It has been hard not to get excited. When Bradley Wiggins, a laconic Londoner with a Dickensian name, won the Tour de France on the eve of the London Games, it was hailed as the greatest individual sporting feat by any British sportsman in history. Such triumphs of determination and discipline are what the Olympics — which this year involves 10,500 athletes from 204 countries — seek to inspire. The Catholic Church, which has been organizing for over two years for the event, is looking to engage with that inspiration in a number of ways. 

A way of life

The Games, says the Olympic Charter, seek “a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” This is “Olympism,” a movement which, the Charter adds, seeks “the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” 

London Olympics
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, tours Olympic Park in London Jan. 19. CNS photo

The founder of the modern Games was a Jesuit-educated French aristocrat and school reformer, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who saw sport as a means of reviving his country’s prowess after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Impressed by his visits to English public schools, which showed, he wrote, how “organized sport can create moral and social strength,” he tried without success to persuade French education to incorporate more sport. That failure led to a new idea: a festival of international athleticism modelled on the competition held every four years 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. 

Msgr. Vladimir Felzmann, chief executive of the John Paul II Foundation for Sport and chaplain for sport in the Archdiocese of Westminster, regards the theology of the body lectures of Pope John Paul — a keen sportsman and athlete in his youth, who as pope spoke more than 100 times about sport — as key to the Church coming to embrace the Games as a tribute to the unity of body and spirit, formation in human and spiritual values, and — as Pope Benedict XVI puts it — “a privileged means for personal growth and contact with society.” 

Pope Benedict launched the John Paul II Foundation for Sport during his 2010 visit to Britain, creating a charity that aims to “build spiritual character through excellence in sporting skills and fitness.”  

When Msgr. Felzmann formally introduced it last year, he delivered his speech on the interconnectedness of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth — while doing 75 pushups. 

Care of the body

A rare joint message by the bishops of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales on the eve of the Games urged people to take care of their bodies, inviting them through 400,000 leaflets disseminated in parishes to “use your body for the glory of God” (1 Cor 6:20).  

But the Church has stressed that this message is as relevant to the Paralympics as the Olympics. Speaking at a Catholic conference dedicated to the theme of disability on July 11, Cristina Gangemi, disability consultant to the bishops of England and Wales, said the Paralympics enact the message of the theology of the body. Pope John Paul, she said, “was always in shape, firmly disciplined and allowed the Spirit to guide him in sport,” while showing in his later life that “there is continuity between health and illness” and “the body must be respected and honored at all stages.” 

The Ancient Games were a holy event, an opportunity to heal social divisions and repair the fragmentation of society.  

More than Gold — a broad Christian campaign, involving 15 denominations, which was first created in the United States for the Atlanta Games — called for churches to ring their bells and to pray for God’s peace to come upon the world on July 28, the first day of the Games. The churches’ mission during the Games is to offer hospitality, service and outreach, capitalizing on the energy and focus of the Games by inviting people to get involved in community-building projects. 

Catholic involvement

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have suggested seven ways in which parishes can engage with the Games, among them offering hospitality to visitors, gathering people around on big screens for the screening of Olympic events, and volunteering in local projects.  

“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.” 

Two parishes in London’s east end, close to the Olympic Park, are the focus of much of this activity. Our Lady & St. Catherine of Siena Catholic parish in Bow and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Stratford are offering an almost constant cycle of Masses and Adoration, while offering refreshments and a warm welcome to visitors. 

Building on history

The opening of the Games in ancient Greece was preceded by a 40-day “sacred truce” between three rival city-states to allow people to reach Mount Olympus without being robbed, raped or murdered. 

Reviving that idea, the three Catholic dioceses of London have been working to create a peace legacy for the 2012 Games through a series of initiatives to overcome violence. The “100 Days of Peace,” which lasts from June 8 to Oct. 28, involves peace vigils and prayers as well as the creation of “CitySafe zones” across London.  

CitySafe was begun in 2008 by a group of churches and schools in the London Citizens community alliance following the murder of a Catholic teenager, Jimmy Mizen, in south London. The boy’s parents, Barry and Margaret, have been tireless campaigners in favor of a scheme that brings stores, local institutions and police together to confront the power of gangs. The scheme, which has had a dramatic effect in reducing street violence, has been hailed by the archbishops of Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood as a model for the whole of London to follow — creating peace by forging community bonds. “100 Days of Peace” has a particular resonance in those London neighborhoods which last summer erupted in violence and looting. 

The Church is also heavily involved in the provision of 190 chaplains to the vast Olympic Village, where people of nine major faiths are being served through prayer services and pastoral support. The Olympic chaplaincy provision includes, for the first time, a service to the 25,000 journalists and technicians, and to the thousands of support staff.  

The Catholic chaplain to the media is the Benedictine former abbot Christopher Jamison, known to millions for his role in the popular BBC TV series “The Monastery.” The Olympic Park, he told Our Sunday Visitor, was “like a temporary parish.” The Church’s task? “To ensure that everybody involved matters, that the Church is pleased to welcome and support this sudden influx.” 

“We are ready to welcome the world to our nation and to bear witness to Christ’s love, and above all his peace,” Parker told OSV. 

Austen Ivereigh writes from London.