DENVER – A Denver man was among 150 delegates invited to the Vatican for the first Sport at the Service of Humanity conference, a gathering of global leaders in faith and sport.
The Pontifical Council for Culture hosted the conference, which took place Oct. 5-7 and convened global leaders and influencers to discuss the inter-connectedness of faith and sport and to explore the scope and limit of the combination. The United Nations and the International Olympic Committee expressed their support for the conference.
Colorado-based Thomas Wurtz, director of Varsity Catholic, was selected to attend. Varsity Catholic is a division of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) that addresses the unique needs and challenges student-athletes face. More than 160 Varsity Catholic missionaries are serving on 103 of the 125 FOCUS campuses, including University of Southern California, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Texas at Austin.
Wurtz always speaks of sports as being one of the best opportunities to form and evangelize young people coming into the Church.
“Listening to these international testimonies, it was more and more clear there is so much pain, so much hurt, so much dissonance in the world,” he said. “Sport is a tool that I think people can use to do amazing things – for example helping people understand the simple idea that women should have the opportunity to play sports. Over here we’ve got Title IX, and it’s not as big an issue as some places like the Middle East, where girls are not even allowed to play or go to school. Sport is helping them understand they have dignity, they have worth. They should be able to experience to joy and the formative aspects of the play of sport.”
“It is amazing what sport is doing in the world to promote peace and to promote human dignity and to connect,” Wurtz said. “When they understand the dignity of a person, that teaches them how to respect the person they think is their enemy.”
The 2016 Olympics was an example of many athletes outwardly expressing their faith and thanking God, Wurtz said. Usain Bolt, for example, was known for always wearing his Miraculous Medal and outwardly praising God before each race. One of his many medal ceremonies occurred on Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.
“When you’ve been involved in athletics, that has to force you to think beyond yourself,” Wurtz said. “The training ground is there. There is virtue in what they’re doing.”
And the Catholic Church has long seen the value of athletic competition, Wurtz said.
Pope Pius X helped the founder of modern day Olympics, which took place in 1908 in London. And St. Pope John Paul II, known as an avid skier, started the Pontifical Council for Culture, he said.
David Stewart, head baseball coach at a high school in St. Louis, Mo., said that he experienced first-hand the impact that Varsity Catholic has on college campuses.
“If you take the FOCUS model and apply it to athletes that is pretty much Varsity Catholic in my experience,” Stewart said. “The personal touch of the missionaries is key. I was a freshman baseball player at Nebraska, and Thomas and the other missionaries made me feel welcomed and relevant which made my faith feel important.”
Kay Pieper, program director with Varsity Catholic, also said that sports approached with the proper mindset leads to success in other areas of life.
“Sports is a natural venue to grow in virtue and faith,” she added. “Sport pushes you to the limit physically and emotionally, and if channeled correctly it can help you develop life-long skills that make most professionals very successful in life. Every virtue that comes along with sport, such as teamwork, communication, self-giving, discipline, friendship, support . . . the list can go on and on.”
“The world of sport is bombarded with wordly things and most of it is short-lived. When you bring in Christ to the center of your life in sport, you realize that every gift that has been given to you comes from Him,” Pieper said.
“Sport is a microcosm of life: how do deal with ups and downs, failures, successes,” Wurtz said.