Part way through last week, Zero sent me a text pointing out that television coverage showed a number of the athletes taking part in the London Olympics making the sign of the cross before taking part in their events, and then praying again at the (successful) end of their event. At the time I responded cautiously (see below), but it is certainly worth reflecting just how much of a presence religion, and in particular manifestations of Christian belief, has had at the Olympic Games. The Vatican News Service/Vatican Radio has picked up this aspect of the Olympic Games, and, rightly in my view, points out that it is a clear but unspoken feature of the Games.
I haven't been able to find out where it was in the Olympic Park, but there was a "Faith" centre - what in the past would have been called, and probably still is in most people's every day language, a chaplaincy centre. This was multi-faith in character, with the Catholic Church taking part. [UPDATE: but see the comments.] Reports indicate that Mass was celebrated there three times each day. A link from the official Olympic Games wesbite gave information about Churches and places of worship of all the major religions, with links to websites of those faith communities. I was able to listen to BBC Radio 2, with Chris Evans broadcasting from the Olympic on the mornings of the Olympic Games. At about 9.15 am on at least two mornings, the "Pause for Thought" spot in the programme was taken by chaplains accompanying Olympic teams from other countries. The Mass celebrated at Westminster Cathedral to mark the opening of the Games "was attended by almost a 1000 people from all over the world, including
dignitaries such as the Ambassador of Paraguay, High Commissioner of Jamaica,
High Commissioner of Trinidad, and international Chaplains to the Olympic Teams."
So perhaps the first message that a secularised British culture can learn from the Olympic Games - that is, from one of the most profound expressions of culture the world has to offer - is that, for many of its participants, religious faith has been a part and parcel of their way of taking part. For those athletes who made the sign of the cross before their events, that sign is much less exceptional for them than it has been for us who have seen it on television. Just as Edith Stein describes a point in her intellectual development where the encounter with fellow philosophers of stature who held religious beliefs prompted her to recognise that the field of religion was one worthy of phenomenological study; so perhaps expressions of British culture should now recognise that religion as a phenomenon is not something that can be excluded from public life and culture.
The second thought is that the engagement of the Catholic Church in outreach activity around the Olympic Games has proven to be a very prescient contribution to the religious culture of the Games. Three Catholic parishes in East London, for example, have between them maintained continuous Eucharistic adoration for the duration of most of the Games. The Sion Community have animated the Joshua Camp, an evangelisation project involving outreach in locations near to the Games (and at St Patrick's Soho Square, for their Nightfever). Details of these activities are at the Brentwood Diocese website.
Cranmer led the way in commenting on the manner of the BBC's coverage of Usain Bolt's Christian faith - they ignored it - and Fr Tim has picked up the confusion caused to commentators by Meseret Defar's act of witness. I am struck though by the difference between these two examples. The first is a "celebrity", a sporting "super star" (and see my observations on this here). Meseret Defar is an unknown (or at least she was). The content of the first act of witness was somewhat generic. By displaying an image of the Mother and Son, Meseret Defar bore witness to an explicit content of her Orthodox faith, an image that in itself is profoundly evangelising. Meseret Defar has also shown not inconsiderable skill in the use of the media - her image of the Mother and Son has gone round the world, just as much as has her own picture. Is it those atheletes who are not celebrities who have really given the most effective witness to their Christian faith at the Olympics?
Which brings me back to the caution that I expressed in response to Zero's text half way through the week. Undoubtedly, sporting ability, as with any other talent (to use the Biblical word), is something that is received as a gift from God that can be used to his greater glory. An athelete can rightly give thanks to God for success in this field, and in public not only in private. But is it always going to be the case that a particular instance of sporting success (or any other success) represents the will of God? This requires a certain discernment, rather than a presumption, on the part of the athlete concerned. My caution was with regard to those whose Christian belief is of a non-ecclesial nature, where the idea of discernment can lack an objective character and where there can be a mis-placed presentation of success in the world as a sign of God's blessing.
All of which brings us back to the importance of the engagement of the Catholic Church at events such as the Olympics ...
[UPDATE: I did not see the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, or listen to it on the radio. The pre-publicity suggested to me that it wasn't going to be worth the candle (ie the late night). Zero's view of the music was the same as the one I had formed from the pre-publicity - rubbish. Humblepiety's post The Olympics: A Tale of Two Ceremonies offers an interesting critique of the closing ceremony, particularly in the light of the opening ceremony. It takes up in part the themes of my post above, and I endorse particularly its view of songs such as "Always look on the bright side of life" and "Imagine".]