Any visitor to Rome knows one thing: for 2,500 years, it has been all about greatness and outsized achievement. It’s written all over the city: the Colosseum is greatness in architecture; the Roman senate celebrates greatness in political governance; the monuments to empire celebrate greatness in military conquest; and the churches soar skyward, symbols of greatness in religion. Rome does not celebrate humility.

Except for now.

A few weeks ago, I was invited with a small group for an audience with Pope Francis. On entering, we were saluted by elaborately adorned Swiss guards, walked up several flights of marble stairs into the Sala Clementina, and sat down to wait inside the nerve center of the Vatican bureaucracy, beneath the vacant Papal apartments, near Michelangelo’s soaring Sistine Chapel. With me were about a hundred and fifty athletes headed to world competition in the United States, representing their home country, Italy.

But these were no ordinary athletes. They were all Special Olympics athletes, with one form or another of intellectual “difability,” all outcasts in the world of elite sports. They were invited by Pope Francis not because of their fame or record-setting times on the world stage, but because of their example of trying to “live their lives to the fullest extent” (Pope Francis, June 19, 2015). FIFA has no time for them. Sports agents do not court them. There has never been one accused of doping. They didn’t arrive with gold around their necks or newspaper headlines in their pasts. They were unknowns except to their families and friends, not even footnotes in the Roman pantheon. In fact, by most accounts, these athletes would be considered losers in Roman terms. Great? Not by any traditional definition.

But in the eyes of the Francis, greatness is being redefined. 

When the doors of Sala Clementina opened, Francis walked in, dressed in his white robes, waving gently, smiling generously. This man sees the folks on the bottom of the world’s pyramid as uniquely great in the eyes of God, and he sat before these athletes as though among heroes. Instead of us being there as his “audience,” he became the audience for athletes to address. Instead of talking first, he insisted that the athletes speak. Filippo Pieretto talked of his “generation united to fight, through sports, any exclusion and discrimination.” Irene Luigini, nervous and jittery in front of the world’s most famous person, breathed deeply, paused, clenched her fists, and then summoned her resolve to recite the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt” (see video below).

The contrasts between the messages being shared with the pope and those surrounding us in the rest of our lives were sharp. In a time of division and fear of difference, Filippo spoke of coming together and “getting over all differences.” In a time of brutal competitiveness, Irene spoke of bravery above conquest. In a time that glorifies fame, they both spoke with humility. Everywhere else, I thought, these athletes’ messages aren’t even noticed. Who reminds us to move gently through life? Who reminds us to pay attention to each other? Who reminds us that beneath all our wounds is God’s own face—that anything else is a lie? Very few, I thought. But Filippo and Irene were doing just that.

I presented Francis with the torch of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games soon to open in Los Angeles. He held it high and the athletes boomed with applause, almost shouting, cheering their “flame of hope.”

Then Francis spoke briefly. “Do not ever forget beauty; the beauty of life, the beauty of sport—this beauty that God has given us.”  As I listened, I couldn’t help but try to hold the moment—beauty was all around me—the soaring architecture, the paintings, the elegance of the guards, but mostly Irene, her 4’9” frame, her eager smile, her nervous oath. As I watched her listen to Francis, I could hear an echo of St. Paul’s description of the mystery of life—that God “chose the weak to shame the strong” so that we might all come to God’s peace through our vulnerability, not our success. 

“Have fun and make friends,” Francis said to the athletes, reminding me of the kind of wisdom we expect from brilliant kindergarten teachers sending their students off on summer vacation. So simple and so often forgotten.

We cheered and shouted as he came to a close of his remarks.  And then he said, “Please don’t forget to pray for me. Thank you.”

Much has been said of this man—of his roots in Latin America, his concern for the poor, his focus on forgiveness and mercy. But I saw another dimension of that day: he really asked for the blessing of a crowd of people with intellectual disabilities. The Bishop of Rome asked the people for their help. He needed their prayers at least as much as they wanted his.

Is it his Jesuit training that focuses on opening the heart to see God’s presence in all things? Is it his decades of friendship with so many who suffer in poverty? Is it his own life journey from the arrogance that he admits was part of his youth to the simplicity that he has discovered in age?

Or is it perhaps his practiced attention to what is before him, all around him, within him? When facing heartbreak, he has invited us to cry not to overcome; when facing people who love each other, he has invited us to affirm and not to judge; when facing entrenched selfishness, he has invited us to turn our hearts and not to protect our interests. He starts with trying to help us love greatly and let other, less important issues follow love. In love, after all, we are all vulnerable, all in need. 

This is Rome in 2015. A new kind of greatness is being offered the world. Francis would be the first to say all greatness comes from God and certainly not from him. But in this life, the person of faith has one goal: to be the eyes and hands and heart of God to ourselves and to each other. 

Last week, in the shadow of the Colosseum, the athletes of Special Olympics visited the Bishop of Rome. The result? They will pray for him.

Timothy P. Shriver is chairman and CEO of Special Olympics.
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