VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis celebrated his beloved San Lorenzo's victory in the Argentine soccer championship Wednesday, congratulating team members, reminiscing about going to the stadium as a child and hoisting up the team's trophy in St. Peter's Square for all to see.
Club members gave Francis the trophy and the glove goalie Sebastian Torrico used to block the ball in the final minute of Sunday's 0-0 draw with Velez Sarsfield, securing the title for the opening half of the Argentine first-division season.
Referencing another big moment in Argentine soccer history — Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal against England in the 1986 World Cup — club vice-president Marcelo Tinelli said Francis performed a "miracle" on Sunday: "For us, it was the hand of God, the hand of the pope," he joked.
Both the glove and trophy will remain at the Vatican, a belated birthday gift to Francis, who turned 77 this week.
The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a lifelong fan of the Saints of San Lorenzo, and has been a member (ID No. 88235) since 2008.
The team draws its name from a priest, Lorenzo Massa, who offered to let a group of youths use church grounds to play in instead of the streets of Buenos Aires in the early 1900s. Bergoglio grew up in the Flores neighbourhood of the Argentine capital near the stadium and formed a bond with the team.
On Wednesday, he reminisced about going to the stadium with his father as a boy during a 30-minute meeting with the club at his Vatican hotel. Team members gave him a photo of his childhood hero, Rene Pontoni, who played for San Lorenzo when it won the national title in 1946.
The pope gave the team players and managers an image of the Madonna which they said they would keep in the stadium.
Originally Tinelli, the club vice-president, had announced that the team would give Francis a replica of the championship trophy, but he and other officials said Wednesday that they gave him the original and that it would remain in Rome.
Like many Latin American countries, Argentina divides its season into two halves and crowns champions for each one.
Later, at the end of Francis' Wednesday general audience, the delegation went up to the pope on the steps of St. Peter's and formally presented him with the trophy and a red and blue team jersey with "Francisco Campeon" — Francis Champion — written on the back. A clearly pleased Francis raised the trophy.
Wednesday was Francis' last general audience for 2013, and the Vatican took the opportunity to release statistics about his pontificate, revealing that the Vatican had issued twice as many tickets for his general audiences than it had for Pope Benedict XVI in the first year of his pontificate.
The Vatican said 1,548,500 tickets had been distributed over the course of the 30 general audiences Francis has held since his March 13 election. The actual number of people who attended is far higher, since anyone can go to an audience and the Vatican now shuts down the main boulevard leading to St. Peter's Square to accommodate the throngs each Wednesday.
Unlike his predecessors, Francis has chosen not to move his audiences indoors once the weather turned cold, to better accommodate the masses.
For comparison's sake, 810,000 tickets were distributed in Benedict XVI's first year in 2005, during which he held 32 audiences after his April 19 election. At the end of 2005, the Vatican said 2.85 million people had participated in Benedict's public events those first eight months of his pontificate, which included all his Masses, audiences, Sunday blessings and World Youth Day events in Cologne, Germany.
The Vatican didn't release such complete statistics on Wednesday for Francis. The Holy See is on record, though, as reporting that Francis drew 3.7 million people on a single day to his concluding World Youth Day Mass in Rio de Janeiro in July, though statisticians put the actual figure at less than half that.
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