Seeking Eternal Gold: Rio’s Catholics Mobilize for Olympic Games

Already revitalized by World Youth Day 2013, the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro is drawing on its experiences from that event to assist with bearing witness to Christ at this month’s Olympics.

Father Leando Lenin is the leading presence of the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro’s St. Sebastian interreligious center in the Olympic Village.
Father Leando Lenin is the leading presence of the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro’s St. Sebastian interreligious center in the Olympic Village. (photo: Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Born and raised in Rio’s Recreio dos Bandeirantes neighborhood, Father Leandro Lenin had never experienced World Youth Day before Pope Francis graced the shores of Copacabana Beach in July 2013. An avid sports fan, he had never worked in a city hosting the Olympic Games either.

Now, after five years teaching at Rio’s Queen of the Apostles Propaedeutic Seminary, Father Lenin is the leading presence of the archdiocese’s St. Sebastian interreligious center in the Olympic Village. As the director of the center, the priest is in charge of coordinating faith outreach for more than 17,000 Olympians and Paralympians lodging in the 31-building, 3,600-room Olympic Village in the city’s Barra da Tijuca neighborhood. While Father Lenin and four other multilingual priests from the archdiocese will be ministering to Catholic athletes, the center, which operates from 7am to 10pm through the closing ceremonies on Aug. 21, also serves athletes of Protestant, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish faiths.

Father Lenin, just 33, called the opportunity to lead the operation a “dream come true.”

“It’s a very humbling opportunity, to be called to something like this,” he said in his native Portuguese. “But it’s important to realize my role as a pastor and not be too much of a fan.”

When the 2016 Olympic Games begin in Rio on Aug. 5, most of the 500,000 expected visitors to the city and 300,000 local fans won’t be camped on Copacabana Beach in front of a massive stage and a dozen jumbotrons beach-wide, hoping to catch a glance of Pope Francis, as they were three years ago.

But Father Lenin and other archdiocesan priests discussed with the Register the Church’s role in the world’s largest sporting event this year — and the legacy of the Holy Father’s 2013 visit, which guides the archdiocese and some of its most prominent parishes more than three years later.

The young priest, who still coordinates the archdiocese’s seminary outreach program, says vocations to the priesthood have increased by more than 75% percent since Pope Francis’ pilgrimage. While the archdiocese saw an average of 20 entrants in the seminary from 2010 to 2013, about 35 men have entered the seminary each year since then, he said.

“Younger people in the archdiocese are stronger and more united in their faith,” Father Lenin said. “We’re very thankful for the example of Pope Francis and believe WYD had a huge impact on these men’s decisions to enter the seminary.”

Also similar to World Youth Day, dozens of families of the roughly 500,000 registered parishioners across the archdiocese’s nearly 280 churches will open their doors to Catholic visitors and volunteers looking for a place to stay. Meu Lugar no Rio (My Place in Rio) connects visitors with local families for cost-free lodging during the games. The program, jointly sponsored by the Olympic organizing committee and the Rio Archdiocese’s organizations, offers preference to those travelers who previously stayed for WYD 2013, Father Lenin said.

“We wanted that happiness of accommodating the pilgrim out of generosity to be replicated this year,” he said. “Thank God, many people have again opened their doors to help with the rising number of volunteers.”

Beyond the Olympic Village’s interreligious center, most churches in Rio won’t be adding extra Masses for the Olympics. And while the games aren’t a specifically religious event, interviewed clergy said they still hope to welcome large numbers of tourists this month.

“We’re here to encourage and welcome people who want to come here,” said Father Silmar Fernandes, pastor of Rio’s Old Cathedral-Our Lady of Mount Carmel of the Ancient See.

Speaking to reporters on June 26, Archbishop Cardinal Orani João Tempesta also spoke of the financial importance of this month’s games in improving Rio’s struggling economy.

“Along with the economic and infrastructural legacies that we hope to convert into benefits for our suffering society, there are perennial values linked to the Olympics that can and should be cultivated because they contribute to the betterment of our people,” Cardinal Tempesta said.


Praying for Peace

While Rio has gained international attention this year for high levels of water pollution, a growing crime rate and the outbreak of the Zika virus in the months leading up to the games, clergy said their Olympic prayers will focus on Rio’s poorest residents and the city’s safety.

