Category: Sport


Unity & Division in Spain

AMDG

split_2652412b (1)I woke up this morning in the Galician town of Bezantos in Northern Spain – where my cousin is getting married.  Almost all of the Spanish newspapers have the ‘Gibraltar’ crisis on the front page.  Gibraltar, a rocky peninsula of the South Coast of Spain is British Overseas Territory.  There is an escalating tension between the governments of Britain and Spain triggered by the laying of an artificial reef in the sea off Gibraltar to enhance fishing.  The Spanish channels and papers carry pictures today of a Spanish police diving crew who went into the sea yesterday to measure the size of the blocks, and somehow were pictured unfurling a Spanish Flag underwater.  Talking to the hotel owner today and to some of the locals – they are not interested in the slightest.  A thing for the ‘politicos’ they say not the common people.  They are much more interested in the unveiling this weekend of a British footballer who has just been purchased for a world record price of £85 million by Real Madrid

Santa Maria de Azogue, Bezantos

Santa Maria de Azogue, Bezantos

Contrast with the wedding today of my cousin from London with Natalia whose family is Galician.  Her parents emigrated to London for work and have since retired and moved back to their beloved Galicia. Nat works as a doctor in the UK.  It has been a real privilege preparing this couple who are deeply in love.   This is also a testament to how immigration has a wonderful and powerful effect of integrating cultures.  Love of neighbour is much more powerful and important than love of patria or country.  Today will be a memorable day for our family – and a nice counterbalance to the nonsense that some of our politicians are up to.

images (4)Today’s Saint – Saint Lawrence – is famous as a deacon in Rome.  As a deacons in the early church, Lawrence had the responsibility for the material goods of the Church & distributing alms to the poor.  In the third century when the Roman emperor ordered the death of the Pope, the prefect then ordered for the churches goods to be handed over. When St. Lawrence was asked for the treasures of the Church he brought forward the poor, among whom he had divided the treasure as alms.”Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown.”

images (1)When reading this I though of the commitment to the poor of Pope Francis – like Lawrence his faith was rooted in the daily struggle of the people he lived with.   It is a rooted faith – and then of course I thought of his football team San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence).   It is great to hear that he is keeping his membership up (reminding me to renew my Liverpool membership card!).   Like many football teams San Lorenzo’s roots are actually ecclesial.   San Lorenzo was formed by a group of kids that used to play football in the corner of two busy  streets of Buenos Aires.  Due to the increasing traffic in the city, playing football at the streets became a risky activity for the boys. Fr Lorenzo Massa, the priest of the neighbourhood’s church, saw how a tram almost knocked down one of the boys while they were playing in the streets. As a way to prevent more accidents, he offered the boys to play in the church’s backyard, under the condition they had to go to mass on Sundays.  Wanting to call the club after him the priest denied to be honoured that way. Nevertheless, the name was finally accepted by the priest, explaining that the name would not honour himself but , St Lawrence of Rome

images (3)Pope Francis still pays his annual membership fee – and so proud of their fan becoming the Pope – San Lorenzo recently took to the pitch with his face replacing the advertising on their shirts.  A faith that is rooted and close to the passions of the people – that reminds us that God is close to us in all things.   A faith that shares the passions of many. The 34rd General Congregation of the Jesuits published a decree on our mission and culture – at one point it says  “(as Jesuits) …. We have sometimes sided with the “high culture” of the elite in a particular setting: disregarding the cultures of the poor and sometimes, by our passivity, allowing indigenous cultures or communities to be destroyed”  ….. On a final note I recommend a great book called ‘Thank God for Football’ by Wirral author Peter Lupson – he traces the roots of  Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Queen’s Park Rangers, Southampton, Swindon Town and Tottenham Hotspur all back to churches and priests / ministers!

AMDG

 

boston-bomb-2

At what price glory?

AMDG

 

English: Picture of Marco Pantani on the way t...

Marco Pantani –  Alpe d’Huez 1997 (Wikipedia)

 

The summer before I entered the Jesuit novitiate, I hired a van with a group of friends and we drove around France for two weeks following  the Tour de France through the Alps and the Pyrenees. It was a magical summer, we would arrive on these incredible mountain passes the night before the stage, just before they closed the roads off.  The night was spent partying with Spanish / French / Dutch etc cycling fans and then the next day the excitement would build as the race approached.  These men were the greatest athletes in my opinion, in the most gruelling sporting event on the planet.  The crowds on the big climbs would number in the hundreds of thousands, and because of the steep incline of the climbs, the exhausted cyclists, strung out in little groups – would pass by at a much slower pace than on the flat or downhill parts.  If I close my eyes the one image that sums up that summer was seeing Marco Pantani leading the peloton over Les Deux Alps.  One of the greatest climbers of all time – he would dance on his pedals and soar through the mountains like an angel.

 

Six years later he died of a cocaine overdose in a grotty hotel in Rimini, Italy.  I have just finished reading a gripping book about his life, called, ironically, ‘The Death of Marco Pantani‘ .  The life and death of Marco Pantini could be a parable for our times.  As modern sport has become more important politically and commercially the consequences of success and failure have been blown out of proportion. Cheating in sport has been around since ancient times, however it was in East Germany and its notorious Programme 1425 that lead to thousands of uniformed youngsters being given steroids, when cheating became systematic. In Finland they developed the technique of using blood transfusions in sport – which required access to labs, medical expertise and much larger budgets.  What is shocking is the risks these cyclists took, the strain of the heart pumping thickened blood, meant that many cyclists had to sleep with heart monitors which would set off an alarm when their heart beats dropped below safe levels. Following the Tour in 98 there were rumours of groups of cyclists jumping out of bed in the dead hours of the morning to leap on exercises bikes to get their hearts pumping again.  Tragically at  the end of the book, in the epilogue, there is a list of 8 cyclists who died of sudden heart attacks between 2003-5.  So the current insistence of Team Sky to be clean, and the scandal of Lance Armstrong’s cheating and bullying are so important.

