What The ‘Pope Cup’ Says About Pope Francis’s Revolutionary Leadership

John Paul Shimek Vatican Journalist
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The Germans and the Argentinians battled out the final match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Sunday, July 13. While the global games will not resume until the Russians host them in the summer of 2018, sports enthusiasts will be buzzing about this tournament for some time to come.

Between June 12 and July 13, the Brazilians made headlines and set new records in the international game of soccer. Some new technologies were introduced in Rio, when a paraplegic in a full robotic suit kicked off the month-long competition. And new goal-line technologies connected fourteen stadium cameras (seven focused on each goal post) and a mainframe computer with referees’ wristwatches, which transmitted vibrations and messages each time a goal was scored.

The games had other firsts too: For the first time since 1978, South America hosted the World Cup, which meant that three national teams had to travel more than 8,600 miles to get there.

But most notably, even though the Italian team went home in June, as the Germans and the Argentinians prepared to compete against one another in the games’ closing match, the international news media did not take its focus off of two residents of Rome

As USA Today reported at the outset of the championship’s closing weekend, “For the first time ever, the two teams facing each other in the World Cup final will each have a living pope in their corner.” There haven’t been two living popes since 1296 — some six centuries before the formation of FIFA in 1904.

While the start of global soccer’s most watched game approached, Facebook and Twitter lit up with posts, tweets, and memes, announcing the kick-off of “#PopeCup.” Light-hearted repartee set the two pontiffs against one another in imitation of their national teams’ rivalry. Perhaps the ribbing was not far of the mark. The Argentine Pope Francis is a faithful fan of the San Lorenzo Soccer Club and the German Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, follows important sporting matches with interest, according to Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Director of the Holy See’s Press Office.

As a matter of fact, heading into this summer, Pope Francis expressed great interest in the competition, but he promised to take up a neutral posture. Instead of interceding before God on behalf of his favorite soccer team, he decided to take advantage of the explosion of media attention on the sport in order to proclaim the harmonizing effects of the Christian Gospel.

In mid-June, he sent a video message to the organizers, athletes, and fans of the World Cup. In it, he stated that “Sport is not only a form of entertainment, but also — and I would say above all — a tool to communicate values which promote the good of the human person and contribute to building a more peaceful and fraternal society.” Later, he followed that message with Twitter tweets, audience addresses, and Sunday Angelus messages extolling the Christian virtues that make for fair, but competitive sport.

The pope’s pro-religion humanitarian messaging didn’t stop there. Rather, he sought to involve his flock in the initiative. Each month, the Bishop of Rome announces a new set of specific prayer intentions. In urban cathedrals and rural chapels around the world, those intentions are remembered each time Catholics celebrate Mass. This month, Pope Francis and his one billion followers have been praying that “sports may always be occasions of human fraternity and growth,” according to the Vatican Information Service. In effect, Pope Francis underwrote the World Cup with the full faith and credit of the Catholic Church. And, that got some people talking.

Secularist and atheistic commentators spent the period of the competition contrasting perceived “religious” violence — like that engulfing Iraq — with the neutral, non-sectarian humanitarianism of the World Cup. Their contrast echoed an emerging undertone in the politics of international athletics: Global athletic championships, bleached of religion, are a means to reset the course of international politics, which the force of world religions has destabilized (if not derailed). The insinuation was that religion ravages, but events devoid of transcendent references restore. Similar accusations have become so much a creedal proposition of post-modern critiques of religion that Pope Benedict XVI felt compelled to address it in his inaugural encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).

But, Pope Francis decided to seize the 2014 global games as an opportune occasion to challenge that ideological rhetoric head-on. In advance of the final match, he sent out a subtle critique of it. Pointing out the close connection between faith and athletics, he tweeted that the “World Cup allowed people from different countries and religions to come together.” Some 4.23 million Twitter users follow the pope’s account. As the Huffington Post claims, he “has by far the most clout of any world leader on Twitter.”

In the meta- (or, supra-)athletic discussions surrounding this summer’s global competition, two sides of a debate emerged, then: Either religion divides – and so it should be kept far from events like the World Cup; or it unites — and so the efforts and appeals of religious leaders, like the pope, bear that out. But, which side has it right? Truth be told, the accusations of the secularists don’t hold up in the face of facts.

