Led by Pope Francis, let us journey toward Christ together

Last Wednesday, St. John Vianney Theological Seminary’s refectory was electric with the energy of an announcement from Rome. I stood in the room with our seminarians, their professors and our staff as white smoke poured from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel. When the announcement of the name of the new Holy Father was made, none of us were sure who it was. The applause for Pope Francis, who emerged shyly onto the loggia above St. Peter’s square, was deafening.

I don’t know Pope Francis at all. I have never met him and so like our seminarians and like most of the Archdiocese of Denver, I wondered what to expect when he began his greeting.

I was struck by the humanity of Pope Francis. I was struck even more by his serenity, his humility, and by the simplicity of his words to the waiting world. The Church was beginning, he said: a “journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity. “

Pope Francis took his first opportunity as pope to ask that we love one another and pray for one another. He asked us to commit to journeying toward Christ as brothers and sisters in the Lord. This commitment is the hallmark of the Holy Father’s thought.

In 2003 Pope Francis wrote that the “drama of the world today is the result of not only the absence of God, but the absence of humankind.” We have lost, said Pope Francis, our sense of “human destiny and identity.”

Pope Francis states that the contemporary world has become a “supermarket culture—where offers are made to everyone to hush the clamoring in their hearts.” We’ve become consumers, lulled by media and comfort into the “torpor of life,” which stops asking about the universe and our place in it.  We’ve lost a sense of wonder at the world, he notes, and have lost the “capacity to explain the fundamental needs that dwell in the human heart.”

The need of the human heart, explains Pope Francis, is a relationship with Jesus Christ.  This relationship is our destiny. It is also the reason why Pope Francis encourages us to commit to loving one another as brothers and sisters. If we want a relationship with Christ, Pope Francis declares that “the only adequate method for reaching true knowledge is to live together a vivid companionship.” In the companionship of the Church—in our fraternity—“in the signs and witness of others,” we will come to know Jesus Christ in faith.

Pope Francis has said that we are pilgrims, journeying together toward Jesus Christ. Christ is our destiny and in the presence of the Church, he is our companion. Today we rejoice at the gift of Pope Francis, who has been called to lead the Church into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

In one of his first acts Pope Francis prayed for Pope Emeritus Benedict, then asked our prayers for him, and then he blessed us. Let us continue to keep him in our fervent prayers and heed his words—that we might love another and that in our love for one another we might discover the love that Jesus Christ has for each of us.

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.