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Friday, January 6, 2012

JPII and Sports

An exciting thing I have in common with JPII is sports.  He was an outdoorsman, sportsman, and all around athlete throughout most of his life.  In his later days, he wanted to show the world that his increasing weakness was just as much of a testament to God's grace as when he was in his athletic prime.  I admire him for such wisdom and resilience. 

Certainly, sports today are somewhat different than what JPII grew up with in Poland.  Soccer has proved itself to be the international language, but in the U.S., we still rely heavily on basketball and American football.  Had JPII grown up in the U.S., he might have been exceptional at these two sports, but instead he focused on soccer, skiing, cayaking, running, etc.  Traditionally, these latter sports are more European in style, and JPII was a European man.  His native Poland owes a lot to his influence on European masculinity, as he took his Polish roots and magnified them beyond celebrity status.  In essence, he established himself as the preeminent Polish man.   
I argue that no other European man is as easily identifiable with masculinity, virtue and wisdom as JPII.   But the point is, that sports were a major part of how JPII expressed his masculinity and encouraged others to do so as well.

In fact, the address he gave in 2000 to a host of athletes in the Roman Colisseum proves that he recommended sports as one of God' greatest gifts to modern man:

With this celebration the world of sport is joining in a great chorus, as it were, to express through prayer, song, play and movement a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. It is a fitting occasion to give thanks to God for the gift of sport, in which the human person exercises his body, intellect and will, recognizing these abilities as so many gifts of his Creator.
Playing sports has become very important today, since it can encourage young people to develop important values such as loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing and solidarity. Precisely for this reason, in recent years it has continued to grow even more as one of the characteristic phenomena of the modern era, almost a "sign of the times" capable of interpreting humanity's new needs and new expectations. Sports have spread to every corner of the world, transcending differences between cultures and nations (Homily "Jubilee of Sports", par. 2).

Just before his prayer of thanksgiving in the above paragraph, JPII reflects on his own memories of being involved in organized sports, and looks on the athletes with a bit of envy--as though he wanted to be with them competing in the games.  This type of competitive edge that JPII displays here is what proves that he was a natural athlete intellectually as well as physically.  He goes on to point out how sports involve so much of man's faculties that they must be an invention of the Creator who delights in seeing his creatures in full throttle activity!

On the other hand, he also warns against the abuses related to sports and exploitation of the human body.  Sports are not entirely innocent from corruption: gambling, advertising, scandals and cover ups.

The educational and spiritual potential of sport must make believers and people of good will united and determined in challenging every distorted aspect that can intrude, recognizing it as a phenomenon opposed to the full development of the individual and to his enjoyment of life. Every care must be taken to protect the human body from any attack on its integrity, from any exploitation and from any idolatry (ibid). 

Athletes are held to a very high standard of excellence, and JPII raises the standard even higher by his own example.  Olympic athletes, in particular, have less room for mistakes when trying to compete for world titles and medals, even when the temptations are great.  Performance enhancing drugs have greatly marred the face of baseball, for example, and it will prove very difficult for the game to recover its original nobility in America.  The challenge of the former Pontiff is to put an end to these "distortions" before they "intrude" into the game in the first place.  Perhaps the consequences for steroid use should have been greater in the home run race, so that players down the road would not have considered it themselves.

Either way, as is typical of JPII, every aspect of a subject is covered in his thinking.  Sports are no exception, when you consider that he both presents them as an ideal pasttime of the "new civilization of love", but also as an instrument of abuse and corruption.  He is a both/and type of thinker, while also being very absolute in his convictions about subjects like sports.

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