, such as doping and corruption as well as the issue of being overly competitive and pushing the body beyond its natural limits. “Sports that inevitably cause serious harm to the human body cannot be ethically justified.”
It also warned parents who push their children to specialise in and play one sport intensively that injuries and eating disorders are common, especially in girl’s gymnastics. “Parents have a responsibility of showing children that they are loved for who they are, not for their successes, appearance or physical abilities.”
And it says: "If sport runs the risk of being the occasion to divide a family and to diminish the sanctity of Sunday as a holy day to uphold, it also can help integrate a family with other families in the celebration of Sunday, not only in the liturgy but in the life of the community. This does not mean that sport matches should not take place on Sundays, but rather, such events must not excuse families from attending Mass and should also promote the life of the family within the community."
Fr. Marc Lyden-Smith, parish priest and Sunderland AFC chaplain said that he regularly sees the positive effects of the discipline of sport. “Young people involved in sports teams develop a good sense of community and sportsmanship.” However, he added: “Sometimes their parents think the Sunday match is more important than Mass – you have to get your priorities right.”
He echoed Pope Francis’s advice that the church should develop appropriate pastoral care for its sportspeople. “Lots of people view them as spoilt little rich kids, but they have many of the same worries as anyone else – about health or relationships and need spiritual nourishment.”