Olympic Chaplain: a Friendly Presence Among Competitive Athletes

Italian Priest Sees Worldwide Sporting Event as Fertile Ground for Evangelization

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ROME, JULY 26, 2012 (Zenit.org).- For athletes gathering in London this week, a priest is not a good luck charm but a friendly presence. And the world of sport is fertile ground for evangelization, because it is a metaphor of existence itself. 

ZENIT spoke by telephone to the chaplain of the Italian soccer team, Azzuri, Father Mario Lusek, now in London awaiting the opening of the Olympics.

ZENIT: How did this choice to send a chaplain to the Olympic Games come about?

Father Lusek: The choice of the Italian Olympic Committee to have a chaplain goes back to the Olympics of Seoul, hence a long time ago, and Italy was the first to permit this dynamic, a decision of President Giovanni Petrucci. It is a significant presence, from the point of view of companionship or closeness, of the Church’s attention to the world of athletes. My predecessor, Father Carlo, went to five Olympics, this is my third time, including the Winter Games.

ZENIT: What is the chaplain’s task?

Father Lusek: Although inside the Olympic village there is a multi-religious center for Christian confessions and most widespread religions, the role of the Italian chaplain is original because it is in a structure with the athletes; hence it demonstrates the friendly closeness between the world of the Church and the world of sport.

ZENIT: How is one selected as chaplain of the Olympics?

Father Lusek: My function as chaplain stems from the fact that I am director of the office of free time, tourism and sport ministry; hence, there is an institutional relationship between the Church in Italy and the sports world as such. Through associations of Christian inspiration, we also promote a widespread presence in the Church, in parishes, oratories and group centers, where there is a historic presence.

ZENIT: Have you celebrated a Mass yet?

Father Lusek: With our delegation we celebrated Mass last Sunday in the church of the Italians in London, in the presence of the apostolic nuncio Antonio Mennini; it was a very significant experience from the religious point of view. Cardinal Bagnasco sent a particular message, and on the 30th there will be a celebration in Westminster Abbey for all the Catholic components.

ZENIT: Do other nations have their own chaplain?

Father Lusek: After the Italian team’s experience, some nations organized themselves as well, for example, Poland, Austria, Germany and England as well, given that it is an event being played “at home.”

ZENIT: How does an athlete live his relationship with God when he must give his best in a sports competition?

Father Lusek: We live a particular experience because there are thousands of athletes. In the Italian contingent we are more than 300 persons, with an education and experience that is surely different. In the approach to the faith, sport is fertile ground, because it is a metaphor of existence. Sporting activity and spiritual activity can coincide as an existential perspective. On the other hand, sport predisposes to effort, commitment to responsibility and this is, for an activity of a spiritual nature, very important. It promotes the unity of the person.

ZENIT: Therefore you work within the Olympic Village.

Father Lusek: I regard the Olympic Village as a parish or oratory, where no one is indifferent to the figure of the priest, a figure much appreciated and shared but where the multiplicity of the situations leads to different relationships. Hence one finds persons who ask to participate in Holy Mass, others instead stay on the level of informal human relationships of dialogue and confrontation where there is no hostility or risk because of the presence of the priest. And this is already an important factor that makes us close, and demonstrates that the Church is close to this phenomenon, she is not hostile and wishes to support it.

ZENIT: Have there been any examples of conversions?

Father Lusek: There are different interior anxieties which manifest themselves with questions and searches. Sudden conversions definitely not, but searching, dialogue and confrontation certainly yes, and in the most incredible moments and places. On the other hand, it’s not the Church that holds the Olympics: we are guests and we support this experience with an attitude of availability and care. We put the person at the center and we dialogue with the person in depth, also respecting the difficult situations that some might be experiencing.

ZENIT: What is the profile of an athlete?

Father Lusek: First of all, let’s not forget that the majority of the athletes are young and they live their experience with all the typical tensions of youth. So we have anxious youths who have the eyes of the whole world fixed on them and from whom all expect the best. And for a youth this also produces tension, anxiety and worry. And when success comes he is freed from this anxiety. And when fatigue increases some discomfort is manifested.

ZENIT: In the world of sport, however, is it clear to youth that the religious factor is not a good luck charm?

Father Lusek: In the world of sport, the concept of luck is strongly present, but we try to avoid this dimension through a human closeness which, in fact, makes them perceive why we are beside them, that the priest is not a good luck charm but a friendly presence who encourages and who lives the same experience as the men and women of the Village.

ZENIT: Does this mean that the chaplain in some way lives this sporting experience?

Father Lusek: Yes, he is enthusiastic, passionate, shares the joy of the victories and is also disappointed when there is a defeat suffered. What is important is to understand that the defeat is a way of beginning again, and that the defeated one is not a loser.

ZENIT: And the fact that some make the Sign of the Cross before beginning?

Father Lusek: In general, they don’t do it for good luck but as a testimony of their faith, and this becomes a public witness. So it is acceptable.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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