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August 01, 2012
The Olympic Games, physical fitness, and the Catholic Church
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

From first to last, the Olympic Games focus on character in action, a combination of sacrifice and self-denial with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s this state of mind that we, the Olympic world, celebrate.

The father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin (d 1937) confirms this philosophy: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

In 1905, de Courbertin told “The New York Tribune” that in a private interview with Pope Pius X, that he, De Courbertin, sought and received financial support from the pontiff for the Olympic Games:

(The pontiff) said that the Church throughout the world ought to take eager interest in athletic culture and help in promoting physical progress among boys and girls of the rising generation.  The Pope expressed the opinion that healthful open-air sport was the surest means of compensating for the ever-increasing strenuous mental work required of all – women as well as men – who take an intelligent share in the everyday task of contemporary civilization. (“The Dawn Patrol”, July 27, 2012)

At the time, Pius X saw international sports as a way to approach young people and to bring them together while following certain rules and showing respect for adversaries...that it was possible to bring people together simply, without any problems of race, religion, or differing political ideas. He later told a cardinal, “if it is impossible to understand that this can be done, then I myself will do exercises in front of everyone so that they may see that, if the Pope can do it, anyone can do it.” (“The Dawn Patrol,” July 27, 2012)

On July 28th, the Catholic Church in England and Wales prayed for God’s blessings on the Games with a Mass celebrated at Westminster Cathedral.

This idealism urges that the Games be played with honesty, grace, and intensity. Cheating in its various forms contradicts the high moral tone that summons us to them. Our communal Olympic soul remembers in prayer the eleven Israelis who were murdered in the 1972 Munich Massacre. May they rest in peace.

Ancient Cultures

Though the Olympiads are dated from 776 BC, the game of organized sports is credited to the Chinese, and in particular to Buddhist monks. Jujitsu, boxing, and wrestling developed with them. Ball games, jumping, acrobatics, weight lifting, hoop rolling, and bull fighting were cultivated in Persia and India, throughout Asia Minor, Greece,  Egypt, and Rome. Greek schools incorporated physical training, and the veneration of athletes appears in sculptures as well as in decoration of vases, coins, and gems. The first Olympiads were closely linked to the religious cult of the Greek god Zeus, but whose main purpose was to show the physical prowess of youth. Still, the Olympic Games owe their purity and high moral aspirations to religion.

The Modern Olympiads

The five intertwined rings, the Olympic symbol, represent the unity of the five continents.  The colored version of the rings – blue, yellow, black, green and red – over a white field forms the Olympic flag. The games always begin with the raising of the flag and artistic displays of music, singing, dance, and theater representative of the host nation. With their closing, three national flags are hoisted with the corresponding national anthems of the flag: that of Greece to honor the birthplace of the Olympiads, the flag of the current country, and the flag of the country hosting the next Summer or Winter games. The next host nation briefly introduces itself with artistic displays representative of its culture.

The Church and Physical Fitness

The Early Fathers linked physical and spiritual fitness – to keep healthy and become holy – a twofold ideal. St. Clement of Alexandria (d 215) also taught that physical exercise is effective in maintaining a pleasing physical appearance, but of the two, the spiritual fitness takes priority. This view was strongly held by St. Thomas Aquinas (d 1274) who said that exercise increases the blood supply into the brain, and this oxygen in the brain helps people to think more clearly and more deeply.

John Paul II and the Gospel in Kayaks

John Paul II, who was a fine athlete even into his papacy,  never ceased to remind the faithful, and particularly our youth, that the human body has a specific meaning and role to play in God’s creative plan (Theology of the Body 1-129, 1982-84). In his biography of John Paul II, “Witness to Hope” (p 103ff), George Weigel writes that as a young priest, Father Karol “took single and married couple hiking, skiing, and kayaking. As a veteran hiker from his youth in Wadowice, the future pontiff was thoroughly at home in nature. And so he created the pastoral method of accompanying his young friends to Poland’s mountains and lakes.”

