Marian Milestones; a Sporting Chance

Recent Papal Activities Stoke the Flame of Piety

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 9, 2004 ( Summer vacation has ended and the Romans, trim and tan, trickle back from the seaside or the mountains. The weather, still gloriously sunny, is tinged with a little chill at dusk, the first meteorological clue that beach days are over and school day must start.

John Paul II has returned as well, and the resulting activity around the Vatican helps galvanize the locals into action. Of course, the Pope has been back at work long before the Romans even thought of putting away their suntan lotion.

Trips, canonizations and bishops’ «ad limina» visits have marked a very busy period since mid-August and as we head into the remainder of the liturgical year, an itinerary seems to be taking shape for us.

This week, with the feast of Mary’s birthday, the Nativity of the Virgin, we draw a little closer to a key milestone: the 150th anniversary of the feast of the Immaculate Conception to be celebrated on Dec. 8.

On Aug. 15, when John Paul II traveled to Lourdes to celebrate the feast of the Assumption, he brought the upcoming anniversary to center stage. This past Wednesday, the Holy Father highlighted the feast during the general audience, inviting us to «admire in the infant Mary, the purest dawn of the Redemption.»

The Church celebrates only three birthdays in the liturgical calendar: the birth of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. According to Blessed Jacopo da Voragine, 13th-century author of the «Golden Legend,» these symbolize three spiritual births, «for we are reborn in water in John, reborn in penance in Mary and in glory with Christ.»

Christians began celebrating the feast of the Nativity of Mary around the sixth century. Like many Marian holidays, it is Eastern in origin, the earliest extant document regarding the ceremony being a hymn composed by St. Romanus of Syria.

The Roman church adopted the feast in the seventh century although in northern Europe it wasn’t fully celebrated until the ninth century at the instigation of Benedictine St. Paschasius Radbertus of Soissons.

The widespread celebration of the Nativity of the Virgin opened the door to discussion regarding her conception and the question drew increasing interest by the 13th century. One of the results was an innovative iconography taken from the apocryphal gospel of St. James involving scenes from the life of the Virgin.

Giotto’s landmark Arena Chapel in Verona, painted in 1306, featured this new, earthy iconography in a vigorous, narrative style. The cycle begins with St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of Mary.

Joachim was expelled from the Temple as he and his wife were childless. Ashamed, he fled into the desert to join the shepherds. Anne, seeing that Joachim did not return, was disconsolate. But the Lord intervened and sent an angel to both husband and wife announcing that they would indeed conceive a child.

Joachim and Anne’s meeting at the gate is one of the most striking works in the history of art. The realistic intensity of their embrace reflects their joy in God’s favor.

In Rome, the Nativity of the Virgin is the subject of a panel in Santa Maria in Trastevere, which could be aptly described as the swan song of mosaic. Executed around 1295 by Pietro Cavallini, the work is one of seven panels celebrating the life of the Virgin.

The Nativity, while still maintaining the medieval gold background, also emphasizes the real, natural and human aspect of the scene. St. Anne reclines on a couch while attending women offer her fruit and in the lower right, the nurse about to bathe the newborn Mary extends a hand to test the temperature of the water.

John Paul II remarked in the general audience that the Nativity of the Virgin was particularly cherished in popular piety. Between spotlighting Lourdes, visiting the holy house of Loreto, and sending the icon of Kazan to Russia, it seems that the Holy Father is inviting all people to rediscover their piety.

* * *

Not Just a Leisurely Pursuit

In early August, while many vacationers were adjusting their television screens to follow the Olympic games, the Vatican was setting up a sports department as another channel to spread Christian values, especially to young people. Now that the Olympics are over, where does this new Vatican department fix its gaze?

I recently interviewed Legionary of Christ Father Kevin Lixey, who is organizing this fledgling department.

Q: Why is the Holy See so interested in athletics so as to create this new commission?

Father Lixey: The Church takes an active interest in all human activity, including our recreation and free time. A quick look back in recent Church history bears this out.

Pope Pius XII had several teachings on the ideals of sports, and became known as the «Pope of sportsmen.» Blessed Pope John XXIII highlighted the social importance of sports as a peaceful encounter among nations. Pope Paul VI wrote much on sports and welcomed several professional athletes who visited the Pope in Rome.