Rio de Janeiro’s Police Pacifying Unit (UPP) has tightened security in nearly 300 favelas (slums) since the state initiated the program in 2008 to combat drug trafficking. But rebel forces of sophisticated drug-dealing organizations, like Comando Vermelho, Amigos dos Amigos and Terceiro Comando Puro, have contributed to increased violence in the most populous favelasRocinhaMaré and Complexo do Alemão, as the city prepares for the Olympics. Homicides across the state rose from 272 in June 2015 to 386 this past month, according to statistics from the state of Rio de Janeiro, which tracks policing and security.

“The problem with Rio is the lack of security for its residents,” Father Fernandes said. “There are a lot of very cruel and very sad stories here.”

“The population of Rio deserves a continuation of all of the Olympic efforts and its legacies,” Father Lenin added, “especially with security and public health.”

Father Fernandes believes terrorist attacks are a bigger threat to Olympic-goers and visitors than the much-publicized Zika virus. Beyond Rio’s daily violence, Father Fernandes said his congregation, near the city’s bustling downtown tourist area, prays that large-scale terrorist attacks, like those in Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando, Istanbul, and Nice, aren’t replicated at the Olympics this month.

“We’re praying that everything happens in peace and within the spirit of fraternity,” he said.


God’s Role in Sports

For the second time in three years, the archdiocese will also be holding its 100 Dias de Paz (100 Days of Peace) program, a social campaign sponsored by the archdiocese’s sports-ministry department with a goal to bring an end to violence through sports.

Father Marcus Vinicius is the archdiocese’s pastor of sports ministries, appointed by Cardinal Tempesta in 2012. An ardent soccer fan, Father Vinicius organizes events within the archdiocese’s parishes, promoting peace and sportsmanship among diocesan youth and families.

“Sports for us, as Christians, is a way to help us grow in our faith and come to understand one another,” Father Vinicius said in Portuguese. “Christians also understand that body and soul should be well-balanced, and sports help address both of those elements.”

The archdiocese’s sports outreach slogan is a tweet posted by Pope Francis during World Youth Day 2013: “May sports always be a means of exchange and growth, never of violence and hate.”

Father Vinicius’ group is also one of several archdiocesan sports ministries participating in Tregua Olimpica (Olympic Truce) — an Olympic social campaign with a goal of incorporating peace and understanding into the Olympic Games.

The campaign, according to its Rio project director, Ricardo Pantoja, will take place in Rio and other major Brazilian cities, São Paulo, Brasilia, Fortaleza, Belo Horizonte and Salvador. Tregua Olimpica will include an estimated 500,000 participants from around the world and consist of nearly 75 events, ranging from sporting competitions to organized peace dialogues and prayer.

Endorsed by Brazil’s government and the United Nations, the campaign is also designed to support the social theme for the 2016 Olympics, "Together We Can Change the World.”

“Sports contribute to a person’s improvement and self-discipline,” Cardinal Tempesta said last month. “The various disciplines of athletes shapes their character and actions, especially in young people. Sports is a type of school in itself, where teachings also apply to different areas of life.”


Seeking Eternal Gold

The archdiocese’s newest program, Novos Atos (New Acts), encourages Rio Catholics to evangelize, from the city’s favelas to its Olympic arenas. Operated by the archdiocese’s Charismatic Catholicism movement, about 200 youth participants will participate in the three-week long initiative, Father Lenin said. Its first event during the games will kick off on Aug. 14, with a visit from Cardinal Tempesta to the Olympic Village.

A July 27 post on the group’s Facebook page cites a phrase from 1 John 4:4: “The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

“We’re the best expression in these Olympics, not because we’re the best people, but because we carry the treasure that is Jesus Christ,” the post proclaims. “He is the only overcomer, the strongest presence and the best reception that anyone could have.”

Inside Rio’s Olympic venues, Father Lenin said the athletes, too, will offer lessons on values that Catholics of all ages can learn from. He compared an athlete’s pursuit of a gold medal to St. Paul’s plea to the Colossians to “set their hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).

“We’re also searching for gold, but it’s not a medal — it’s an eternal gold; it’s an eternal prize that God will give,” he said.

“It’s a testament to the power of being strong-willed and faithful.”

Register correspondent Chris Kudialis writes from Las Vegas, Nevada.

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