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Call Me Catholic!

God runs in bare feet

by Michael McGirr

You can't call yourself a Catholic until you've wondered why the Vatican doesn't send a team to the Olympics. After all, it sends a team to everything else. It doesn't matter that the curial officials may be a little unfit. Look at the boost we all got from the efforts of Eric the Eel at the Sydney Games. He hardly managed to complete his heat in the 100m freestyle in the pool but everyone loved him because here at last, among the gods, was a mortal like us, a man who seemed better suited to backyard cricket than to the facing the quicks on Boxing Day at the MCG. We warmed to the man's innocence. Eric had never swum 100m until the games, so his performance attained the status of a PB, a personal best. It will remain that way. An administrative bungle means that we won't be seeing Eric swim in Athens. It's a pity. He helped us keep things in perspective.

Catholics would like to see the Vatican march in the Opening Ceremony with all the cardinals given disposable cameras to take photos for their family and friends back home. The Vatican could provide a valuable moral example around the Olympic Village, a place which always seems to require a staggering number of condoms, equipment which is no part of any sport which should be played professionally. It is to be hoped, however, that the monsignors know when to make allowances. Take the plight of the unfortunate women who participate in beach volley ball. They begin training when they are four years of age. That is when they are issued with their costumes which, at first, are quite respectable. The problem is that their training is so gruelling that over the next twenty years, as they grow, they have no opportunity to get to the shop to buy new gear. The result is that they have to compete in the stuff they were given when they were four which, by now, doesn't go as far as it used to. A bit like money. A bit like the pope. He doesn't go as far as he used to either.

You have to admire those countries which turn up to the Olympics time after time with no hope of winning anything other than the respect of their fellows and a few frequent flyer points. Sometimes they travel cheap so they don't even get those. When the Bolivian team entered the arena at Athens, it was announced that, together with Liechtenstein, no other country had come as often without winning so much as a bronze in ping pong. You'd hate to be the first Bolivian to have the misfortune of entering an event where the other competitors got the wrong time or the wrong address and failed to turn up, thereby securing a medal for Bolivia by forfeit. You'd never be forgiven for breaking such a perfect record.

Nobody expects archbishops or even cardinals to do very well at the Olympics. The Vatican has very little space for training and many of the officials come from the former anti-communist republic of Cassockstan where they were only allowed to play soccer in their cassocks. There was a moment of hope when John Paul II had a swimming pool installed in his quarters in the early days of his tenure, saying that it would be cheaper than another conclave. It was widely expected that he was going to appear at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and show the communists what Catholicism was made of. Instead, as the pope later conceded, communism found ways to defeat itself.

The Vatican has priorities other than sport and war. In this regard, it is different from most other states on earth. But still, we would like to see the Vatican participate, even if they went out in the first round of boxing, judo, water polo, synchronised diving or any other event in which you can compete in full length black. There would be a witness in coming last with a good grace. Coming last in the honours stakes is close to the heart of what Jesus taught. Jesus did not have a competitive bone in his body. But he loved to see other people's hearts minds and body move freely to the rhythm of grace. He did not worship the body, but he understood that the human spirit doesn't move very far from it.

St Paul made a famous appearance in Athens. It says in the Acts of the Apostles that 'his whole soul was revolted at the sight of a city given over to idolatry.' I don't know how much the place has changed. He talked with the philosophers in the Areopagus and told them that their 'unknown God' was known to them already, was part of their own experience. He pointed out that life and breath comes from God, that success is finding God, that 'it is in him we live and move.' Our most athletic performance means nothing alongside our attempts to feel our way towards God. If St Paul were in Athens today, he might observe that the people around him are inclined to worship the strongest, the fittest, the most supple, the most determined. He could point out that Christians respect the weakest, the most awkward, the least fit. Christians believe grace can work with the worst of the human spirit as well as the best. God does not need fancy gear. God runs in bare feet. Our feet. The ones that get us out of bed every day to take us God knows where.

Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1: The Catholic Fold
  • Issue 3: The Fridge Door
  • Issue 5: A Call to the Faithful
  • Issue 7: Liturgy of the Story
  • Issue 9: God goes swimming in Winter
  • Issue 11: God drives slow

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