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Paris Olympics: Church Gears Up for ‘Holy Games’ Outreach

Paris Olympics: Church Gears Up for ‘Holy Games’ Outreach

Athletes take part in the Holy Games ahead of the Paris Olympics. (photo: Holy Games)


The Catholic Church in France is determined to make this global event a catalyst for its evangelization efforts, through a series of parallel activities and events.

PARIS — The upcoming Olympic Games, to be held in Paris from July 26 to Aug. 11, provide the Church with an opportunity to spread its Christian message of fraternity and self-improvement to as many people as possible.

It’s an opportunity that the Church’s representatives in France have no intention of wasting, and they plan to make the most of it through the “Holy Games” missionary program that will offer a series of activities running parallel to the Olympic Games and then the Paralympic Games, which take place from Aug. 28 to Sept. 8.

Launched in 2021, the Holy Games initiative, co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Paris and the French Bishops’ Conference (CEF), is intended as a call to holiness through sport and a means of making it accessible to as many people as possible, including those in precarious and vulnerable situations.


Pater Cup - June 23 (c) Holy Games Foot Tournament for Priest The Holy Games team in charge of organisation
Pater Cup, a foot tournament for priests, comprised of the team in charge of organizing The Holy Games. © Manuel Lagos Cid


With between 15 and 20 million visitors and more than 10,000 athletes expected to converge on the French capital this summer, it’s also an opportunity to propose a solid Church model of pastoral care for the world of sport and to reaffirm the profoundly Christian identity of this contemporary global event, whose popularity has never wavered since its reintroduction at the end of the 19th century.


Summer Routes, Masses and Vigils

Youth will be at the heart of the Holy Games program. Among the activities on offer are “Summer Routes,” which will bring together thousands of young people ages 18 to 35 from different regions of France, in the spirit of World Youth Day, to take part in training courses, volunteer work, times of prayer and fraternal sharing. During the 12 days of the Paralympic Games, the “Summer Routes Extra” will enable young people to work alongside people with disabilities.

The region’s Catholic authorities have made sure to mobilize their ranks well in advance, notably through the organization of the “Pater Cup,” a soccer tournament for the priests of the Ile de France region last June. A second edition will be held on June 17 in anticipation of the Olympics. In 2022, the CEF also proposed an official prayer for all those involved in the staging of this major global gathering.

During the sports sessions themselves, more than 70 parishes located near the Olympic venues will be mobilized to welcome the flow of visitors and will also offer numerous celebrations in various languages.

The emblematic Madeleine Church (known for its Neoclassical architecture, reminiscent of the temples of ancient Greece), in the eighth arrondissement of Paris, will be the main rallying point for the athletes. A special chapel dedicated to “Our Lady of the Athletes” was inaugurated there in September 2023. It is at this church that the grand opening ceremony, inaugurating the so-called Olympic Truce (a period of peace that traditionally calls for the cessation of conflicts between the nations of the world during the Olympics), will be held in the presence of President Thomas Bach of the International Olympic Committee.


La Madeleine (c) Holy Games Inauguration of the Chapel Our Lady of Sport Church of La Madeleine Blessing of Athlètes September 2023
Blessing of atheletes inside the Church of La Madeleine during September 2023.


The closing ceremony, at the end of the Paralympic Games, will be held in the Cathedral of Saint-Denis, which will also host a vigil for the blessing of the athletes on July 25, with a distribution of the Miraculous Medal.

“The Madeleine Mass promises to be the high point of the celebrations,” Arnaud Bouthéon, one of the initiators of Holy Games and co-founder of the evangelization program Congrès Mission, told the Register, adding that his committee had done everything in its power to ensure that the Olympic torch would pass through as many Christian sites as possible, in order to have its Christian dimension recognized.


The Olympics’ Religious Roots

Holy Games intends to “seal an alliance between the Church and sport, between holiness and play, in the service of the individual, his or her dignity and the common good,” according to the official program and website, and has solid arguments for so doing.

