In the run-up to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris, opening on 26 July, the ‘Holy Games’ project, launched for the occasion by the French bishops and the Archdiocese of Paris, is gaining momentum with a growing number of events on the theme of ‘sport and faith’.

Lay French communicator Arnaud Bouthéon has been working on this project since 2021. He is an expert in creating major missionary events within the Church, and passionate about sport.

‘I have done a lot of work in the sports business,’ he explained to OSV News. ‘And I have been interested in the links between sport and faith for years.

Bouthéon wrote a book on this theme, titled Like an Athlete of God. ‘I like to use sports imagery to illustrate Christian virtues when I talk to young people,’ he said. ‘St Paul used the metaphor of the athlete to encourage Christians —exactly like a coach seeks to stimulate his players.’

As the Catholic Church, we wanted to help mobilise people around this joyful project of unity. We were very well received.

Bouthéon recounted the beginning of the Holy Games story. ‘We met with the International Olympic Committee at a very early stage,’ he said. ‘We introduced ourselves, saying that as the Catholic Church, we wanted to help mobilise people around this joyful project of unity. We were very well received.’

The Holy Games responded to an IOC request for a chaplaincy in the Olympic Village, which will welcome more than 10,000 athletes between 26 July and 11 August. A vast 400-square-metre structure has been designed north of Paris to accommodate representatives of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Some 40 specially trained Catholic chaplains, who love sport, will take turns being on duty for the duration of the Olympic Games.

The demand for spiritual assistance during the Games is high. Requests exceeded 8,000 in the pre-pandemic Games, the Associated Press reported, ranging from mental health concerns to a pre-competition blessing to coping with a sudden death in the family back home.

Each religion received 50 square metres of the tent-like structure—a venue with a basic mandate to welcome athletes and provide worship information.

But it’s not only about chaplaincy. The Holy Games project also worked to encourage parishes close to emblematic Olympic sites to open their doors ‘in a fraternal and festive atmosphere’ to 15 –20 million visitors and sport fans, Bouthéon said. More than 70 parishes will be welcoming visitors, offering religious services in different languages, and more than 2,000 young people are preparing to volunteer during their summer vacations to help parishes with a record crowd.

The Holy Games have been organising festive gatherings, debates, conferences, theatre, sports tournaments, youth testimonials, radio and television broadcasts.

The official launch of the Holy Games took place in September 2023, at the iconic St Mary Madeleine Church in the heart of Paris, known as La Madeleine, whose architecture is reminiscent of ancient Greek temples. During the launch, Auxiliary Bishop Philippe Marsset of Paris blessed a chapel dedicated specifically to the athletes.

During the Olympic Games, they will be able to deposit prayer intentions there, thanks to a touch screen, and leave their contact details if they wish to get in touch with a chaplain.

‘The Madeleine church is a strategic headquarters for the Holy Games,’ Bouthéon explained. ‘It concretises our objective of creating a Catholic presence at these Games, by serving as a media sounding board to enable the Church to make its message of faith heard, through sport, which embodies many of the values the Church promotes.’

For several months, the Holy Games have been organising festive gatherings, debates, conferences, theatre, sports tournaments, youth testimonials, radio and television broadcasts.

Recent events included the ‘Paris églises tour’, a 10-kilometre run on 28 April, from Notre Dame Cathedral to other Parisian churches, including the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on Rue du Bac, site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1830.

Soccer matches and tournaments, including those for priests, are also part of the project. On 17 June, priests, deacons and bishops from the eight dioceses of Paris and its suburbs will come together for a soccer championship named the ‘Pater Cup’ in the Olympic city of Villepinte, north of Paris.

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The Olympic rings are displayed on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on 9 June, ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. (Photo: OSV News/Benoit Tessier, Reuters.)

The Olympic flame arrived in France on 8 May from Greece, through the southern port city of Marseille, aboard a three-masted ship called the Belem.

Holy Games organisers have also arranged for religious sites to be part of the Olympic torch’s route through France before it arrives in Paris. ‘The idea was to promote sanctuaries, monasteries and the like, while helping to mobilise people to contribute to the general joy,’ Bouthéon explained.

On 19 May, the Olympic flame passed through the sanctuary of Lourdes, in the presence of pilgrims, and the Paralympic flame will pass through on 25 August. The Paralympic Games will take place in Paris from 28 August to 8 September.

Sport calls us to surpass ourselves. The Christian faith goes even further, since it wants to lead us to Paradise, following Christ who opens the way for us.

A few days before the opening of the Olympic Games, a Mass will be celebrated on 19 July by Archbishop Laurent Ulrich of Paris in La Madeleine, in the presence of IOC President Thomas Bach. Bishop Emmanuel Gobilliard of Digne, a keen sportsman himself, will take part as the Holy See’s special delegate to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. French President Emmanuel Macron may also be present, sources told OSV News.

Right before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, organised in the heart of the city at the Seine River, where thousands of athletes will be sailing in the flotilla westward at sunset, the Cathedral of Saint-Denis will host a vigil to bless the athletes on 25 July.

‘Sport calls us to surpass ourselves,’ Bouthéon said. ‘The Christian faith is part of this approach. But it goes even further, since it wants to lead us to Paradise, following Christ who opens the way for us.’

Banner image: The Olympic rings are displayed on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on 7 June, ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. (Photo: OSV News/Christian Hartmann, Reuters.)