“The annual kayak trips were a vacation plus, and they were always the occasion for conversation or for spiritual direction. Mass was celebrated using an overturned kayak as an altar, with two paddles tied together to form the altar cross.  He made it a point to take a meal with a different family every day of the vacation, working his way around the entire group. Soccer games were organized between the “married team” and the youth team.”  Wujek, as he was familiarly addressed, and the former goalie of Wadowice “played for whichever team was shorthanded. Around the campfire in the evening, the adults would discuss significant books or church documents.”

“(The future pontiff’)s essential point was that the priest’s duty to help make God present in the world was not satisfied by his daily celebration of Mass. In addition, “the duty of a priest is to live with people, everywhere they are, to be with them in everything but sin.  That was the context for looking at vacations as a pastoral opportunity. Daily Mass took on a special texture on a vacation trek: nature, not only human art, participates in the sacrifice of the Son of God. At Mass, a thought for the day could be proposed and reflected on during evening prayer.”

“An excursion had to be a well-prepared improvisation in which the priest was ready and willing to talk about everything: “about movies, about books, about one’s own work, about scientific research, and about jazz bands. Was this kind of pastoral work, built around vacations with young men and women, a compromise of the priesthood?” This form of ministry had to be discerned by the individual priest, but it was certainly a way of leading others to Christ. The excursions helped the young people look at their problems from a different perspective...to look at all things in the spirit of the Gospel.” These excursions created the sense of a Christian community.

Vince Lombardi (d 1970)

In his biography of Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered,” David Maraniss details the football philosophy of the iron-willed coach of the Green Bay Packers. At Fordham in the 1930's, Lombardi learned that there was a direct link between Ignatius and the philosophy of football, and he assimilated the essentials of the Ignatian Exercises applying them to football. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi rooted his lectures in the writings of Fr. Ignatius Wiley Cox, S.J.  “Cox was not just another Jesuit,” writes Maraniss, “but the most renowned teacher at Fordham and an important figure in American Catholic thought. He embodied a philosophy whose every point was  meticulously and clearly explained.” Cox occasionally inquired of the future coach, “Is that clear to you, Mr. Lombardi, as clear as a mountain lake in springtime?” (64) At the time, Fordham’s football team was the New York Yankees of university football teams.

Lombardi derived his strength from attending daily Mass. His philosophy was encapsulated in basic Ignatian principles. Life is ordered in a hierarchy. Man’s liberty to choose between action and inaction, good and evil applies to coaches of sports teams. Freedom comes through discipline and simplicity, which lead to perfection. Only those with free will surrender freely to achieve a higher ideal. The mundane is important to serve the higher ideal. There is no tolerance for the halfhearted. Strict attention to detail, spiritual discipline, and precision are essential. Daily examination charts show one’s progress or regress. (213)

The coach does not just tell the players it is so; he repeats and repeats until the team is convinced that it knows. Repetition, pounding by rote, engenders confidence, and confidence, passion. Though it is said that “the difference in men is energy, in the strong will, in the settled purpose and in the invincible determination,” the Lombardi leadership lies in sacrifice, in humility and in the perfectly disciplined will – the formation of character. “This, Gentlemen, is the distinction between great and little men.” (406) Today, coaches still refer to his winning principles:

On truth: 
   “The object is to win fairly, by the rules – but to win.”
   “Morally, the life of the organization must be of exemplary nature. This is one phase where the organization must not have criticism.”

On discipline:
   “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
   “The good Lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It’s your mind you have to convince.”
   “Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.”

On commitment: 
   “Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-the-time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while…you do them right all the time.” 
   “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

On success and sacrifice: 
   “Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”

On passion: 
   “It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men. Men respond to leadership in a most remarkable way and once you have won his heart, he will follow you anywhere.” 
   “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.”

On results and winning: 
   “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will.”
   “Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization.”
   “Winning is not everything, but making the effort to win is.”
   “Success demands singleness of purpose.”
   “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Special Olympics

Arguably the most formidable of the nine Kennedy children, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, an ardent pro-life Democrat, was lauded time and again for her untiring advocacy for the disabled and mentally-handicapped.

