Racing to Peace; 7 Visits to Christ

Jerusalem Marathon Gives Taste of Unity

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, APRIL 23, 2009 ( Jerusalem has today been the focus of two poignant sporting events as hundreds of athletes gathered in the city to run for peace in the Holy Land, and follow in the footsteps of St. Paul as part of a month-long marathon torch relay.

The John Paul II Peace Marathon, a 10-mile run from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, was the first event to kick off. Several hundred runners took part in the race earlier today including Israelis, Palestinians and people of other nationalities, mostly Italians.

The second event, called “Running in the Footsteps of St. Paul,» which lasts till May 27, is a much more ambitious endeavor — a 1,200 kilometer (745 mile) torch relay including cycling, swimming and sailing through 26 towns and cities visited by St. Paul. Starting with the peace marathon in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the participants are now moving on to Greece, Malta and Italy, before ending up in Rome and Vatican City.

Both are being endorsed and co-organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity. The head of the council’s section for «Church and Sport,» Legionary of Christ Father Kevin Lixey, is helping coordinate both events with a number of other organizations, including the newly founded John Paul II Foundation for Sport.

“When our office was established [in 2006], its aim was to promote sport to foster peace,” said Father Lixey, who comes from Flint, Michigan. “So the peace marathon fits in very well with our program — I got to run in it last year and ran in good time,” he added with a laugh.

The John Paul II Peace Marathon is now in its sixth year. The idea originated during the period of the second Intifada, when conflict brought the number of overseas pilgrims to Israel to its lowest level. The Diocese of Rome, then under the leadership of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, wanted to do something to show pilgrims it was still safe to visit the Holy Land, and so, with the collaboration of the local authorities and other organizations — and 300 runners — the marathon came into being.

So what have been the visible fruits since it started? “It’s hard to say,” said Father Lixey. “I think it’s great for the Italians and other nationalities that go, as they have a fun experience in the Holy Land; it’s a way to attract sports people to go somewhere they might not otherwise visit.»

But particularly important, he added, is that the participants are able to witness the suffering of those living in the conflict-ravaged region. “We normally stay with Palestinians in Bethlehem rather than a four-star hotel in Jerusalem, and last year we stayed in Jericho,” Father Lixey explained. “That way you kind of get more of a feel for what they’re going through.” He stressed that the run is, of course, not a panacea to the problems, but helps foster peace in its own small way.

Unfortunately, no one can win the marathon as all runners must stay in a pack, but they each receive a medal. The Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint is also opened especially for the runners — something much appreciated by Palestinian participants who can visit Jerusalem without the usual hassles from the Israeli authorities.  

This year’s event has been extra special, not only because of the St. Paul torch relay, but also because of Pope Benedict XVI’s Holy Land pilgrimage soon to come (May 8-15). Many participants are therefore scheduling the marathon to coincide with the papal visit.

To accompany the athletes on the torch relay, Father Lixey has co-written a book with Edio Costantini, director of the Centro Sportivo Italiano (his counterpart in the Italian Church), which includes many different sports analogies used by St. Paul in the Bible.

A theme running through the book is that sport can be a school of virtue, and events such as this can be hugely beneficial to one’s faith – a sentiment well expressed by Pius XII in 1945:

“Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor,” the Pontiff wrote. “It refines the senses, gives intellectual penetration, and steels the will to endurance. It is not merely a physical development then. Sport, rightly understood, is an occupation of the whole man, and while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth and helps man to achieve that end to which all others must be subservient, the service and praise of his Creator.”

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Stopping In

A beautiful and ancient Roman tradition that I would thoroughly recommend to any pilgrim visiting Rome next Easter is visiting seven altars of repose on Holy Thursday — a tradition that goes back to early Christianity.

You may practice a similar custom in your own city, but the tradition originated in Rome when the faithful used to visit the seven pilgrim churches as a form of penance. The pilgrim churches are the four patriarchal basilicas (St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major), plus the city’s minor basilicas (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, the Holy Cross in Jerusalem and the Shrine of the Madonna of Divine Love).
Most Romans, however, visit seven churches that are usually in close proximity, and that’s what I did this year, together with a group of friends and visitors (a nice coincidence was that we were 12 in total, of differing nationalities). We began with Mass in the evening at the Holy Cross in Jerusalem Basilica — a perfect place to start as the basilica houses an extraordinary collection of relics, most connected with the Passion. They include three fragments of the true cross, a nail used in the Crucifixion, two thorns from the crown of thorns, and small pieces of the scourging pillar. Also on show is a full-sized replica of the Shroud of Turin.

We then joined throngs of Romans and tourists of all ages and backgrounds who were breezing in and out of churches and spending time praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Every church had a chapel turned into beautifully adorned altars of repose for the evening, and all are open until midnight.

John Toohey, a student of canon law at the Angelicum Pontifical University, has taken part in the tradition almost every year for the past few years and once visited 16 churches in one evening. “Every year, I’m amazed by the beauty,” he said. “I always look forward to it and visit as many altars of repose as possible.”

Our pilgrimage that night was organized by John and Ashley Noronha, students at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum university and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. For John, the opportunity to participate in a tradition that goes back to the early Church and to visit these historic churches is a great attraction. “What I find most appropriate is being able to see all these relics associated with the Passion,” he said. Both he and his wife expressed that they also particularly value the fellowship and the rich cultural differences that each pilgrim brings to the evening.

Because some in our group had to leave early, we decided to visit altars in churches closer than the traditional seven, and one of the last we visited was the Basilica of St. Praxedes — a dark, yet beautifully atmospheric church close to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Like many Roman churches it has a significant relic — this one being a large remnant of the base of the scourging pillar. A fitting end to a grace-filled tradition — and yet another priceless treasure of the Eternal City.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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