But certainly, Pope John Paul II, a true sportsman himself, has taught and continues to teach us much about the intrinsic value of sports. In this sense, this new section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, «Church and Sport,» is a continuation of this tradition.

Q: But sports has been around for a long time. Why right now?

Father Lixey: Sports has always been an important element of culture, but has grown in global importance.

Increased leisure time has opened more opportunity for athletics, and the popularity of professional sports and their instant transmission to millions of spectators has made sports a bigger part of human life.

Contemporary sports stands at an important crossroads. Never before have professional sports been followed by so many people worldwide. Athletics promote many important virtues, but sports today, especially professional sports, are subject to vices as well, such as excessive commercialization, fan violence, and substance abuse by players.

More importantly, their growth and popularity provide an unprecedented opportunity. In this sense, athletics is one of the frontiers of the new evangelization.

Sporting events are family-friendly spectator events and promote not only unity but dialogue in the home setting. On a personal note, my sister noted that the Olympics were the one occasion when she could lift her family’s TV ban and watch something with the whole family.

Q: What has the Pope’s own athletic experience added to his role as a pastor? Did this influence the creation of this new section?

Father Lixey: Certainly his firsthand experience as a goal keeper in soccer, or swimming and kayaking, or trekking in the mountains offers him an insight to the world of sports that is shared by all athletes.

Often he has spoken of how outdoor sports place us in touch with God’s creation, as he mentioned this summer while vacationing in the mountains.

Understood in the proper way, he says, «sports is not an end, but a means; it can become a vehicle of civility and genuine recreation, encouraging people to put the best of themselves on the field and to avoid what might be dangerous or harmful to themselves or to others» [Jubilee of Sports address, Oct. 28, 2000].

Q: Where and how does the Church hope to influence the sports world?

Father Lixey: First of all, this new section will serve as a point of reference and dialogue with the various national and international sports associations and groups.

It also hopes to solicit a renewed sensitivity on the part of the local churches in this field, promoting a culture of sport in harmony with the true dignity of the human person.

How will it do this? Primarily through those centers of youth education and formation, i.e., schools, oratories, parish centers, lay movements and other Catholic associations.

We will also hold conferences and seminars that will explore particular problems and challenges regarding the world of sports, especially those of an ethical nature, offering the world a perspective that is consistent with the dignity of the human person.

Another area of interest are those initiatives that can serve to evangelize the world of sports, especially those which foster the witness of a authentic Christian life among professional athletes.

The Holy Father, in his numerous audiences with professional athletic teams, has often pointed out the great responsibility that these professional athletes have among young people who look up to them as role models, encouraging them to develop those human and spiritual qualities that will enable them to be positive examples for others.

Q: Several of the Olympic athletes made overt reference to their Christian faith during the recent games. Giovanni Pellielo, for example, winner of a silver medal in trap shooting, dedicated his medal to the Blessed Virgin since the event took place on the feast of the Assumption. Is there a connection between religion and sports?

Father Lixey: Many of the overt manifestations during the Olympic games were those of gratitude to God for victory.

Although prayer does not guarantee victory, it helps players put things in perspective and do all for God’s glory and not just their own. The virtue of gratitude, by which we recognize that all good things come from God, is both an act of humility as well as of praise and adoration.

Another connection is that the logic of sports is also the logic of life: Without sacrifice, important results are not obtained. The great feats of the athletes of this year’s Olympic games were achieved by years of intense training and sacrifice, day after day.

In a suggestive analogy during his homily of the Jubilee of Sports during the Great Jubilee of 2000, John Paul II portrayed Christ as «God’s true athlete,» «the more powerful man, who for our sake confronted and defeated the ‘opponent,’ Satan.» In that same homily at Rome’s Olympic stadium, the Holy Father encouraged each Christian to become «a strong athlete of Christ, that is a faithful and courageous witness to his Gospel.»

Q: And how about you, do you play a sport?

Father Lixey: I started playing basketball in fourth grade and still get in a game or two pretty often.

Like most American kids, I’ve been playing sports since grade school. I got a lot out of it and enjoyed it, but certainly didn’t see the connection between athletics and Christianity. This is a great opportunity for people to think about why they are playing sports.

It’s also nice for young people who were children when the Holy Father was elected and never saw him mountain climbing or skiing in the early years of his pontificate, to see that John Paul II is interested in sports.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation