This year’s Giro d’Italia is rich on symbolism. Starting in Jerusalem and ending in Rome, the Italian grand tour is hoping to link Christendom’s two holiest cities in also what’s Israel’s 70th anniversary as a nation.
So who better to invite than the Pope?
Backers of the “Big Start” in Israel are waiting to hear from Vatican officials if Pope Francis will accept an official invitation to attend and bless the Giro when it starts May 4 in Jerusalem.
“We hope he comes,” said Sylvan Adams, the driving force behind efforts to bring the Giro to Israel. “We are working with Vatican officials and waiting to hear.”
Adams personally delivered an official invitation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Pope Francis during a papal visit in October, asking the head of the Catholic Church to honor the race with a public blessing in Jerusalem.
Adams told VeloNews in a telephone interview that the invite was was Netanyahu’s idea.
As part of efforts to build institutional support the Giro’s Israel start, Adams had a face-to-face meeting with Netanyahu to brief the prime minister on the project. During that meeting, also mentioned in passing that he was slated to meet with Pope Francis.
“I told [Netanyahu] that I was going to meet the Pope, and he wrote a beautiful invitation to His Holiness,” Adams said. “The Pope told me to say thanks for the invitations, and [the Vatican is] considering it.”
Pope Francis last visited Israel in 2014 to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the Holy See and the Jewish state.
A papal blessing of the Giro wouldn’t be a first. The Catholic Church has long maintained close links to professional cycling, and different Popes have blessed the start of the race over the decades.
Pope Paul VI blessed the start of the 1974 Giro, and, as legend has it, asked Eddy Merckx, “Is it true they call you the Cannibal?” Three different Popes personally blessed Gino Bartali, a deeply religious man who helped save hundreds of lives during the Holocaust. In 2000, Pope John Paul II — who is now Saint John Paul — blessed the start of the Giro, with riders such as Marco Pantani and Mario Cipollini in audience. Just last month, three-time defending world champion Peter Sagan met Pope Francis and presented him with a rainbow jersey and a customized Specialized bike with the Vatican’s coat of arms and Pope Francis’s name emblazoned on the frame.
Of course, not everyone is enthralled with the idea of an official Papal blessing or even the Giro starting in Israel. Palestinian Christian groups have urged the Pope not to attend the Giro. Other groups have called for a boycott of the Giro in Israel and have urged race officials to relocate the start of the event. So far, there seems to be no indication that the Giro will change its plans.