I am mindful that society often puts a lot of pressure on famous people — be they entertainers, sportspeople, politicians or others in the limelight — who haven’t asked to be place on a pedestal to act as role models, especially for young people. For better or for worse, children look up to their sporting or entertainment heroes and imitate what they do, which can be a source of disappointment when it’s poor behaviour that the kids are following. Probably because of the heightened scrutiny they come under in a 24/7 news cycle, and the fact that journalists love to knock down the rich and famous, we’re more likely to read stories of celebrities behaving badly than them carrying out charity work, which is probably done far more often than anything negative.
Well, Pope Francis has just met with some of the world’s greatest footballers — soccer players for those from the US — and been very clear with them that they have a responsibility to stand up and be positive role models. Not long after Pope Francis was elected, it was announced that his homeland of Argentina and his new home, Italy, would face each other in an international friendly in honour of the new pope.
Speaking in both Italian and Spanish in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, the Pope told the gathered players, including Argentina and Barcelona star Lionel Messi and Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon, that the match, to be played on Wednesday evening, will truly be a friendly one.
He reminded the players that they are role models for many football fans and encouraged them to take that responsibility seriously. He then asked them to foster the “beauty, generosity, and camaraderie” that sport can produce.
Pope Francis also spoke fondly of his childhood memories of watching San Lorenzo, his favourite team, at the Gasómetro Stadium in Buenos Aires, and called on players to “live your sport as a gift from God, an opportunity not only to improve your talents, but also a responsibility”. And he returned to the idea that athletes should act as role models, encouraging them to set an example of loyalty, respect, and selflessness. “I have confidence,” he said, “in all the good you can do, especially among young people.”
Pope Francis concluded by praying that the athletes will continue to be able to pursue the “noble vocation” of sport – and he asked them to pray for him, too, “that in the playing field that the Lord has placed me, I can play the game honestly and courageously, for the good of all.”
Speaking to reporters after their audience with the Pontiff, Messi, who will not play in the match due to injury, said the best way for the players to respond to what the Pope said was to give fans a clean and exciting game, and to live upright lives.
“Without a doubt, today was one of the most special days of my life,” he said. “We have to excel on and off the field.”
I don’t know enough about Messi’s private life to know if he could be considered to have excelled off the field, but we can undoubtedly say that he has excelled on it, as an almost unanimous choice as the world’s greatest footballer. If he can show people that fame doesn’t need to lead to a lifestyle that most parents wouldn’t want to see their children living, that would be another great contribution.
And we once again saw Pope Francis asking others to pray for him, something that people find a very humble gesture. I think if the Pope asked you to pray for him, a group of Italians and Argentinians — or any Christians, for that matter — would do just that. It might be the first time they’ve prayed in a while, but who knows whether an encounter like this changes hearts, minds and behaviours.
Oh, and I don’t really care who wins the game, but let’s hope a friendly between two of the world’s greatest footballing nations yields plenty of goals