“The Olympics are a favorable moment for encountering God,” says Msgr. Melchor Sánchez de Toca, the head of the Holy See Delegation in South Korea.
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT, the Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture discussed this during a wide-ranging conversation about these very unique Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, how athletes can live out their faith and Lent in this period, and more.
Here is our interview:
ZENIT: The International Olympic Committee invited formally, for the first time, a Delegation of the Holy See to take part in the opening of the Winter Olympic Games of PyeongChang, South Korea, this past February 9. What does this fact mean?
Msgr. Melchor Sánchez de Toca: The novelty consists in the fact that the IOC invited a Delegation to take part in the works of the Olympic Session and in the opening, not now in a personal capacity, as happened at the opening of the Rio Games, but rather in an official capacity, as observers. It’s a further step in a now long history of relations between the IOC and the PCC [Pontifical Council for Culture], which includes, among others, Cardinal Ravasi’s visit to the IOC headquarters and the IOC’s participation in the International Sport Conference at the Service of Humanity in October 2016. The fact that this time the presence has had an official character reinforces this relation of collaboration already existing and excellent. In the future, perhaps, some form of stable relationship could be thought out, through and official agreement between the Holy See and the IOC, but this goes beyond the competence of the PCC and depends on the Secretariat of State.
ZENIT: Can you tell us something about this Delegation, whose objective is to inspire friendship and solidarity in the world of sport? Who composes it? What has it done, concretely, in South Korea?
As observers, we are limited to being there and to observe, while taking part in all the life of the Olympic Family in the days prior to the opening. The Delegation was composed of the undersigned, in the capacity of Under-Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, with responsibility for sport, helped by Doctor Calvigioni, who was kindly put at the disposition of the Italian Olympic Committee as Assistant. The Works Agenda of the Olympic Session, which is the highest organ of government of the Olympic Movement, a sort of Olympic Parliament in Plenary Session, was very broad, and went from sanctions to Russia to the celebration of the forthcoming Youth Olympic Games, passing by the recommendation that seeks greater parity between men and women in sport.
ZENIT: You presented the President of the IOC and the athletes of North Korea the “Vatican Athletics ‘T’ Shirts.” How did that go?
The Vatican Delegation to the Games doesn’t have a competitive or sports character, but only the character of observer, as at the United Nations. The Vatican isn’t a country in the usual sense of the term, and doesn’t seek to compete with others on the sports or economic plane. It is the support of the full sovereignty and independence of the Pope in the exercise of his ministry, which is of a pastoral and moral nature, not political. This said, different sports realities exist because sport is important also for one who works in the Vatican. The oldest is soccer, and the most recent the Vatican Athletic Club. So we gave President Bach the Club’s T-shirt, as expression of the sport practiced in the Vatican.
ZENIT: Are there athletes competing for whom the dimension of faith is important in doing sport? Is there an athlete or an episode that comes to mind?
Athletes with profound faith have always existed, as in so many other realities of life. The environment of the Olympic Games — with the joy and exaltation of sport –, is also a favorable moment for encountering God, especially in moments prior to the competition, when the athlete has to measure himself with his limitations and his reality, and also in the moment of defeat. The Chaplains of the Olympic Village or of the National ones of some countries are witnesses of it.
Some athletes live their faith without complexes, and they are aware of their mission in the midst of their companions. In others, the faith is more hidden, or more intimate, but it’s translated also in religious gestures and signs. There are infinite stories, but perhaps there is a film that succeeds in explaining it better, Chariots of Fire, where the dialogue between sport and faith is constant. One of them says simply, “when I run, I feel that God smiles.” See in a small phrase all the theology of sport, which Saint Irenaeus recalls: “the living man is the glory of God. And man’s life is God.”
ZENIT: The Winter Olympics underway are hosted by South Korea. What is the significance of having an edition of the Olympics in the Korean Peninsula, with athletes of the two Koreas competing for the same team?
In the opening address of the Olympic Session, President Thomas Back stressed this fact, which is a small great success of Olympic diplomacy. He added: “sport can’t create peace. However, little symbols such as these can prepare the path for a lasting peace.” The athletes and sport did their part. Now it’s up to politicians to exploit this window.
ZENIT: But how is the faith, the religious dimension lived during daily life at the Olympics? Are there moments of prayer, celebration of Masses?
There is a religious area inside the Olympic Village, generally a multi-confessional area: there are rooms for prayer and meditation, which can be used to say Mass. Some teams bring their own chaplain. I know for sure of the presence of a priest in the Italian and also the Austrian national teams, in addition to that of South Korea. In the Korean team there are a good 15 Catholic athletes out of a total of some 120 athletes. The chaplains are always available to listen and receive in moments of discomfort and anguish of the athletes, and also to celebrate together with them their victories. A very important moment is the celebration of Holy Mass. The Evangelicals are very active also in organizing Bible reading and prayer meetings. In sum, there is much activity although little known.
ZENIT: For Catholics and Christians this is the Lenten Season, which began in fact in the course of the Olympics . . .
Indeed, Lent began on Wednesday the 14th, in the first week of competition. It’s true that in the case of an athlete one could think of certain dispensations or mitigations of the fast, if so required by the work out plan. Some, I see, observe the day of fast with much rigour, even at the expense of a better performance. Every Christian, then, lives his Lenten penitential journey in the place that Divine Providence has assigned to him. For the Christian athletes and trainers present at the Olympics, that is the environment where they must live the faith and the Lenten commitment, even if the external environment doesn’t help much. However, the same can be said of many of our countries. There was a time, perhaps, that the external environment helped to live Lent. Today it’s no longer so, and every Christian must commit himself personally, in the world where he usually lives.
ZENIT: At this point, what are the expectations for the next Olympics, after this experience of the Delegation headed by you in Korea?
We hope to be able to be there also, at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, even before that are the Youth Olympic Games at Buenos Aires in October 2018, and then at Lausanne, in February 2019.
We hope to see one another again in a few months with the Olympic Family that welcomed us with open arms.