On Thursday Pope Francis demonstrated his keen interest in uniting sports with faith, telling members of Italy's Lazio club not to let training or competitions trump the spiritual essentials. “Sometimes it happens that a guy or a girl, due to training and competitions, forgets about Mass (and) catechesis...this is not a good sign; it means we have lost the scale of values,” the Pope told members of Italian sports club Lazio during a May 7 audience. He spoke to the club on the second of three days meeting with different sports teams and associations, which have become a regular occurrence since his pontificate began. The Pope met with United States basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters during yesterday’s general audience. Between snapping pictures and teaching the Pope how to spin the ball on his finger, the team gave him a jersey with the name “Pope Francis” along with the number 90. Tomorrow he is scheduled to host the Italian Tennis Federation at the Vatican, which will bring the three athlete-filled days to a close. In his speech to the Lazio club, Francis said that despite the many commitments related to sports, “we must also not neglect studies, friendship, service to the poor.” He noted that there are many “beautiful examples” of athletes, including famous champions, who despite a rigid schedule have continued to practice their faith and serve others. Francis praised the club — which is involved in 40 different types of sports — for its focus on different sports disciplines, and said that in Italy, as in his home Argentina, there is a risk of only talking about soccer, and neglecting the rest. “Every sportive discipline has its value, not only social or physical, but also moral, since it offers the possibility to people, especially children and youth, to grow in balance, self-control, sacrifice and loyalty to others,” he said. Last year Lazio’s main rival soccer team, Roma, also held an audience with Pope Francis. The Pope’s attention to sports isn’t surprising, given the fact that he is a well-known soccer fan. His favorite team is San Lorenzo de Almagro, one of the most important teams in Argentina, and he still keeps his associate membership card for the team. As a child and even as archbishop of Buenos Aires the Pope has been devoted to the team. In an April interview with the online sports news site TyC Sports of Argentina, Francis revealed that in 1946 he went to all of the team’s home games. The influence of sports on the now-Pope have stuck, and so far his pontificate has proven that as Pope Francis, athletics are not a mere leisure or recreational activity, but also as an active means of evangelization. Since his election as Bishop of Rome Pope Francis has participated in many events with the educational foundation Scholas Occurentes, which he founded while still Archbishop of Buenos Aires. An initiative designed to encourage social integration and the culture of encounter through technology, arts and sports, Scholas began with just a few youth. Today it has a current worldwide network of 400,000 state and religious schools. Most recently the Pope took part in a February google hangout session with 7 special needs children who have used technology to assist them with their disabilities. It was the second one Francis had participated in. Last year’s interreligious Match for Peace, which is a soccer match the Pope called for in order to encourage global peace efforts, was organized by Scholas alongside the charitable Argentinian P.U.P.I. Foundation. Pope Francis developed a friendship with retired Catholic soccer star Javier “Pupi” Zanetti while archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in an audience with the athlete some time after his election, the idea for the match came out. Zanetti, who was captain of the Argentinean national team and of Inter Milan in Italy, said at the time that the interreligious match was the “explicit wish of Pope Francis.” With Buddhists, Christians — Catholic and Protestant — Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Shintos present among the players, the match served a symbolic move used by the Pope to promote peace at all levels of society. In his audience with Lazio, Pope Francis said that true sport always “encourages the building of a more fraternal and supportive world, helping to overcome situations of injustice and social and human distress.” He encouraged the team to be welcoming, and to value diverse talents, saying “May your sports club always be an open house, where fraternity and harmony among people can be expressed.”
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