Pope Francis last week said that the influence of a Catholic educator “depends more on what he is as a person and the way he lives than what he says,” and even athletics coaches—whom he included as educators—must be “formators” and therefore need their own “solid formation” to prepare forgiving witness to the faith.
The Pope’s words are especially timely in the United States, as many bishops have been working to better define the Church’s expectations for Catholic school employees, even while some teachers in San Francisco are demanding a right to dissent.
“[H]ow important it is that a coach be an example of integrity, of coherence, of good judgment, of impartiality, but also of joy of living, of patience, of capacity to esteem and of benevolence to all, especially the most disadvantaged!” Pope Francis stated, according to ZENIT’s translation. “And how important it is that he be an example of faith!”
All educators play a part in forming young people through their lives and examples, the Holy Father said, and coaches are educators who provide valuable influence to the young people in their charge. This is true especially because athletics offer an ideal opportunity for developing character, good judgment and other virtues.
The Holy Father’s message was offered on May 14 as part of an International Study Seminar on “Coaches: Educators of People,” which was organized by the Church and Sport Office of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
Dr. Jamie Arthur, manager of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Education Honor Roll, said that Pope Francis’ words provide further acknowledgement that educators—no matter what their field of expertise—play integral roles in developing their students’ faith lives and are essential to the Catholic identity of any institution or organization.
“The impact of any educator on the life of a child has the potential to form their perception of what knowledge or values are internalized from their experiences,” Dr. Arthur said. “Programs identified as Catholic, whether in schools or on a playing field, have a deeper, more meaningful goal than competition as they instill in youth human and spiritual values associated with determination, discipline, ethics, physical development and what constitutes healthy competition.”
Pope Francis explained that “[a]ll of us, in life, are in need of educators; mature, wise and balanced persons that help us grow in the family, in study, in work, in the faith.” These are educators “that encourage us to take the first steps in a new activity without having fear of the obstacles and the challenges to be faced; that spur us to surmount difficult moments; that exhort us to have confidence in ourselves and in our companions; that are at our side be it in moments of disappointment and loss, be it in those of joy and success.”
“The influence of an educator, especially for young people, depends more on what he is as a person and the way he lives than what he says,” Pope Francis noted.
“The coach can be a valid formator of young people, beside the parents, the teachers, the priests and the catechists,” he continued, stressing that as a “formator,” a coach also “must receive a solid formation.” He highlighted the importance of “form[ing] the formators” and encouraged “organizations that operate in the field of sport, the international and national federations, the lay and ecclesial sports associations to give due attention and to invest the necessary resources for the professional, human and spiritual formation of coaches.”
“How good would it be if in all sports, and at all levels, from the great international competitions to the tournaments of the parish oratories, young people found in their coaches authentic witness of life and of lived faith!” the Holy Father concluded.
Dr. Arthur expanded on the importance of educators leading by example:
In the formational years, the adage “actions speak louder than words” could not hold more meaning than for those who interact with children and young adults. Men and women employed in Catholic programs are described in the magisterial teachings as “living mirrors” by which one sees a reflected image of a life inspired by the Gospel. Each must witness, in word and action, a life of faith, hope, and charity to inspire these same values in today’s youth within an environment that helps to counter the negative message found in more competitive sports programs.
The Holy Father’s encouragement for coaches as educators is especially poignant when taking into account the Church’s many statements on the importance of learning virtue and spiritual formation from sports.
“The Church regards sport as a part of man’s entire being, and recognizes that sporting activity is linked to education, the formation of the person, relationships between people and spirituality,” Pope Benedict XVI stated in an address to the athletes representing Italy in the London 2012 Olympics. “I think of you, dear athletes, as both champions and witnesses, with a mission to accomplish: with the admiration you inspire, become valid models to imitate.”
In a 2009 address on the occasion of a Vatican seminar titled “Sports, Education and Faith: For a New Stage in the Catholic Sports Movement,” Pope Benedict praised sports’ educative potential. “Sport has a notable educational potential above all in the realm of youth and, because of this, it is of great Importance not only in the use of free time, but also in the formation of the person,” he stated.
“Sport, practiced with enthusiasm and an acute ethical sense, especially for youth become a training ground of healthy competition and physical improvement, a school of formation in the human and spiritual values [and] a privileged means for personal growth and contact with society,” Pope Benedict continued.
Past pontiffs have consistently acknowledged the virtuous characteristics of sports and their potential to teach young people important lessons in faith formation.
In the 1945 address “Sport at the Service of the Spirit,” Pope Pius XII stated:
Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor; it refines the sense, gives intellectual penetration, and steels the will to endurance. It is not merely a physical development then. Sport, rightly understood, is an occupation of the whole man, and while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth and helps man to achieve that end to which all others must be subservient, the service and praise of his Creator.
Pope Saint John Paul II similarly gave many homilies encouraging the importance of athletics. “The Church’s teaching regarding sports activity is above all centred in a systematic way on its educational potential and finds in it a means for the integral development of the person,” he stated in one of his many homilies on athletics.
In another homily, Pope Saint John Paul II explained that “the Magisterium places the human person at the centre of sporting activity, by which his person becomes ‘perfected’ through the simultaneous convergence of all of the human faculties.” As such, “sport is directly and synthetically linked to the true identity of the person, as he or she was originally created, and destined for glory.”
Dr. Arthur noted that Pope Francis’ attention on athletics and “the integral development of youth is timely and addresses current issues in education.” Indeed, “Catholic institutions associated with sports or academics often tout their successes with listings of academic or athletic scholarships and without reference to the spiritual dimension, the foundation of Catholic education.”
His address “allows leadership in Catholic organizations and institutions to review their sport and educational programs and, when necessary, refocus goals to align with the Church’s teaching on spiritual formation and virtuous living,” said Dr. Arthur.