The covenant of marriage

My son Stephen and I spent an unusual, albeit unusually moving, Independence Day: we attended the golden wedding anniversary celebration of my friends Piotr and Teresa Malecki, which began with a Mass of thanksgiving in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of Cracow’s Wawel Cathedral—the place where Piotr and Teresa had exchanged vows on July 4, 1964, kneeling before their old kayaking and hiking friend, the archbishop of Cracow (who, as Pope St. John Paul II, was canonized some two months before the Maleckis’ jubilee.)

Piotr Malecki, Karol Wojtyla’s altar boy at St. Florian’s parish and the self-described “enfant terrible” of that network of Wojtyla’s friends known as Srodowisko, is a distinguished physicist. Teresa Malecka, who had to convince Wojtyla (whom she and others called Wujek, “Uncle”), that she was ready for marriage at age 20, is an accomplished musicologist and the former vice-dean of the Cracow Academy of Music. Outside the cathedral, the jubilarians were greeted by other Srodowisko veterans: Danuta Ciesielska, widow of Wojtyla’s closest lay friend and kayaking instructor, the Servant of God Jerzy Ciesielski, whose beatification cause is underway; Danuta Rybicka, who, as a plucky undergraduate in Stalinist Poland challenged the communists who were trying to expel the nuns from the convent-dormitory where she and others boarded. All of them shared a remarkable experience in their youth: as they were being formed into mature Christian adults by Wojtyla, they helped form an intellectually, athletically and mystically gifted young clergyman into one of the most dynamic priests of his generation, a pioneer in the pastoral strategy he called “accompaniment.”

As I said to Stephen afterwards, as we watched Wojtyla’s kids, no longer kids, shake hands, embrace, and offer flowers to Piotr and Teresa, “This is the beginning of World Youth Day, right here.” I could just as easily have added Love and Responsibility; the Theology of the Body; the1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio; the 1988 apostolic letter on women, Mulieris Dignitatem; and the 1995 Letter to Families. For as I noted in a toast at the anniversary dinner the Maleckis’ sons had arranged, the network of now-not-so-young friends that had gathered around Karol Wojtyla—men and women who resolutely refuse to think of themselves as something special—had in fact helped bend the history of the Church, and the world, in a more humane direction.

One other facet of this happy celebration struck me with particular force. As on their wedding day when Piotr and Teresa first exchanged vows, now, on their golden jubilee, the priest celebrating the thanksgiving Mass wound the end of a stole around their joined hands, its other end remaining around his neck, as the couple renewed their pledge of love and fidelity. It’s a marvelous Polish custom, perhaps familiar in other cultures. And it says something very important about marriage, which is under assault throughout the world by the forces of moral confusion, misconstrued “tolerance,” and societal deconstruction.

What that gesture says is that, in the biblical and Christian view, the couple “getting married” are engaging in a priestly act, an act of right worship: they are sealing, not a mere contract, but a covenant in which two become one. And from that unity, from that new family, springs the gift of new life. The Church’s official witness to this covenant-making, the ordained priest, exercises his unique form of priesthood by offering the Church’s recognition of, and blessing on, what the couple, in their exercise of the priesthood of the baptized, have covenanted together. That stole, touching both priest and couple, embodies the classic Catholic teaching that the couple who bind themselves for life are the ministers of the Sacrament of Matrimony.

When marriage is reduced to a contract for mutual economic advantage among any configuration of consenting adults, something essential in what Christians understand to be “marriage” is lost: something “deep-down-diving,” to borrow from the playwright Ibsen. And that, I suspect, is why state marriage licenses that no longer specify “Bride” and “Groom” but rather “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2” seem somehow bizarre. And sad.

And dangerous.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.