A pope of historic vision

John Paul II arrived in Warsaw on June 2, 1979; there and then, he ignited the revolution of conscience that would give birth to the Solidarity movement, the Revolution of 1989—and the end of European communism.  Distinguished secular historians of the Cold War now argue that John Paul’s first pilgrimage to Poland, from June 2 to June 10, 1979, was one of the pivots of twentieth century history.

What seems obvious now, however, wasn’t quite-so-clear at the time. On the fourth day of the June 1979 papal pilgrimage, for example, the New York Times concluded its editorial, “The Polish Pope in Poland,” in these striking—and, as things turned out, strikingly myopic—terms: “As much as the visit of John Paul II must reinvigorate and inspire the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, it does not threaten the political order of the [Polish] nation or of Eastern Europe.”

On the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the United Nations and his first pastoral visit to the United States, let’s consider the possibility that his “June 1979″ has already happened and that, just as in the real June 1979, most observers missed it. And by Benedict XVI’s “June 1979 moment,” I mean the most controversial event of his pontificate, his September 12, 2006, Regensburg Lecture on faith and reason. Widely criticized as a papal “gaffe” because Benedict cited a robust exchange between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian Islamic scholar, the Regensburg Lecture now looks a lot like June 1979: a moment in which a pope, cutting to the heart of a complex set of issues with global impact, re-arranged the chessboard in a dramatic fashion, with historic consequences.

In June 1979, a pope challenged the orthodoxies of what the Times called “the political order” in Poland and throughout the old Warsaw Pact; in September 2006, a pope challenged the shopworn conventions of interreligious dialogue. In June 1979, a pope set in motion a revolution of moral conviction that eventually replaced “the political order” in east central Europe with something far more humane; in September 2006, a pope may have set in motion a process of intellectual and spiritual awakening that could help resolve the centuries-old question of whether Islam and pluralism can co-exist, and in such a way as to safeguard the religious freedom of all.

Consider what has happened since Regensburg. The pope has been the addressee of two statements from Islamic leaders throughout the world, respectfully requesting a new dialogue with the Holy See. Responding, Benedict XVI has politely but firmly insisted that any such dialogue must focus on the two issues at the heart of the chafing within Islam, and between radical Islam and the rest of the world: religious freedom (understood as a basic human right that can be known by reason) and the separation of spiritual and political authority in the 21st century state.

Those issues are precisely what the new dialogue will address, in several venues. One is a new Catholic-Muslim forum that will meet biennially, once a year in Rome and once in Amman, Jordan. Another may be the new interfaith dialogue among the monotheistic religions that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia—who has considerable leverage in the world of Sunni Islam—has recently proposed.

Benedict XVI has also urged reciprocity in relations between faiths. Thus the Pope’s Easter Vigil baptism of the Italian journalist Magdi Allam, who was raised in Egypt as a Muslim, was not an act of aggression, as some Muslims quickly charged, but a public defense of religious freedom—as was John Paul II’s welcome to a newly-built mosque in Rome. Some, it seems, have begun to get the message about reciprocity: it is no accident that negotiations between the Holy See and Saudi Arabia on building the first Catholic Church in the kingdom happened after Regensburg—and quite likely because of the dynamics Regensburg set in motion.

Benedict XVI thinks in centuries. His courageous exercise in truth-telling at Regensburg has already begun to reshape the debate within Islam and the dialogue between Islam and “the rest.” That is no mean accomplishment.

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.