BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sports commentary is a staple in most cities. Vatican City is no exception, where priests and even cardinals, so-called soccer missionaries, weigh in on the games. Now official Vatican Radio has started a new show where listeners can tune in weekly to hear the church's take on everything from doping in cycling to bad calls by soccer referees. While the show is a first for the Vatican, there's a longstanding link between church and soccer, as Megan Williams reports from Rome. [MUSIC]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: It's a typical Monday morning at Vatican Radio, after a papal news update. Some musical spiritual inspiration, and then- [UPBEAT MUSIC, SOCCER FANS CHEERING] sports time. Non Solo Sport - Not Only Sports - is the new weekly show on Vatican Radio's 105 Live. That's the FM station in Rome that hit the airwaves four years ago, to give the Vatican a new, younger voice. But with the average age of priests somewhere in the 60s, youth is relative. Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini is the regular commentator on Non Solo Sport. He's 88. Each week he phones in to give host Luca Collodi his take on anything from doping in cycling to the presence of foreign players on Italy's club teams. The show has even caught the interest of the secular media, and the Italian state-run RAI Radio picked up Non Solo Sport after its first edition and rebroadcasts it nationally. [TAPE FROM NON SOLO SPORT PLAYS] This week, Cardinal Angelini is defending some questionable calls of a referee in a recent A series soccer match. He backs the ref, reminding listeners that everyone can make an honest mistake. [TAPE PLAYS] Clerical soccer commentary is hardly new in Italy. For years, a nun who was a fan of the Rome team, Lazio, was a media sweetheart, and the Catholic daily, the Roman Observer, offers extensive sports coverage. For 20 years, Paddy Agnew has covered sports for the Irish Times in Italy and says the church has never shied away from talking soccer.
PADDY AGNEW: I suppose it's simple enough. In a Catholic country, priests are going to be involved in things. You know, I, I come from Ireland, and there are a couple of priests in Ireland who are famous for being tipsters in relation to horse racing, cause horse racing's the national sport in Ireland. So you've always had people connected to the church playing an important role in, in various cultural manifestations of, of Italian life, so why not in football?
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Even John Paul II was widely known to have loved the game and played goal tender as a boy - and he was quietly rumored to have rooted for the Lazio team. Soccer historian Stefano Rumita says the roots of the game in Italy were planted on the very fields of the Catholic Church.
STEFANO RUMITA: Every boy grew up playing soccer after school on church field. There was space to play; free breakfast, and, and other real treats in exchange for serving of the Mass.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: By the '60s, every pro team had taken on a priest for spiritual guidance. Many of the players came from small towns and had trouble coping with the sudden fame and wealth. The priests tried to keep them on the straight and narrow. But the cozy relationship between the church and soccer didn't last. As commercial interests began to take over the game, the church's role in soccer dwindled. Starting in the '70s, so did the church's role in Italian life. Today, less than 30 percent of Italians believe the church should have a say anywhere beyond the chapel doors. Even fewer go to Mass. As Paddy Agnew points out, Italy seems to have replaced one religion with another.
PADDY AGNEW: Sometimes I suspect Italians are much more a la carte about their Catholicism than they are about their football. I mean I think sometimes they take their football much more seriously than they do their Catholicism.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Which may explain why the Vatican is charging back into the world of sports. But that doesn't necessarily mean sports fans will want to listen to priests. Soccer historian Stefano Rumita says he bristles at the idea of priests or nuns commentating on sports.
STEFANO RUMITA: Remember, Italy is a very secular country. So Italians, for the most part, have not appreciated this intrusion of the church in public space.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: But the Vatican says it's not just about appealing to a larger audience and getting a crack at bringing all those stray sheep back on the Christian team. [UPBEAT MUSIC, ITALIAN LANGUAGE] Today, Vatican Radio sports host Luca Collodi tells listeners that the show's purpose is to underline the personal, spiritual and physical values of sports. Father Carlo Mazza, director of the office for sports and leisure at the Vatican, would like to go even further. He wants the Vatican to tackle the unsavory aspects of the pro sports world as well, because, he says, he'd like nothing less than to save soccer. [CARLO MAZZA IN ITALIAN] INTERPRETER: We are in deep dialogue and responsibility with the heads of the soccer world, so that together we can work to change all the negative things in the sport, like doping, violence and excessive commercialization. We all agree what the problems are. We now have to work together to resolve them. [MUSIC]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: For now, Mazza hopes Italians will begin to take heed of what the soccer missionaries have to say about sports, hoping one day Italians just might tune back in to the church's broader message. For On the Media, I'm Megan Williams, in Rome. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the softer side of North Korea, and why Mr. Smith should never have gone to Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR. [FUNDING CREDITS]