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Original Issue

Heaven Helps Them

As sports have become a modern religion, religion has become more like modern sports. Just before the Olympics last summer, Pope John Paul II created a Vatican sports department to engage the world's youth, few of whom aspire to be priests, but many of whom aspire to be Priest Holmes.

Then last fall Vatican Radio began airing in Italy a weekly show called Not Only Sports, on which Roman Catholic cardinals talk about Serie A soccer. (Imagine Jim Rome in Rome and you get the flavor.) On the very first show 88-year-old Fiorenzo Cardinal Angelini criticized the process that selected the Italian national soccer team. "I understand Italy is a Catholic country," coach Marcello Lippi later lamented, "but now we've got cardinals speaking out?" It's a case of life imitating art, Catholic clergy serving as members of the Italian media opinionisti: Former Saturday Night Live fixture Father Guido Sarducci was rock critic (and gossip columnist) for the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.

Pope John Paul II recognized in sports the Church's twin, a culture of Cardinals and Padres and Saints with a similar global reach. "Sport is spread in every corner of the world," John Paul II observed, "overcoming diversity of culture and nation."

So the Vatican was ideally suited to sports-talk radio. Pontiffs, by definition, pontificate. The archbishop of Genoa, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, has provided TV commentary for matches of the Turinese soccer club Juventus and has also questioned the exorbitant salaries paid to pro athletes. "Soccer players say they bring the masses to the stadium," he told the Italian news agency ANSA, "but Mother Teresa used to get 80,000 people at meetings and she didn't get these salaries." To which one can only add, "Amen."

Cardinal Bertone also selected an all-Vatican soccer team on the air a year ago. His prophetic choice for manager was the Bavarian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who last week became Pope Benedict XVI. Before Ratzinger's selection, Bertone himself was considered papabile, or pope-able, but was posted as a longshot by British bookmakers, who were handling the same amount of action on the conclave as they might for a Wimbledon semifinal. Bertone also was in the field of the mock--March Madness brackets that were e-mailed to thousands last week, making it all the way to the Sweet Sistine of the papal conclave.

Pope John Paul II might have understood, seeing--as he did--that sports could bring Masses to the masses. In 2000 he said Mass in Rome's packed Olympic Stadium and, while surveying that soccer field, said, "Many memories return of my life that are linked to sporting activities." Before he was His Holiness, people marveled at his goalie-ness. (Young Karol Wojtyla had been a soccer goalkeeper in Poland.) This was a man who once signed a baseball to the manager of the Tigers, "To Sparky, cum benedictione, Joannes Paulus II." Former Orlando bishop Norbert Dorsey, who procured that autograph for Sparky Anderson, recently confessed to The Florida Catholic newspaper, "The pope thought it was a strange name."

There's a long-standing connection between sports and Catholicism, one that extends beyond Notre Dame, Hail Mary passes and Yogi Berra's famous Vatican greeting to John XXIII: "Hello, Pope." It begins, I can attest, in Catholic grade school, where the school bulletin is filled with incongruous basketball headlines like OUR LADY THRASHES ST. PETER.

And so the Vatican has sponsored a cycling team, Amore & Vita-Beretta. Which isn't to say that the Holy See will soon recognize the Immaculate Reception or the Miracle on Ice or the Hand of God goal. For all his love of athletic competition, John Paul II also decried sports for secularizing our Sundays. On this subject he was adamant: It was Yahweh or the highway.

In death the pope did succeed in suspending for a single Sunday all sports in Italy. But the following Sunday, in a Scottish Cup soccer semifinal between Hearts and Glasgow Celtic (with its historically Catholic fan base), Hearts fans jeered during a moment of silence for the pope. It was a depressing reminder that sports and religion, uniquely suited to unifying people, often have the opposite effect.

Mercifully, though, there were hopeful signs. After a WBA welterweight title fight in Worcester, Mass., the promoter called for a moment of silence. The ringside bell tolled 10 times for the pope while a handful of louts loudly booed the judges' split decision, whereupon the promoter insisted that the 10 count be repeated. Don King was reaching heavenward with more than just his hair. Like a Renaissance pope, he had commissioned, on canvas, a pious tribute to John Paul II. Sometimes church and sport intersect in the most unlikely ways.

And sometimes they just miss doing so. After saying that Mass five years ago in Olympic Stadium, the pope watched a soccer match. The crowd did the wave in tribute to a pope weakened by Parkinson's. Had he been healthy, I like to think, he surely would have risen--quite literally and happily--to the occasion. ■

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Pope John Paul II recognized in sports the Church's twin, a culture of Cardinals and Padres and Saints.