On Friday Pope Francis met with Special Olympics soccer players, commending their commitment to the promotion of inclusion and the dignity of all. “You are the symbol of a sport that opens eyes and heart to the value and dignity of individuals and people who would otherwise be subject to prejudice and exclusion,” the Pope said Oct. 13.
The papal audience was part of 50th anniversary celebrations put on by Special Olympics Italy. Francis met with around 350 participants of a unified soccer tournament taking place in Rome Oct. 12-15. The event, called “We #Change the Game with PlayUnified,” involves 120 young athletes, both with and without intellectual disabilities, from the countries of Italy, France, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Romania.
The Special Olympics was started in 1967 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the first international Special Olympics Games took place at Soldier Field in Chicago in July 1968. Today Special Olympics is active in 170 nations; more than 4 million athletes participate around the world.
Pope Francis told athletes that “sport is one of those universal languages" that overcomes cultural, social, religious and physical differences, and succeeds at uniting people, making them part of the same game and protagonists together of victories and defeats.”
During the days of the tournament, participants will reaffirm the importance of “unified” sports, where athletes with and without disabilities play together on the same teams, he said. “Do not be tired of showing the world of sport your shared commitment to building more fraternal societies in which people can grow and develop and fully realize their abilities,” he encouraged.
For its part, the Catholic Church supports and encourages these initiatives, he continued, because they foster the good of people and communities. He recalled that in sports one can find many great stories of people who have overcome difficulties or come to terms with misfortunes such as poverty and physical and emotional wounds. “These stories show us how the determination and character of some can be a motive for inspiration and encouragement for so many people in all aspects of their lives,” he said.
He praised their commitment to the promotion of human dignity and unity through sport, which he said “nourishes the hope of a positive and fruitful future of sport, because it makes it a real opportunity for inclusion and involvement.”
“I hope you spend these days with joy and serenity,” he concluded. Along with fun, also cultivating “friendship and solidarity.” “As I ask you to pray for me, I invoke the Lord's blessing on you, on your families, and on those who support you in your sporting activity,” he said.