French Catholic Dioceses Embrace Spirit of Olympics with ‘Sports and Faith’ Year

PARIS, FRANCE – APRIL 10: A general view of The Eiffel Tower stadium , one of the venues during the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, on April 10, 2024 in Paris, France. Paris will host the Summer Olympics from July 26 till August 11, 2024. (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

By Caroline de Sury

PARIS (OSV News) — The 2024 Summer Olympic Games will open in Paris in six months, and in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of the French capital, efforts are under way to build the Olympic and Paralympic Village, as well as the Olympic Aquatics Center.

The area that will soon shine under the Olympic flame is however one of the poorest around Paris and the local dioceses decided the Olympics is the best time to build relationships between local residents of very different religious backgrounds. This is based on the idea that the Olympics are “building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit,” according to International Olympic Committee.

So Bishop Pascal Delannoy of Saint-Denis started his own Olympic project called “Sport and Faith.”

“Residents are proud of the prospect of the Olympic Games,” Bishop Delannoy told OSV News. “But we must not forget that this department is the poorest in France, and faces many challenges.”

In this urban area, near Charles de Gaulle International Airport, the population is very dense and many of the inhabitants are of foreign origin — also significantly younger than the national average. The place is frequently mentioned for its high rate of domestic violence, brawls between young people and assaults on elected representatives.

Numerous incidents took place there in June 2023, when riots broke out in the French suburbs, following the death of a teenager shot dead by a police officer in Nanterre, west of Paris.

“We are facing a serious crisis especially among young people because of their lack of hope,” Bishop Delannoy told OSV News. “The crucial issue is unemployment. This pushes them into the drug trade. Many teenagers fall into its networks at an early age.”

For Bishop Delannoy, however, another reality is lived on a daily basis in Saint-Denis.

“‘Fraternity’ is the word that comes to mind when you think of this department,” he said. “People have low incomes, but they help each other in everyday life. If you take the metro, you will see young people giving way to the elderly.”

In this context, Bishop Delannoy decided that the Olympic Games also are a perfect motivation for the Catholic community and announced a year of “Sport and Faith.”

It opened Oct. 8, 2023, with a cross-country race and a solemn Mass, attended by 1,400 people in the Basilica of Saint-Denis — one dating back to the sixth century. In the past it housed the tombs of the kings of France until they were ransacked in 1793 during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.

“For our bishop … there was no question of us remaining without doing anything, while our territory will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games … in particular the media village, that of the athletes, and a certain number of events at the Stade de France and the Olympic Aquatics Center,” said Cécile Chuzel, head of the Saint-Joseph College in Aubervilliers and a diocesan delegate for the 2023-2024 “Sport and Faith” year. “When the project was presented in October 2022, it immediately resonated very strongly with me.”

Chuzel, who administers a Catholic school where 70% of the students are Muslim, volunteered to be the diocesan delegate for the Olympic Catholic event.

“Through sport, everyone can share very similar values,” she told OSV News. “Christian or Muslim, many families are suffering the inconvenience of construction work for the Olympics, which they will not be able to attend because of ticket prices. But through this special diocesan year, they can look forward to these games, and participate in their own way.”

All year communities, parishes, associations, prayer groups, catechism teams and Catholic schools are helping to create encounters around sports: tournaments, soccer matches for priests, pilgrimages, or table soccer competitions to which local Muslims are invited.

“In some neighborhoods, there are inhabitants of some 150 nationalities, with a wide variety of religions,” Bishop Delannoy told OSV News. “Christians often come from sub-Saharan Africa, and Muslims are very numerous.”

“Islamism is also present here,” Bishop Delannoy pointed out. “Islamic currents are trying to infiltrate Muslim communities. But the first people to be wary of extremists are the Muslims themselves.”

“These events are also an opportunity for Christians to reveal themselves as people who live a close relationship with the risen Christ,” he added. “This is the mission of all of us as Christians: to be ready to give an account of our faith to those around us.”

With the Olympic Games approaching, hotels are preparing their facilities to welcome tourists.

“Usually, during winter, hotel rooms are reserved to accommodate people who live on the street, especially migrants,” Bishop Delannoy told OSV News. “At the moment, although it is particularly cold, they are not available, as the hotels are renovating them for this summer,” he stressed.

“The Olympic Games embody a spirit of universal brotherhood,” he concluded. “This summer, I hope that we will not forget the presence of the poorest in the immediate vicinity of the Olympic structures.”