Sochi games gives chance to 'witness to Christ'

When the 22nd Winter Olympic Games opened at Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi with a spectacular Feb. 6 ceremony, it might have been assumed little would be heard over the following fortnight about Christian churches. As the games neared their end on Feb. 23, however, the churches’ presence had been well established — led by Russia’s predominant Orthodox church, but with clergy from Russia’s million-strong minority Catholic Church playing a role, too.

“These Olympics have been hugely important here,” Msgr. Igor Kovalevsky, secretary-general of Russia’s Catholic bishops’ conference, told Our Sunday Visitor. “Of course, the games are a secular event, and everyone, whatever their faith, has their own likes and dislikes on the sporting panorama. But our Church has also been active, offering religious facilities to competitors and fans alike.”

Concerns over Russia’s security and human rights record under President Vladimir Putin led most Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, to stay away from the games.

But Moscow Archbishop Msgr. Paolo Pezzi attended the opening ceremony, and Pope Francis praised the Olympics in an Angelus message Feb. 9 as a “true celebration of sport and friendship.”

A new Russian Orthodox “Olympic Basilica,” rising to 120 feet, was dedicated at the edge of the Olympic Village just before the start, while the church’s patriarch, Kirill I of Moscow, held a service for Russian-speaking athletes during a three-day visit to Sochi, when he inspected the ski-jump slopes and other venues.

“Concentrate and gain inner spiritual strength — this will be the formula for your success,” the patriarch said. “Athletes are well aware, when aspiring to win their competitions, that it isn’t just a question of technical training and necessary equipment, but also of the inner spirit, which largely determines a person’s ability.”

Christian history

With 343,000 residents, Sochi has some 30 other Orthodox churches, including a late 19th century cathedral, which was restored in the 1990s after being turned into a warehouse under Soviet rule. But Christianity first reached the city via the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages and survived several centuries of Muslim rule, which only ended when the region was conquered by Russia in the 1860s Caucasian War.

Besides the Orthodox majority, it is also home to 10 Armenian Christian churches and has its own Catholic church of Sts. Simon and Jude, which was dedicated in 1997 to replace a small Communist-era chapel in the city’s Polish culture center. The new Jesuit-run parish belongs to the church’s Saratov-based San Clemente apostolic administration and has provided a base for visiting Olympic pastors from Germany, Italy, Korea, Poland and other countries.

The Czech Republic’s Catholic primate, Cardinal Dominik Duka, celebrated a Mass for athletes here before attending the opening ceremony and speed skating championships.

Meanwhile, the chaplain for Austria’s 130-strong team, 30-year-old Father Johannes Paul Chavanne, a Cistercian from Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Vienna, described the atmosphere as “colorful and happy,” and related on his blog how athletes had “gladly accepted” a gift of crosses.

Costly games

When Moscow hosted the summer Olympics in 1980, the event was boycotted by Western governments because of the previous year’s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This time too, Russia’s first major international championship since the Soviet Union’s 1991 break-up has attracted controversy.

There were complaints of corruption in the awarding of Olympic contracts, while from an initial budget of $12 billion, the costs spiralled to $51 billion, more than half drawn from public funds. This dwarfed the $8 billion spent for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and made the Sochi Games the most expensive in history.

Preparations were also marred by the crisis in neighboring Ukraine and by the killing of 26 people in Islamist bomb attacks at Volgograd in late December. Although Putin’s government responded with a security “ring of steel,” deploying 40,000 police and troops with air and sea patrols, it also imposed travel restrictions and banned unauthorized protests and demonstrations.

Ban on homosexuals

This in turn exacerbated human rights concerns, which have recently focused on hardships facing Russia’s gays and lesbians.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, two years after the collapse of Communist rule, and removed from the list of mental illnesses in 1999.

But human rights groups say pressure against gays and lesbians has been growing, while violent assaults — often documented and filmed — are routinely ignored by police.

They say vaguely worded, restrictive June 2013 amendments to Russia’s child protection law, banning the “propagation of non-traditional sexual relations among minors,” offered a tool for populist politicians by effectively criminalizing any attempt to defend gay rights.

Since the amendments allow the arrest of foreign nationals suspected of being gay or even “pro-gay,” fears were raised about the fate of athletes and spectators at Sochi, and there were calls for another Western boycott.

Happily for the organizers, such issues appear to have barely surfaced during the Olympics.

Russia’s deputy premier, Dimtri Kozak, said officials had received no applications for demonstrations; and during his Sochi tour, Patriarch Kirill heaped praise on the organizers.

“For many, this will be their first acquaintance with Russia,” the Orthodox leader said at his service for athletes. “It’s important people not only see the wonderful buildings constructed and the great roads, but also feel the soul of our people, our hospitality and readiness to help and be united with others.”

Progress made

For some Christians, at least, the Olympics may have produced tangible benefits.

On Feb. 10, Putin held talks in Sochi with Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, who promised to help secure the release of a dozen Christian nuns abducted by Islamists in Syria, as well as of two Orthodox archbishops kidnapped there last April.

While that may reflect the capacity of the Olympics to bring a respite from tension and conflict, others remain wary. But Father Chavanne, the Austrian chaplain, is optimistic. He thinks the Olympics aren’t just about “pushing the limits” and “thrilling with speed,” but also about “finding an inner balance and calm” and ensuring “people aren’t there for sport, but sport for the people.”

That’s an area where the Catholic Church has been able to make a modest but useful contribution.

Msgr. Kovalevsky, Russia’s bishops’ conference secretary-general, agreed. Although the Olympics won’t solve any problems, they may at least create a better atmosphere for tackling them in future.

“Every major event is a call to evangelize for Christians, and the Olympics are no exception,” the Russian priest told OSV.

“Although we may not have Catholics among our own country’s competitors, society and government are intensely interested, and this poses a challenge to us all as witnesses to Christ in our daily lives.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.