St. Peter's Square became an improvised sports stadium to welcome 50,000 athletes. Despite the warm weather, they joined the Pope in celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Italian Sports Center.
The Italian Catholic Action movements founded the non-profit group in 1944, with support from Pius X, to promote sports among youth in parishes and oratories.
"We know well that we have a unique and special coach, Jesus Christ, who is with us and who supports us every day in our human and spiritual victories. But, we also know that we have a great team captain, who has chosen the name Francis to guide and serve the Church.”
Several athletes showcased their abilities for the Pope, including a rhythmic gymnastics team.
Organizers also introduced the Italian amputee soccer squad, which plays at an international level against teams from other countries, despite their disabilities. They had a special request for Pope Francis.
"You Holiness, this special team needs a special team caption, like yourself.”
The Pope willingly took on the role, accepting the team captain's armband, and individually greeting the squad, before taking a team picture.
In addition to youth leagues and sports, the Italian Sports Center also runs athletic programs in detention centers, and Third world countries like Haiti.
Exhibitions continued with two gymnasts performing their routines on a pommel horse and balance beam. Basketball players also showed their skills at handling the ball.
They even taught the Pope how to balance a spinning basketball on a pencil, much to his delight.
Pope Francis congratulated the association on their anniversary and their work. He urged politicians and community leaders to promote three "paths” to keep youth out of trouble.
"The path of education, the path of sports, and the path of employment, in other words, that there be jobs available at an early age. If we have these three paths, I assure you there will not be any addictions, no drugs, no alcohol. Why? Because school carries you forward, sport carries you forward, and work carries you forward.”
The Pope encouraged these athletes to commit themselves to life, as they do to sports, never settling for mediocrity, and to work with others, including God, to seek victory.
He asked the coaches to keep doors open to everyone, especially those in greatest need. He also asked players to avoid individualism and work as a team. The Pope praised the role the Church plays in sports, talking about how an Argentine priest went on establish his favorite soccer team, San Lorenzo of Almagro.
"It's beautiful when a parish has a sports team, and if there isn't a team in the parish, something is missing. If there's no sports team, something is missing.”
Towards the end, the Pope also marked the centennial of the birth of Italy's Olympic committee. He also led a prayer for all teams, including families. Pope Francis closed off, asking for prayers so that he could continue leading his team, the Catholic Church, "until the Lord calls me to him,” he said.