SALT LAKE CITY — He could be called the bishop of the Salt Lake City Olympics. Bishop George Niederauer, a priest from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was named bishop of Salt Lake City in January of 1995, just five months before the city was chosen for the 2002 Winter Olympics. National Catholic Register correspondent Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber spoke with the bishop in his office during the second week of the Olympics.
Have these turned out to be the “Mormon Games” as some predicted?
Bishop Niederauer: I must say that the LDS — Mormon Church — have really not turned this into one long sound bite for their church.
But the fact that two-thirds of the people in Utah belong to the Mormon religion — it's their faith and practice — that has had a strong influence on the local culture and on the preparation and spirit of the city for the games.
But I recall attending my first Olympics in 1960 in Rome when the athletes all gathered in St. Peter's Square and were blessed by the Pope John XXIII — nobody called it the Catholic Olympics. It was just the Summer Olympics in Rome.
We have had a good spirit here and the Catholic Church has been very present throughout the city at the Games.
How has the Church been involved in the Winter Games?
Many of the winter sports are played in traditionally Catholic countries. So, by some estimates between 25 and 30% of the athletes that have come here are Catholics; then add their families, coaches, staff, etc. We have not been involved in the financial and technical side of the games, but as the local Catholic Church we have been able to offer a welcome to the Roman Catholics among our guests.
We have tried to be a welcoming presence to them at the hospitality centers we set up at parishes near the Olympic venues. Many of our Catholic families hosted athletes' families and legions of Catholics served as volunteers throughout the city. The Catholic Communications Campaign also gave us a grant that we were able to use to help fund our hospitality centers and increase our Olympic coverage in the diocesan paper. Ash Wednesday also fell during the first week and we were well prepared for that as well.
What have you learned in Salt Lake about the connection between religion and athletics?
Winning and losing at the Olympic level is a highly emotional matter. It's not “ho hum.” So the athletes may need the presence of a chaplain with them more than ever. The German, Swiss, Austrian and Italian teams all bring their own chaplains with them, as a matter of fact.
As Catholics we try to follow Paul's words and, “Do all in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And that includes sports.
I met Timothy Goebel who came to Mass at our cathedral the Sunday after winning his medal in figure skating and I was deeply impressed by him and his family. You could tell he was not the kind of person to sacrifice anyone or anything in order to win, and so he probably is not going to be like that in the rest of his life.
Parents tell me about their children and say, “Basketball is his life,” or “Skiing is her life” but at a deeper level as Catholics we say, “Christ is my life,” and so the athletes and every Catholic need to be integrating that relationship into their activities — sports or otherwise.
What are your thoughts about the business of the Olympics and the ethical problems at the start of the Sale Lake Games?
I think it has been a needed challenge to the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee to come up with a better way to do their business. The problems existed long before Salt Lake. But the good that can come out of this is that there will be more effective regulation of the bid process. It did not ruin the Olympics; we have had a beautiful Olympics. The hope is that we can turn something negative into a positive for other places.
What has it been like to be a Catholic bishop for seven years in this overwhelmingly Mormon city and state?
We are a missionary diocese, even though an old diocese, set up in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. The 2000 census showed that Catholics comprise between 9 and 10% of the population of the state. The Hispanic population has increased from 84,000 to 201,000 so that means that we have grown as a Catholic Church.
In certain parts of the state there is more support with Catholic elementary and high schools and large parishes to support the faith. But in the small towns there is a great challenge to the Catholics who may be very few in number. They face lack of respect and lack of social acceptance because they are different from the Mormons.
Our vocations are heading in the right direction. We had seven seminarians last year. This year we have 12. At one of our Salt Lake City parishes there have 155 people in the RCIA program in just the past 2 years. So we are growing and diversifying. Mass is said in Korean, Tagalog, more than 30 Masses in Spanish each month. We have a Vietnamese parish as well. It's a challenging and wonderful place to be a Catholic bishop.