Will it be a France and Croatia final, as keenly anticipated? But no matter which team finally lifts the coveted 2018 FIFA World Cup trophy, there is perhaps no better time than now to learn how our faith and football are more connected than we would expect.

1. Jules Rimet and the World Cup

“[Football can] propagate understanding and reconciliation between the races of the world.” – Jules Rimet

The namesake of the Jules Rimet Trophy was born in 1873 into a devout Catholic working class family in rural France. When the family’s fortunes were affected by economic crises brought upon by war, young Rimet moved to Paris, where he became a successful lawyer. As a teenager, he was very inspired by the social teachings of the Church, especially Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum on work and capital.

His love for sport, and his love for the poor — especially the youth labouring for long hours for paltry wages in workhouses and factories — impelled him in 1897 to start (what became a very successful) football club for their recreation. He also saw the club as a way out of poverty for the young people; Rimet always believed that talented footballers should be paid so that their skills could be an alternative means for them to make an honest living.

After a four-year tour of duty during World War I (he was decorated with the Croix de Guerre for bravery), Rimet became President of FIFA in 1921. He served FIFA for 33 years during which the faithful Catholic and war veteran tirelessly battled to fulfil his dream for a world championship for national soccer teams. In Uruguay in 1930, his dream came true. The rest, as they say, is history. Upon his death in 1956, Rimet was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, as a “person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

2. Pope Benedict XV and the Christmas Truce

“I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps, I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples.” – Pope Benedict XVI on why he chose his name

On becoming Bishop of Rome in September 1914, only two months after the start of World War I, Pope Benedict XV wrote his first encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (On Appealing For Peace). His call to end “the useless massacre” went unheeded by the powers that be, and as the first Christmas of the Great War (as WW1 is also known) approached, nearly two million men had already lost their lives. On Christmas Eve 1914, in some sections where the British were fighting the Germans, a remarkable unofficial “truce” took place, in defiance of senior command.

Along the Western Front, where enemy trenches were only about the width of a football field apart, the British soldiers gathered holly and sang Silent Night, while the Germans set up small Christmas trees and sang Stille Nacht. They shook hands, exchanged food, tobacco and other small gifts, and then played football in No-Man’s Land. As one English veteran wrote, “I shall never forget it as long as I live.” Sadly, no other such truce has ever been recorded again. Many historians today dismiss the Christmas Eve episode as mythical, yet it has remained one of the most iconic and inspiring moments of the Great War. On the centenary of the Christmas Truce in December 2014, Britain’s Prince William dedicated a monument to it at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, declaring: “It remains wholly relevant today as a message of hope and humanity, even in the bleakest of times. Football, then as now, had the power to bring people together and break down barriers”.

3. St John Paul II and Patron Saints of Soccer

“Apart from being a festival of sport, the [World Cup] can become a festival of solidarity between the peoples. But this presupposes that the competitions are considered for what they really are: a game in which the better side wins, and at the same time an occasion for dialogue, growth, understanding and mutual human enrichment.” – Pope John Paul II, Blessing of Rome’s Olympic Stadium and Inauguration of Italia 1990, 31 May 1990

St John Paul II was a keen sportsman. As Pope, he always emphasised sport as having an educational vocation, both civil and spiritual: “Football structures are called to be a field of authentic humanity, where young people are encouraged to learn the great values of life and to spread everywhere the great virtues that are the basis of a worthy human society, such as tolerance, respect for human dignity, peace and brotherhood.” (Address to UEFA Representatives, 8 May 2000). He noted that Christ’s disciples would be familiar with everyday sporting language: “…terms like selection, training, self-discipline, persistence in resisting exhaustion, reliance on a demanding guide, honest acceptance of the rules of the game. For the Christian life too demands systematic spiritual training, since the Christian like ‘every athlete exercises self-control in all things’ (1 Cor 9:25).”

Because he embodied all the above values, St Luigi Scrosoppi, who was canonised by St John Paul II on 10 June 2001, was recognised as the patron saint of footballers on 22 August 2010. St John Paul II himself is apparently invoked as the patron saint of goalkeepers, having been a model Catholic and goalie in his youth.

4. Pope Francis and his Matches for Peace

“[Football] 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. Just think of loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing, solidarity. There are, in fact, many values and attitudes which football promotes and which prove to be important not only on the field, but in all fields of existence, and specifically in building peace. Sport is a school of peace; it teaches us how to build peace.” – Pope Francis, On the Occasion of the Opening of the World Cup In Brazil, 12 June 2014

Image: https://twitter.com/matchforpeace

On 1 September 2014, Pope Francis inaugurated his charity Match for Peace at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, organised by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and retired Catholic soccer player Javier “Pupi” Zanetti, who had been captain of the Argentine national team. Match for Peace raised funds for various beneficiaries including Scholas Occurrentes (an initiative aimed at young people), initiated by Pope Francis while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, to encourage social integration through technology, arts, and sports. Well-known footballers representing diverse cultures and religions, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Shintos participated in the event. A second “United for Peace” match took place on 12 October, 2016, to prove “that we are capable of making peace with a game, with art” and to raise funds for the earthquake victims in Central Italy.

5. YOU and the Beautiful Game

For all of us members of the Body of Christ, whether we are players, fans, aficionados of The Beautiful Game, or just ambivalent spectators amused and intrigued by the most popular sport in the world, we are called to be saints for soccer, scoring for peace in the footsteps of Jules Rimet, Pope Benedict XV, St John Paul II and Pope Francis, who all shared this common goal.

At the opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Pope outlined three fundamental attitudes for football to be a school of peace: the need to train, fair play and respect for opponents. In his most recent apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, he calls us all to holiness by “living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” “through small gestures” and “paying attention to details.” Let’s start, if we haven’t already, with the World Cup.

As we look back on the past three weeks in soccer’s school of peace, what have learnt in its classrooms — the parks, pubs, church canteens, living rooms and (for some fortunate few), the stands — let us reflect and ask ourselves where we have participated in The Beautiful Game as a metaphor for life? Remember that Japan advanced into the Round of 16 on fair play, and turned out to be winners off the pitch even as they were losers on it. Through gestures like their fans cleaning up their litter after games (even the one in which their team got knocked out), the players bowing respectfully to their opponents after the knockout game, and leaving a spotless locker room and a thank you note in Russian for their hosts — the Japanese gave us a masterclass in everyday holiness.

Pope Francis said in Brazil in 2014: “In order to win, we must overcome individualism, selfishness, all forms of racism, of intolerance and of the instrumentalisation of the human person… No one wins by himself, not on the field or in life! May no one isolate themselves or feel excluded! Be careful! No segregation, no racism! And if it is true that at the end of the tournament only one national team will win the Cup, likewise, it is also true that, by learning the lessons that sports teach us, we will all be winners, strengthening the bonds that tie us together.”

Frances is eternally grateful that she is Catholic because she cannot play football to save her life. However, she firmly believes that no penalties need ever be taken in the Kingdom of God. Having two left feet, her favourite soccer Scripture is Isaiah 52:7 – “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news…”