TURIN, Italy — The Church in Turin had been planning for the Winter Olympics almost as long as the city itself. Cardinal Severino Poletto, in fact, was named archbishop of Turin in 1999 within hours of the city being awarded the 2006 Games, and one of his first thoughts was, “What role can the Church play for the athletes, the visitors and Turin’s Catholic populace?”
The end result was a variety of programs, special Masses and other services offered to both athletes and visitors to the games, in the city of Turin as well as the outlying areas in the dioceses of Susa and Pinerolo where alpine sports took place.
The archdiocese printed and distributed multi-lingual brochures showing the location of churches in Turin as well as those nearest to the athletes’ villages and sporting venues, and times for international Masses. Three churches — John the Baptist Cathedral, Most Holy Martyrs and Most Holy Trinity — were designated “Olympic Churches” and were open daily for Eucharistic adoration in a program called “Heart to Heart.”
Cardinal Poletto proudly noted that more than 3,000 young people turned up for Eucharistic adoration the first weekend of the games. He called the huge numbers of people at this appointment of faith “an unexpected success,” adding that he felt it was the presence of visitors in Turin that inspired the attendance numbers.
Even more popular were the 50,000 copies of the Gospel of Mark printed in seven languages and distributed to area hotels. Produced by the Italian bishops’ conference, the Waldensian Church and the Sacred Orthodox Archdiocese of Italy, the copies were snatched up in the first four days, according to Father Livio Demarie, director of communications for the Turin Diocese.
Father Federico Crivellati, assigned by the diocese’s Tourism and Sports Office to help the priests in the Olympic villages, explained that the statutes of the International Olympic Committee mandate that space be provided for worship in all Olympic villages. The Turin villages had two rooms, he said, with faiths sharing the space. In Sestriere, for example, Muslims and Buddhists shared one room and Christians the second room. Catholics used the facilities on a daily basis, he added, both for Mass and for private prayer.
Two special exhibits were set up for the Olympic period and beyond: One was a “virtual visit” to the famed Shroud of Turin and a second one dedicated to Turin’s own Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a model for young people and an inspiration for American skier Rebecca Dussault, who has put his name on her skis.
The Vatican was also present at the Olympics, not as a competitor but in the person of Legionary Father Kevin Lixey, a priest from Flint, Mich., who heads the Church and Sports department at the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Created in August 2004, this office aims to define the characteristics of a Christian vision of sport, look at ethical questions vis-à-vis sports and study how sports can be used to teach and foster virtues.
Calling the Turin Olympics a “home game” because they were held in Italy, Father Lixey said merely being present was a thrill. In a way, he said, it was like going to last year’s World Youth Day in Cologne — the many diverse people and languages, the camaraderie, the vibrant atmosphere, the universality of the human family.
Father Lixey met chaplains from many countries, some of whom head youth groups in their nations. He also met heads of state and sports ministers, many of whom, he said, were interested by the Church’s attention and delighted to learn the Vatican had an office dedicated to sports.
Most meaningful to him, Father Lixey said, were the Catholic athletes he met at Mass at some of the Olympic venues. He said it was impressive, for example, to see Dussault read at Mass the night before she was due to ski in an important event.
Other Catholic athletes from the United States included stars like Kimmie Meissner in figure skating, Derek Parra in speed skating, Carol Treacy, a biathlete and Jamie Hagerman in hockey.
Hagerman, 24, on leave from coaching duties at Harvard, skated for the U.S. women’s hockey team that won the bronze medal. She was accompanied by 12 family members, as passionate about their faith as they were about the U.S. team. In fact, they were in Rome the first week of the Olympic Games at a papal audience, seeking a blessing and praying for a positive outcome.
In between matches, Jamie spoke of her faith. “I am where I am today because of my faith. Everything happens for a reason and so — win or lose — I try to keep everything in perspective,” she said. “We are here on earth for such a short time,” she said, “that everything we do is really a blip on the screen compared to eternity — and that is the only really important thing in life.”
Dussault skied the anchor leg as the U.S. women placed 14th in the 5-kilometer cross-country relay race Feb. 18, and she placed 43rd and 48th in two individual events, the 30-kilometer mass start race and the 15-kilometer pursuit. She was in Turin with her husband, Sharbel, and 4-year-old son, Tabor, who proudly stated over dinner one night: “I am named for a mountain in Israel.”
Rebecca and Sharbel, childhood sweethearts, married at 19, and following the birth of Tabor, she resumed skiing.
“One must live one’s priorities,” she said during the Games. “Ours are God, family and then sports. We live our faith everywhere. We have been told countless times that our witness as a family living our faith on the ski circuit is beautiful and inspiring. For us, faith is freedom. Our motto is: ‘Anything for the Kingdom.’”
Joan Lewis filed this report
from Turin, Italy.