Faith & Reason: We should look to Rome not Athens for corporeal truth

The Olympics are not where we best learn about the glories and limitations of the human condition

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The more grandiose and contrived a secular celebration, the more solemnity slips into comedy. The French Revolution set an example with a splendidly daft "Festival of Man". Designed to show that the Church was superfluous to ritual and public worship, it had the opposite result: much tittering, if not then from under the shadow of the guillotine, certainly later from historians.

The more grandiose and contrived a secular celebration, the more solemnity slips into comedy. The French Revolution set an example with a splendidly daft "Festival of Man". Designed to show that the Church was superfluous to ritual and public worship, it had the opposite result: much tittering, if not then from under the shadow of the guillotine, certainly later from historians.

After two centuries, due caution in devising such performances might be expected. Not so for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Athens, which were a flamboyant example of caution thrown to the winds. Such events in an Olympic stadium now apparently require the reverence given to ceremonies in Westminster Abbey. They duly received the hushed-tone treatment from BBC sports commentators usually reserved for our branch of the Hanoverian dynasty at times of crowning, mourning and marriage.

So it was that a preternaturally supple young woman appeared with - to represent a pregnant womb - a protuberance that lit up for all the world like a large mobile table-lamp. In this latest festival of Man, the uterine luminescence and other mythical wonders laboured as prime universal symbols. And no detectable belly laugh around the stadium on behalf of two billion television spectators.

Of course the setting in the Athens stadium was beautiful. Water and starry lights for the galaxies suggested a space version of odyssey evoking awe and reverence. The trouble is that to celebrate/worship Man - Athenian, revolutionary, athletic or simply in glorious diversity - you in the end have to focus on a real, live, individual person who contrives not to look universal but distinctly particular. Moreover, celebrating the individual, and humanity in general, through sport is already overlain with symbols of nationality, flags, anthems and medal counts, not to mention the occult contributions of the pharmaceutical industry.

It is, of course, usually the sick who take pills. So, there was something poignant as this vast festival of athletic prowess swamped television channels to flip over to footage of a frail, ailing Pope, bearing so visibly the depredations of Parkinson's disease in his body, praying at the Lourdes shrine on the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the midst of people whose bodies, like that of the 83-year-old pontiff, showed the limitations of the human condition. He also was making a spectacle of himself, though one that many people would have preferred not to look at, because it discomforted them. And the contrast with Athens was great. He had come to celebrate both the faithful acceptance of infirmity and a different kind of human excellence symbolised in the idea of human perfection embodied in the Catholic notion that the mother of Christ was, uniquely, ready to meet God immediately upon her death.

The juxtaposition of Pope and athletes on separate channels seemed to highlight a basic antithesis between Christianity and sport: the cult of physical beauty, of what were originally martial arts, an excellence that does not derive from goodness and virtue, a pagan heroism versus a Christian self-giving. And yet Christianity does not make this contrast. It sees no antithesis, but rather a positive "and-and" vision. John Paul II himself was a keen skier and a goal-keeper in his younger days and it was an evangelical Christian, Eric Liddell, who was famously portrayed in Chariots of Fire as saying: "When I run, I feel God's pleasure." Just before the Olympics, the Vatican announced that its Pontifical Council for the Laity was forming a Church and Sports unit. Even if this only spurs dioceses to provide better sports facilities for Catholic comprehensive schools, it will send the right message.

The real incompatibility between Christianity and the secular cult of sport lies rather in how people relate to the particular view of what it means to be human which is embodied in the Christian story about a Galilean Jew tortured to death alongside criminals.

The ceremonies opening the Olympics set up a great procession of Greek cultures and learning, the wonderful myths, Athenian philosophy and democracy, science, mathematics, poetry and drama. But they could find no carnival float to tell another story - of how St Paul, a Hellenised Jew, arrived in Athens and was met with appalled bafflement when he spoke of the Resurrection. It was as if Greek culture, for all its assumptions about the universality of its values, could not cope with the particularity of a Middle Eastern religion.

The Church, by contrast, has found the vehicle which can carry both. Reflecting on both the particular and the universal in the human story it offers a liturgical celebration that expresses and enacts it in a way which is incomparable. The Eucharist is a universal symbol, global, yet celebrated locally.

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