“Eunice was the child in the family who developed the strongest bond with Rosemary, the child with mental retardation. From her earliest years, Eunice seemed to possess a deep understanding of Rosemary which none of the others fully shared. She always seemed to know what Rosemary wanted or required without having to be told and never need to be asked to take her shopping or for a walk...There was an odd maturity about Eunice which was sometimes forbidding but which clearly set her off from all the rest.” (Doris Kearns Goodwin, “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys,” 363)

Rose Kennedy wrote of her daughter’s enormous energies: “I have known few people in the world to match her for initiative and energy and drive.” (Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, “Times to Remember,” 130) Eunice’s research on the causes of people with intellectual disabilities and ways of treating them culminated in the Special Olympics Movement, the most lasting and most consequential of the Kennedy family contributions, according to the New York Times Obituary for Mrs. Shriver. (April 11, 2009) But it was her daughter, Maria who, in eulogizing her mother, captured the heart of this Kennedy woman:

“Mummy was indeed a towering figure...Over the past few days, our mother has been called everything from a saint, to a pioneer, to a trailblazer, to a true original, to a civil rights advocate of legendary proportions, to a force of human nature who more than held her own in a family of highly competitive, high-achieving men. She was indeed a transformative figure. Mummy was our hero. She was scary smart and not afraid to show it. She was tough, but also compassionate. Driven, but also really fun and funny. Competitive, but also empathetic. Restless and patient. Curious and prayerful.

She liked to hang with the guys, but all her heroes – except for her brother Jack – were  women. She had a husband who was totally devoted to her in every sense of that word. A man who marveled at everything she said and everything she did. When she wasn’t trying to beat us in a game of tennis or on the football field, you could usually find her at Mass with our father, praying or working. And I mean really working. She was, as you all know, determined to change the world for people with intellectual disabilities, and she did, and you had no choice but to join her in her mission, which took all of us from our backyard to every state in this nation and just as many countries around the world. Our mother never rested, she never stopped; she was momentum on wheels. She was focused, relentless, and she got the job done.

Mummy was indeed a trailblazer. She showed up in her life as herself, and that takes courage. She took adversity and turned it into advantage. Inspired by the rejection she saw many women face, especially her sister Rosemary and her mother, and other mothers of special children, she turned that into her life’s focus and her life’s passion and mission. Her own brand of what I’d call maternal feminism. She believed 100 percent in the power and the gifts of women to change the language, the tempo, and the character of this world. Her heroes were the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, her own mother, her sister Rosemary. All of whom in her eyes had already done that, and she would always challenge each of us to do the same. You will, she said, you must, you can.  She made men quake in their boots when she stepped foot on Capitol Hill."

Mrs. Shriver’s numerous awards included: the nation’s highest civilian award, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work on behalf of those with mental disabilities, (1984) her portrait appearing on the silver dollar coin honoring the Special Olympics and the Civitan International World Citizenship Award for nationalizing the Special Olympics, (1995) and a papal knighthood from Pope Benedict XVI being made A Dame of the Order of St. Gregory. (2006) At the time of her death in 2009, the Shriver family issued the following statement, reading in part:

"Inspired by her love of God, her devotion to her family, and her relentless belief in the dignity and worth of every human life, she work without ceasing – searching, pushing, demanding, hoping for change. She was a living prayer, a living advocate, a living center of power. She set out to change the world and to change us, and she did that and more. She founded the movement that became Special Olympics, the largest movement for acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities in the history of the world. Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of millions or people across the globe, and they in turn are her living legacy."

As part of a famous political family and one who never ran for elective office, this Kennedy woman changed the world.

The Christian Vocation, St. Paul and the Sports Metaphor

If Vince Lombardi and Eunice Kennedy Shriver ran their own athletic and spiritual races, the rugged St. Paul described his vocation in athletic terms centuries before them. He wrote often of the dignity and harmony of the body, which he called the temple of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians, (9:24ff) he compares running and winning the prize to the ultimate run and prize of eternal life:

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore, I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”

In Philippians, (3:12) he again refers to athletics: “I am racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus.” At the end of his life, Paul writes with confidence: “I have fought the good fight. I finished the race. I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4: 6)

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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