In an upbeat and informative article written for Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh shares some interesting but little known facts about the Church's long history with the Olympics, such as how the founder of the modern Games was a Jesuit-educated French aristocrat named Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
A school reformer who lived in the late 19th century, the Baron tried to convince the French to imitate the British and incorporate more sport into their schools because "organized sport can create moral and social strength." His failure to bring this about led to a new idea of starting a festival of international athleticism held every four years much like the games once held in the ancient Greek city of Olympia.
"Coubertin wanted it to promote the values which he saw in the ancient Games: competition among amateur rather than professional athletes, peace and understanding between nations and the idea of a struggle to overcome our own limitations as being more important than winning," Ivereigh writes.
These values dovetail very well with Pope John Paul II's concept of sports, about which he spoke more than 100 times during his life. He calling the Games a tribute to the unity of body and spirit, formation in human and spiritual values.
These same principles underlie the founding of the John Paul II Foundation for Sport which was opened in 2010 during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to England. The aim of this charity is to "build spiritual character through excellence in sporting skills and fitness." When the Foundation's chief executive, Msgr. Vladimir Felzmann, announced the launch of the center last year, he did so while performing 75 pushups!
In keeping with this tradition, the bishops of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales issued a rare joint message on the eve of the London Games, issuing 400,000 leaflets in parishes urging people to “use your body for the glory of God” (1 Cor 6:20).
The bishops suggested seven ways in which parishes can engage with the Games such as offering hospitality to visitors, gathering people together to watch the events and volunteering in local projects around London.
“The Games offer the local parish an opportunity to build community in a very practical and tangible way,” said James Parker, executive coordinator of the Catholic2012 office. “There are small ways in which people can ‘olympify’ what they are confident doing.”
As Ivereigh reports, two parishes in London’s east end, which is close to the Olympic Park, are the focus of much of this activity. Our Lady & St. Catherine of Siena Catholic and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church are offering an almost constant cycle of Masses and Adoration, while offering refreshments and a warm welcome to visitors.
The Church has also provided 190 chaplains to the Olympic Village where people of nine major faiths will be served. And for the first time, these chaplains will be made available to support staff and the over 25,000 journalists and technicians who will be involved in bring the Games to the world.
In addition, 15 denominations of Christian churches will join together in a tradition started in the United Sates for the Atlanta Games - the ringing of church bells to pray for God's peace to come upon the world as the Games begin.
When the Olympic games begin tomorrow, the Church will be standing alongside the people of England to welcome the world to their doorstep and celebrate the coming together of nations for a peaceful purpose.
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