Indeed, how many remember that the first Olympics of the modern era, held in Athens in 1896, were the fruit of a friendship between the French pedagogue Pierre de Coubertin and the Dominican priest Henri Didon? In fact, it is to this cleric, known for his flamboyant temperament, that we owe the current motto of the International Olympic Committee: Citius, Altius, Fortius (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”). And, as Providence would have it, the very first Olympic champion of the 1896 games was none other than James Connolly, an Irish-American devout Catholic and member of the Knights of Columbus.


A team poses for a picture during The Holy Games 2023.
A team poses for a picture during The Holy Games 2023.


In the years that followed, Pope Pius X supported Coubertin in his efforts to increase the educational scope of the games.

“There was a truly cathartic dimension to Coubertin’s approach, which was to offer a palliative to war by allowing the bellicose instincts of nations to be transferred to the jousting of amateurs who fought their opponents by giving the best of themselves,” said Bouthéon, noting the compatibility between this approach and Christian spirituality.

Following in the footsteps of St. Paul — who frequently resorted to sports metaphors in his epistles, notably running and wrestling — Bouthéon, author of Comme un Athlète de Dieu. Manifeste Sportif et Chrétien (Like an Athlete of God: A Sporting and Christian Manifesto), regularly writes short catecheses for various media based on sports imagery.

“The etymology of athlete and ascetic is the same: They are people who have dug deep into their humanity, who have renounced, suffered in their flesh, and gone through many extreme emotions to achieve mastery and excellence,” he continued.


Urgent Need for Pastoral Care of Sport

While Pope St. John Paul II, often nicknamed “God’s sportsman,” saw sport as a “sign of the times” capable of interpreting humanity’s new needs and new expectations, the Paris Olympics represent a Godsend for the entire Catholic Church, which has been plagued by internal crisis and antagonism for the past few years.

It’s an opportunity that Cécile Thévenin, a committed young Catholic who has been involved in soccer since childhood and is now a member of Holy Games, has been anticipating for a long time.

“The Catholic Church will be able to take advantage of these events to develop a genuine pastoral care of sport and generate enthusiasm by showing the relevance of associating this world with the faith, and this is all the more desirable as the Church has recently been tested by a series of conflicts and scandals, in particular the sexual-abuse crisis,” she told the Register.


A team poses in front of the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral during The Holy Games 2023.
Teammates poses in front of the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral during The Holy Games 2023.


Her proximity to the world of sport has enabled her to see firsthand that many sportsmen and women are keen to talk about their faith. “Even if they’re not always well formed, I often notice a particular thirst for God in them, and the fact that they dare to affirm their Christian faith without any complexes makes them formidable ambassadors,” she continued, adding that athletes could conversely benefit from greater support from the institutional Church.

For Arnaud Bouthéon, the Olympics provide an opportunity to show the rest of the world that there are many more Christians among athletes than we might realize. In his view, a champion’s quest for personal identity is inseparable from a fundamental questioning of his religious origins.

“The world of business sports today represents a mix of three very strong realities: identity, emotion or speed, and uncertainty,” he said, “and if you mix these three things, then you have an extremely powerful media fuel, which today captivates a large part of humanity, and the Church would do well not to stand on the sidelines.”


English translation of the French Bishops’ Prayer for the Olympics:


Father, Source of true joy,

Throughout the First Covenant,

You began to bring forth a People,

Through your word of grace and the exploits of your beloved children

You revealed to them your wonders and your strength.

In your Son Jesus Christ,

You have called all nations

To form a people of praise to your glory.

Grant that we may fight the good fight,

To receive at the end of our race

The crown that will not wither.

Look now, good God, at our country, France,

Which will host the 2024 Olympics,

Grant that we may look upon this event with joy, peace and brotherhood.

Pour out your Holy Spirit

On all those working to make Paris 2024 a reality,

On all the people who will come from the four corners of the Earth

And on the athletes,

Grant them the strength they need,

For each one to give their best.

Through their families and coaches,

May the athletes have their support in times of joy and trial.

Help us, Lord, to always aim “faster, higher and stronger,”

To welcome the whole world,

Gathered in the common passion of sport,

And so form a radiant, fraternal and consoling Church.




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