The 2010 Winter Olympics under way in Vancouver, British Columbia, and in the nearby resort town of Whistler are more than just an occasion for athletic excellence; they are also the scenes of “radical hospitality” among Catholics of the Archdiocese of Vancouver. 

Churches, schools and individuals are volunteering their homes and their energies to making the estimated 350,000 Olympic visitors and 5,500 athletes feel welcome in the Canadian city, whose metro population exceeds 2 million, making it the largest city to host the Winter Games. 

The archdiocese, comprising 450,000 baptized Catholics, has set up two hospitality centers where visitors and athletes will be welcomed late into the night - one at the archdiocese’s offices, the other at Holy Rosary Cathedral. 

In a welcome letter to athletes, Archbishop J. Michael Miller said: “We think you will find these places to be sanctuaries while you take a break from the rigors of competition. We hope you will find a common language in the love of Jesus Christ.” He also provided a website to find the nearest venue for Masses. “We want to be the face of Christ to visitors, volunteers and participants,” he wrote. 

The archdiocese is also providing chaplains and Masses inside the Olympic Villages in Vancouver and Whistler. 

Counteracting negative effects 

But the number of visitors to the port city — and its stature as a trade, travel and financial link to Asia — have raised fears over criminals importing thousands of sex workers, many against their will. Archbishop Miller has joined with other British Columbia Catholic bishops in condemning human trafficking, and the archdiocese is participating in programs to counter the exploitation. 

The expansion of the event’s budget to $1.43 billion while the British Columbia government cut social programs has fueled a heated debate about priorities: All the showbiz glitter cannot hide Vancouver’s notorious East Side, a blighted inner city where Canada’s poorest live. 

Furthermore, many social action groups, including some Christian and native Canadian ones, have condemned the games as engines of profit for sponsoring corporations. Streams of Justice , a Christian social justice group, showed a film to public school teachers that claimed the Olympic Games have displaced more than 2 million people in the past 20 years. The public schools have chosen not to shut down for the Games. 

Daniel Hahn, the archdiocese’s director of service and justice, acknowledged that events on the scale of the Olympics can increase housing and human trafficking problems, but he said they are also opportunities to do good. 

“One may ask how supporting young athletes to fulfill their dreams and goals necessarily constitutes standing with the powerful of our world,” he told The B.C. Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper. “There is also the question of economic spinoff, forecasted to last for about four years or so, which may help everyone in some way, and not just the powerful.” 

At the same time, the archdiocese has joined other faith groups in More than Gold , an interdenominational organization reaching out to the city’s poor, as well as visitors. With the Catholic Women’s League leading the archdiocese’s participation, More than Gold is finding hosts for visitors, who will direct half their $100-a-night fees to housing East Side street people. 

Another wing of More than Gold prepared 25,000 welcome kits for visitors — and 3,000 care kits for the homeless. More than Gold has also organized workshops to raise awareness about human trafficking. 

Educational opportunities 

With its growing Asian, Indian and Filipino populations, Vancouver’s Catholic schools faced tough sledding getting their students interested in games played on ice and snow, said Judith Der, a third-grade teacher at St. Mary School and an Olympics volunteer. 

Before the games started, she showed her students Nordic and Alpine skis, snowboards and other winter sports gear. “Many of my students are from cultures where they’ve never seen these things,” she said. “Most of them will probably never use them.” 

However, the Catholic school system has pulled out all the stops to change that. For the duration of the games, class is out. Adjustments to the schedule mean no overall instruction time is missed, said Superintendant Doug Lauson. 

Der, daughter of a Hungarian refugee couple who fled their homeland during the 1956 anti-Communist uprising, is volunteering as an assistant to the Hungarian Olympics team during the games. 

Both Der and husband, Les, responded to the Games Committee’s call for volunteers a year and half ago on the first day they could. In that way, she is setting a good example for her students, whom she urges to volunteer all of their lives. “This is the pinnacle of my volunteering career,” she jokingly told Our Sunday Visitor. 

At St. Patrick’s Regional Secondary School, students cheered on ninth-grade student Crystal Pan, who was to participate Feb. 5 in the Olympic torch relay on the Sea-to-Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler. Born in China, Crystal was selected on the strength of an essay describing how moved she was to be in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics, and how she wanted to participate more meaningfully this time. 

Whistler welcome mat 

No parish is closer to the eye of the Olympic storm than Our Lady of the Mountains in Whistler. The resort community ordinarily is home to 10,000, but during the games, it is expected to jam in 3,000 athletes and 50,000 visitors. 

“If I’d wanted to, I could have rented out my home, the church and the parking lot,” joked Msgr. Jerry Desmond, the pastor of the parish.  

Not knowing what to expect, Msgr. Desmond lined up some expertise in the person of Father Bernard Maier, the chaplain of the Austrian ski team, to help him with his duties at Our Lady of the Mountains and within the Athletes Village, where they will alternate celebrating morning Mass. Members of his parish have volunteered for roles inside the village and on the Nordic runs north of town. Msgr. Desmond will host Father Maier, two former parishioners and two German visitors. 

“You could say I’ve brought the Olympics home,” he said. 

Steve Weatherbe writes from British Columbia.

Church opens door to country (sidebar)

While some Catholics are opening their homes to Olympic visitors from afar, St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Vancouver is hosting an entire country. Ukraine House, the official pavilion of the Ukrainian government, will occupy St. Mary’s parish center, which includes a gymnasium and cultural center that can seat upward of 600 people. The church and center are located just three blocks from City Hall and Skytrain, the rapid transit system. 

Bishop Ken Nowakowski of the Eparchy of New Westminster, which includes all of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories and Yukon, said parishioners from St. Mary’s and other Vancouver parishes will provide volunteers for Ukraine House. The Ukraine House will offer a display of materials about the country, offer hospitality and be the venue for official government announcements and a ball hosted by Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada. 

Bishop Nowakowski issued a letter to Vancouver parishes pointing out the parallels between the efforts of Olympic athletes and those of Christians: “We too are called to action in our own spiritual growth. Like Olympians, we too are called to vigorously prepare ourselves through spiritual exercise that strengthen us in our spiritual journey. … We too are asked to carry the torch to be a Light to the world, to bring Jesus’ message of love and hope to a world often sitting in darkness and despair.”