Friday, July 27, 2012

The Pope who helped save the Olympics
St. Pius X "initiated a new era" in athletic culture

Pope St. Pius X in his study. Photo via St. Peter's List.

Did you know that Pope St. Pius X helped save the Olympics? I didn't, until L'Osservatore Romano published an article on it today:
It was 1908 when, in the wake of a serious economic crisis, Rome renounced hosting the Olympic Games which were eventually celebrated in London, England. In the same year Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, sought help from the Vatican to support the Games, and Pope St. Pius X in person offered him his support. ...

That moment at the beginning of the twentieth century is described in a book entitled "Pio X e lo sport" by Antonella Stelitano. At that time "less than one per cent of the population practised any sporting activity, ... and sport was used only as a form of military training or as a pastime for the upper classes", the author explained in an interview with Vatican Radio.

However "St. Pius X ... was aware of the educational potential of sport". He saw it as a way "to approach young people, and to bring them together while following certain rules and showing respect for adversaries. I believe", the author explained, "that he understood that it was possible to bring people together simply, without any problems of race, religion or differing political ideas".

At that time in history many people did not understand the importance of exercise, said Antonella Stelitano who concluded her interview by recalling an anecdote whereby Pius X told one of his cardinals: "All right, if it is impossible to understand that this can be done, then I myself will do exercise in front of everyone so that they may see that, if the Pope can do it, anyone can do it".
Perhaps some of the facts from Stelitano's interview got lost in translation, because I found in the Google News archive a story that places Pius X's meeting with de Coubertin in 1905. The New York Tribune reported at that time the Pope recognized the importance of physical exercise in cultures that made increased mental demands of their citizens:
Pius X accorded to Baron Pierre de Coubertin a private audience and conversed with him at length about the Olympic games, and said that the Church throughout the world ought to take eager interest in athletic culture, and help in promoting physical progress among the boys and girls of the rising generation. The Pope expressed the opinion that healthful open-air sport was the surest means of compensating for the ever-increasing strenuous mental work required of all—women as well as men—who take an intelligent share in the everyday tasks of contemporary civilization.
St. Pius's affirmation of the mind/body connection is deeply Thomistic—which is not surprising, given his promotion of the Angelic Doctor's thought.

Note too that Pius stressed the importance of exercise "for women as well as men" because he recognized that they too were required to do strenuous mental work and take an intelligent share in the everyday tasks of contemporary civilization. Such sympathy for women is characteristic of the Pope who wrote so movingly about the redemptive co-suffering of the Blessed Virgin Mary in union with Christ.

The Tribune reporter's account also supports Stelitano's anecdote about how Pius X sought to show the media that if the Pope can exercise, anyone can:

Pius X believes there is a certain correlation between broad chests and broad minds. Himself a man of robust physique, and hardy temperament, he puts his faith in exercise and oxygen, and considers a few moments of brisk muscular action with elastic straps or dumbbells as the best preparation and incentive for concentrated brain work.
Pius X's influence was all the more impressive, the reporter says, because it was not so with the early Church, which condemned the ancient Olympic games for their promotion of paganism:
The Pope dwelt upon the significance of the favor now bestowed by the Church upon athletic sports, which is the more interesting because it was originally the Church's influence that interfered with the sports of old, and it was the Church that urged the Emperor Theodore [Theodosius I] to stop the Olympic games. Pius X has thus initiated a new era in regard to physical culture, and the importance of this step will soon be felt throughout the Roman Catholic world, especially in the schools, seminaries, and universities under Roman Catholic auspices.
Reading about Pius's clear-sighted understanding of the value of exercise at a time when its promoters were few, I'm happy to have one more reason to wear a medal of my birthday saint.