In a meeting Friday with a large group of representatives of the Italian Tennis Federation, Pope Francis interjected strong words against doping in his otherwise positive message.
The Pope acknowledged the deeply competitive nature of athletics today but warned that “the pressure of wanting to achieve significant results must never induce you to take shortcuts such as doping.”
“How ugly and sterile is the victory achieved by cheating on the rules and deceiving others!” he added.
Some 7,000 people showed up to hear the Pope Friday, including players, coaches, and management. Among them were a sizable number of children and young people. The historic encounter was the first time that the world of Italian tennis ever met with a Pope.
The President of the Italian Tennis Federation, Angelo Binaghi, gave the Pope the gift of a white tennis racket, telling him that “not only do we love your simplicity and ability to speak to the depths of our soul,” but “we also know that you are a great lover and connoisseur of the world of sports.”
Earlier this week, the Pontiff mixed it up with another group of athletes, the Harlem Globetrotters, to the delight of the crowds.
In his address to the group, the Pope reiterated a constant message of his, that athletics are above all “an educational experience.” He said that there are three “fundamental pillars” for the formation of the young: education, sports, and work.
“When all three are present—education, sports and work—then we have all the conditions to develop a full, authentic life,” he said, “thus avoiding those dependencies that poison and ruin life.”
Francis also insisted that the Church is interested in sports because “she cares about the human person,” and recognizes that “sports affects personal formation, relationships and spirituality.” He also urged the athletes present to strive to be “sound models to imitate,” which is their “mission,” he said.
The Pope finally recalled how the apostle Paul used the example of an athlete to illustrate an important feature of human existence, comparing life to a running race. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it,” Paul wrote.
The Pope said that St. Paul was referring to the challenge of finding life’s ultimate meaning. “I would therefore urge each of you,” he said, to get involved not only in sports “but in life, the pursuit of the good, the true good, without fear, with courage and enthusiasm.”
“Get in the game with others and with God,” he added, “giving the best of yourself, spending your life for what really matters and lasts forever.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome