They’re confessors, not ‘culture-warriors’

Like Shelby Foote’s three-volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, Francis Parkman’s seven-volume colossus, France and England in North America, is worth reading and re-reading for its literary elegance as well as its historical insight. Parkman, like Foote, wrote history from a point of view: in Parkman’s case, the Whiggish conviction that, when Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, North America was won for liberty against popish authoritarianism. Yet, again like Foote, the elegiac southerner who recognized Lincoln’s greatness, Parkman was bigger than his point-of-view and could thus celebrate the heroism of the 17th-century Jesuits martyred in the raw wilderness of the New World.

Re-reading the last volume of Parkman’s massive work, I was struck, however, not by the Bostonian’s occasional historiographic dyspepsia, but by his keen insight into the future. Here, in the late-19th century, was a man who had spent decades chronicling the pre-history of the United States. Yet at the very end of it all, he turned his mind to the challenges ahead of his country, and did so in ways worth pondering today. The prose is a bit old-fashioned, but the message is spot-on contemporary in this election season:

“The disunited colonies became the United States. The string of discordant communities along the Atlantic coast has grown into a mighty people, joined in a union which the earthquake of civil war only served to compact and consolidate… [Americans] have become a nation that may defy every foe but that most dangerous of foes, herself, destined to a majestic future if she will shun the excess and perversion of the principles that made her great, prate less about the enemies of the past and strive more against the enemies of the future, resist the mob and the demagogue as she resisted Parliament and King, rally her powers from the race for gold and the delirium of prosperity to make firm the foundations on which that prosperity rests, and turn some fair proportion of her vast mental forces to other objects than material progress and the game of party politics. She has tamed the savage continent, peopled the solitude, gathered wealth untold, waxed potent, imposing, redoubtable; and now it remains for her to prove, if she can, that the rule of the masses is consistent with the highest growth of the individual; that democracy can give the world a civilization as mature and pregnant, ideas as energetic and vitalizing, and types of manhood as lofty and strong, as any of the systems which it boasts to supplant.”

For some years now, courageous Catholic bishops in these United States have been issuing a similar challenge: to avoid a “perversion of the principles” on which American democracy rests – a deterioration that reduces freedom to willfulness; to “resist the mob and the demagogue,” when the people fall for the blandishments of the sound bite and embrace candidates unworthy of public office; to see in the American democratic experiment “something more than the race for gold;” and to live the truths of Catholic social doctrine in order to “make firm the foundations on which…prosperity rests.”

In doing all this, these bishops have followed the lead of the Second Vatican Council by calling their people to live freedom nobly, not as self-indulgence but as a method of responsibility. Theirs has been a genuinely public service, for in challenging U.S. Catholics to give our country a new birth of freedom rightly understood, these bishops have called the entire country to reclaim the “principles that made her great,” including those principles that the social doctrine calls “the dignity of the human person,” “the common good,” “subsidiarity” and “solidarity.”

For their pains, these bishops are now derided in some quarters as “culture-warriors.” It’s a title that St. Augustine, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. John Paul II (in his days as archbishop of Cracow) would have regarded as an apt description of their responsibilities when faced with cultural aggressions of various sorts. But the real term for the American bishops who have issued a challenge similar to Francis Parkman’s is another that could be applied to Augustine, Borromeo, and Wojtyla: “confessor” – a synonym for defenders of the faith.

For the faith includes the truth about the human person and human communities, which nations ignore at their peril.

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.