Thousands of sports fans, young and old, came out to Rome’s Olympic Stadium Monday night to watch football greats Roberto Baggio, Javier Zanetti and Diego Armando Maradona, among others, take part in the Interreligious Match for Peace.
Players representing the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Shinto religions took to the field for the 8:45pm kickoff.
The event was intended to gather players and fans in a moment of unity and solidarity in support of world peace and to demonstrate the power of sport in building peace.
Zanetti, the retired captain of Argentina’s national soccer team and current vice-president of Milan’s Inter, described the match as “a symbolic gesture to help people understand that it is possible to build a world of peace, based on dialogue and respect for others.”
He said the match was the explicit wish of Pope Francis.
Earlier in the day, the 50 former and current professional players who took part in the game were received in an audience with the Pope in the Vatican.
Pope Francis told the athletes that the event was “a highly symbolic gesture to show that it is possible to build a culture of encounter and a world of peace, where believers of different religions—preserving their identities …can live together in harmony and reciprocal respect.”
The Pope said to “discriminate” is the same as “contempt,” and with their game the players were saying “no to all discrimination.”
“Religions,” he added, “are called to be vehicles of peace and never of hatred.”
“Religion and sport,” he concluded, “can collaborate and offer to all of society eloquent signs of this new era in which people ‘will never again raise the sword one against another.”
The event was organized by the Scholas Occurrentes initiative and Italy's PUPI Foundation, in collaboration with the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences.
Proceeds will go to “Un'Alternativa di Vita,” a project that supports poor children in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In addition, the Pontifical Council for Culture organized a three-day seminar in conjunction with the match, called Sports at the “Service of Humanity: From the ‘Results-Oriented Culture’ to a ‘Culture of Encounter.’ The seminar began on Monday and ends on Wednesday.
In a video message for Brazil’s World Cup Soccer championship earlier this year, Pope Francis said, “Soccer can and should be a school that promotes a ‘culture of encounter’. One that leads to harmony and peace between peoples.”
With that idea in mind, the Pontifical Council for Culture, together with international Catholic sports associations, organized the seminar. Organizers want the discussion to focus on sports as a means of encounter and dialogue rather than what it seems, in many cases, to have become: a lucrative business for a lucky few and a place for winner-takes-all competitiveness. It’s time in our highly consumeristic society, they say, to replace the money and the medals with the human being.
One of the objectives of the seminar is preparing for the international Vatican Global Conference on Sport and Faith to be held in the Vatican in September 2015.