Recently, the website of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) republished critical data from the three-volume 2004 Encyclopedia of Wars — a publication of Facts on File that chronicles more than one thousand of the world’s wars. According to CARM researcher Dr. Robin Schumacher, the encyclopedia’s editors, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, show that “The historical evidence is quite clear: Religion is not the #1 cause of war.”

The proof? Whereas there have been well over 1,600 non-religious wars, there have been fewer than 130 wars of religion. Just 6.98 percent of all chronicled wars can be categorized as religious. The encyclopedia further evidences that, “when one subtracts out those waged in the name of Islam (66), the percent is cut by more than half to 3.23 percent,” according to Schumacher. What is more is that religion “played no motivating role in the major wars that have resulted in the most loss of life.”

R.J. Rummel, the author of Lethal Politics and Death by Government, contributed corroborating evidence. In the second book, Rummel states that “Almost 170 million men, women and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed or killed in any other of a myriad of ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. The dead could conceivably be nearly 360 million people. It is though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague.” But, it has been a plague of atheism and government, not religion. In fact, the lion’s share of the 170-360 million massacres have been at the hands of non-religious, atheistic dictators. Some 42,672,000 lives were lost under Joseph Stalin, 37,828,000 under Mao Zedong, 20,946,000 under Adolf Hitler, 10,214,000 under Chiang Kai-shek, 4,017,000 under Vladimir Lenin, 3,990,000 under Hideki Tojo, and 2,397,000 under Pol Pot.

But, if religion hasn’t been a chief motivating force behind the world’s violence and wars, has it been a contributor to its peace? And, if it has been such a positive force, will it continue to be one?

Pope Francis has been answering those questions in the affirmative ever since he became the Bishop of Rome in March 2013. In the final weeks of the World Cup, tensions intensified in Iraq. Radical Islamic extremism continued to advance there, sending Christians fleeing from their homes. For the first time in 1,600 years last month, Catholic Mass was not celebrated in Mosul.

That’s when Pope Francis’ Pontifical Council for Culture launched its #PAUSEforPeace campaign. According to the Vatican news service, organizers of the campaign asked “for a moment of silence around the Sunday, July 13 match to remember those stricken by wars and unrest worldwide.” While some wished “for a moment of silence at the match [others wished] for a cessation of bloodshed in those many areas of the world undergoing dramatic conflict in these days.” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (@CardRavasi), Prefect of the Council, promoted the campaign on Twitter on July 11, calling his followers to be “A still, small voice of silence.”

As the game approached, the pontifical campaign went viral, reaching well over 25,000 Twitter users, according to the Catholic News Agency. Some 500 news agencies, including the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, and the Telegraph, promoted the campaign, as well, which followed in the wake of the pope’s prayer summit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the Vatican in June.

Although the campaign did not succeed in accomplishing a ceasefire during the game, but it effectively raised awareness about the Catholic Church’s potential for advancing the common good. In so doing, it went a long distance toward poking a substantial hole in the argument of anti-religious secularists.

Following the World Cup and the #PAUSEforPeace campaign, Pope Francis has continued to challenge anti-religious ideologies. At the U.S.-Mexico border, where Obama’s White House has evidenced a failure of leadership, Catholic Charities has stepped in to clothe, feed, and sponsor migrant children. At the same time, papal representatives have been dispatched to the United States, Mexico, and South America in order to help negotiate a resolution of the crisis.

In coming weeks, Pope Francis will visit South Korea where he will preside over the Sixth Asian Youth Day. There, he is expected to promote a message of peace, which some think will place pressure on North Korea. That message, similar in kind to the one he delivered in Calabria in early July against the Mafia, will give additional shape and form to the pope’s consistent witness against violence. Some have contrasted the pope’s purposeful and coherent messaging and action against the haphazard international politics of the American president.

As Pope Francis’s revolution continues to unfold, one thing is clear: The Catholic Church, and religion generally, is going a long way toward challenging outdated anti-religious rhetoric. Pope Francis is showing that, not only sports and social media, but also religion, can be invaluable players in the advancement of the common good.

John Paul Shimek is the Pilgrim Journalist. He blogs for CatholicVote.org and reports for Catholic World Report. He can be found onFacebookTwitter (@pilgrimjournal), and Google+. Readers are welcome to contact him at jpshimek@pilgrimjournalist.com.