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With the 2016 Summer Olympics underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, my attention is on the world-class athletes and competitions that display the best in physical prowess and skill. Although the history of the modern Olympics includes some painful memories, the premise of this global gathering is peace and good will among diverse peoples and nations. That is reason enough to celebrate the triumphs and commiserate over the losses.
There is a spirit of inclusion in the sport of running that is hard to match in other athletic competition. The fastest runner runs the same course and shares in the same spirit of the event as the last person to cross the finish line. In most races, one doesn’t have to be the best or the greatest to participate, but needs only the commitment to stay on course, endure the highs and lows, and move toward that common end.
In reflecting on distance running in particular, I began thinking about the church. It seems to me that running a local road race offers an apt metaphor for what it means to be a Christian and to live one’s faith. I am certainly not the first to make this connection. There are several passages in the New Testament where authors draw on athletic imagery to describe the experience of discipleship and Christian faith.
In light of the controversy over the discussion of gradualism during the meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015, the athletic and scriptural metaphor of running a road race is particularly timely. Rather than envisioning a church composed only of elites who are able to exercise virtue at the highest level, something akin to a “moral Olympics,” we should recall that all the baptised, whatever their particular state of life, are running the same course of Christian discipleship. No one should be excluded from the course because of his or her weakness or relative pace.
The Olympians motivate me to work at being a better runner, but my fellow ordinary athletes also inspire and encourage me to keep going. Anybody who has run a long road race or even a small-town 5 K fun run knows this feeling of inclusivity and spirit of encouragement. When the faster runners finish, they often stick around to cheer on those still on the course. Then everybody gathers at the post-race party to celebrate the accomplishments of all, the most important of which is simply completing the course.
Why can’t our church and communities of faith be more like a local road race? Why can’t we focus more on journeying with our sisters and brothers wherever they might be, cheering one another on with the love of Christ? We all share a common course, a path laid out before us by Christ in the Gospels, which began at baptism and continues on ahead of us. May the Olympics this summer serve as an opportunity for Christian women and men to be inspired not only in athleticism but also in faith. – Daniel Horan OFM @ America