Patrick Kelly, S.J., is one of the experts who contributed to the revision of the first major Vatican document about sports “Giving the best of yourself: A document on the Christian perspective on sport and the human person.” He also participated in the press conference at the Vatican for the release of the document on June 1.


It is well known that Pope Francis, in his speech to fellow cardinals in the general congregation to elect a new pope, recalled the passage from Revelation where Jesus says “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” The image that came to his mind, however, was not typical. He imagined Jesus standing inside the church at the door and knocking wanting to get outside into the world to be with people where they were living their lives.

The church is taking a significant step in this direction with the publication of its first major document about sports. This document attends closely to what happens to the human person in the context of playing sports and asks what leads to his or her integral development or to diminishment and desolation. It also considers the impact of sports on society, the pursuit of the common good and the unity of the human family.

A new Vatican document considers the impact of sports on society, the pursuit of the common good and the unity of the human family.

While the document is outward looking, one of the surprising features for many readers may be the parts about play and sport as a dimension of the cultural and theological heritage of the church.

The document points out that while sports historians tend to characterise Christian attitudes toward the body as negative, in fact Christians traditionally have emphasised the goodness of the material world and that the person is a unity of body, soul and spirit. The humanist Montaigne is drawing on this tradition when he writes in an essay on education: “We are not bringing up a soul; we are not bringing up a body. We are bringing up a person. We must not split him into two.”

The document also points out that St. Thomas Aquinas had asked in his Summa Theologica, “Can there be a virtue about games?” His answer: “Yes.” For Thomas, virtue was associated with moderation and so working or studying all the time would be excessive.

There was a need for play and recreation in a fully human life. This “play ethic” was the central influence on late medieval preaching about games and sports and led the humanists and early Jesuits to provide time for play and sport during the school day and later Catholics to do the same, including in the United States.

The enjoyment a person experiences in play, St. Thomas believed, is directed toward the end of the recreation or restoration of the person.

For Thomas, play is not merely the “pause that refreshes,” however, so that the person can get back to what is really important—that is, work. This would see the value of play in something outside of itself. Rather, he insists that play is engaged in for its own sake. The enjoyment a person experiences in play, however, is directed toward the end of the recreation or restoration of the person.

The problem with the dominant trajectory is that when play itself is not taken seriously, play activities such as sports are vulnerable to being viewed merely as means to other ends.

Pope Francis touched on this kind of problem when he recalled joyful outings in his youth to the football (soccer) stadium, by himself or with his family. The pope told a delegation of Italian football teams that there was an air of celebration about these days and said: “I would hope that football and all other popular sports can take back that element of celebration. Today football also operates within the world of business, marketing, television, etc. But the economic aspect must not prevail over that of the sport; [when it does so] it risks contaminating everything on the international, national and even local level.”

“It is important that sports remain a game!” the pope said. “Only by remaining a game will it do good for the body and spirit.”

“It is important that sports remain a game!” the pope said. “Only by remaining a game will it do good for the body and spirit.”

One way playing team sports does good for the human person is by providing a context within which he or she experiences community. As Pope Francis puts it in his introductory letter to the document: “The need for others includes not only teammates but also managers, coaches, supporters, the family; in short, all those people who, with commitment and dedication, make it possible to ‘give the best of oneself.’ All this makes sports a catalyst for experiences of community, of the human family…. We reach great results, in sports as in life, together, as a team.”

One of the positive dimensions of sport in our internet age is that it provides young people with opportunities for face-to-face encounters while they are engaging in an activity that stirs passions. In such a context, they must learn to exercise self-control and how to manage conflicts within the team.

The document points out that solidarity in the Christian sense needs to go beyond the members of one’s own team, however. Peaceful competitions can be a context for people to have encounters with others very different from themselves and even help them to have a glimpse of the unity of the human family. As Pope Francis puts it, “This is possible because the language of sports is universal; it extends across borders, language, race, religion and ideology; it possesses the capacity to unite people together, by fostering dialogue and acceptance.”

The document also says that because there are human goods associated with sports, all who wish to participate should be able to do so. The document mentions in particular poor or displaced children, physically or intellectually disabled persons and persons without housing and refugees. It also mentions that in some parts of the world girls and women are not allowed to participate in sports and thus cannot experience the joy and benefits of such activities. It points to the Special Olympics and the Paralympics, as well as the Homeless World Cup and the creation of a Refugee Olympic Team in 2016 as signs of hope with regard to creating a culture of inclusion in sports.