Worryingly as sport becomes more important – maybe as a symptom of a society that is losing balance – Sports stars are prepared to risk everything for that moment of glory.  St Ignatius calls this lack of balance a ‘disordered attachment’.   Alarmingly, with the rise of Paralympics, the spectre has been raised of athletes deliberately dismembering themselves in order to compete.  Especially with the controversy around Oscar Pistorius and others ‘blades’, as technology continues to improve soon blades will be superior to the leg, at least on the 100m’s track. When a ‘disabled’ sprinter starts to break Usain Bolt’s World Records – then there will be irresistible pressure to lose your legs just to compete…..  No wonder the Spiritual Masters consistently warn us against disordered attachments to fame and glory.

 

Faith in & of the Police

AMDG

Driving into Manchester 10 days ago to drop off my stuff turned out to be a very eventful journey.  My brother and I were riveted to the radio listening to the findings Independent Hillsborough report (click here).  Many friends were involved in the crush at that Liverpool match in 1989, but thankfully no close friends were among the 96 who died, although we knew some of the victims.  As has been known on Merseyside for a long while, but now thankfully by the rest of the world, the subsequent smearing of the fans could well be the biggest cover up in British history lead by South Yorkshire Police.  However as is often the case, out of tragedy and suffering some good has come, including a solidarity with other fans, the beautiful gestures by United at Anfield on Sunday and dignified leadership by Alex Ferguson. So with mixed and strong emotions, my twin brother (an Evertonian) and I arrived in Manchester.  The radio coverage was riveting but one thing that distracted our attention was driving past a huge video screen that was offering a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a man called Dale Cregan.

Three days later this man, whose face seemed to be all over Manchester, shot dead two unarmed policewomen and then walked into a police station to give himself up.  Acts of wanton destruction and evil like this are always disorienting and confusing.  After a week of anger towards the police for the Hillsborough cover-up, these killings put policing back into perspective.  It is unprecedented for two police women to be killed, and the worst police deaths since the 60′s. But again amidst all the shock, healing started to happen from an unusual source. The Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police in an interview talked about how his faith was helping him.  This is what Sir Peter Fahy, a Catholic, said

“I think a lot of us feel passionately that policing is a vocation. It is a calling. I feel that in terms of my own faith but I know a lot of officers that don’t have a faith, but feel exactly the same – that it is a vocation, that it’s not just a job and I think that’s almost what you go back to in difficult times and difficult circumstances that how unfair something may feel, how inadequate you may feel you do actually rely on that you’re doing your best, and that this is your vocation. The chance for me personally to be able to, every day, to have bit of quiet time, pray, think about your own values, your own sense of vocation, and to examine your own conscience I think is really, really important…… For me personally and a lot of people of faith, prayer is important… you do often feel so helpless, so praying for the dead officers, praying for their families, becomes your own reaction, your own expression of hope really for them, at a time of great need.”

Very powerful words – particularly at a time when there strong pressures to silence the religious voice in the public sphere, or to portray faith as being the realm of bigots and fundamentalists.   It also made me think – would the interview have been picked up elsewhere in the country or is this a fruit of the BBC relocation to Salford?   There is much to reflect on what he said about the healing power of prayer, but maybe more importantly what he also said about examining your conscience.  If only more of the South Yorkshire Police had engaged in that activity more regularly.

AMDG

In the UK there is undoubtedly a wonderful feel-good factor at the end of a horrendously wet summer.  There is a big discussion about what the legacy of the summer should be.  For me the big difference has been how positive the media has been.  Many people have commented on how the newspapers, TV, radio and now the internet should be reflecting news not creating news. The reality is there is a complex relationship between reporting the news and commenting on the news, on reflecting opinion and forming opinion.  With the Jubilee and the Olympics the media ‘got on board’ and have had a huge role in the feel good factor.  For once optimism and hope has replaced cynicism and for me this is the legacy of the Games.  I often have though wouldn’t it be great if we could launch a mainstream, national, good news paper.  Not avoiding what is happening in the world, but at least balancing the bad news with good news.  There is a magazine called ‘The Week’ which gives a summary of the week’s news and how it has been reported.  I enjoy reading it, but my favourite bit is a tiny section inside the front page called ‘It wasn’t all bad’  with an inspiring good news story for the week.  Useful for talks, speeches or homilies!

The channel adopted the BBC News style in 1999

The most powerful news agent in the UK is the BBC.  I am a big fan of the ‘Beeb’ , the quality of its programmes, podcasts are world-class.  So when I have been abroad I often boast about the BBC.  However earlier this year when I was in the Philippines, a very smart and sophisticated young man listened to me politely and then very gently pointed out to me how they consider the BBC to be anti-Christian.  I was shocked but could see the arguments he made,  it was interesting to see how popular Al Jazeera was becoming there.  Mark Thompson, the Jesuit-educated outgoing director general of the BBC  has recently admitted so. In an interview about how the BBC represents religion (click here) he said that at least in the UK, Christianity was treated as being more ‘broad shouldered’ than other religions which are much more identified with ethnic minorities. He makes a compelling point – however I think that sometimes an excellent desire for ‘tolerance’  can be distorted, and much of the liberal-elite group think that dominates the UK establishments is reflected in a prejudice against Christianity.   How the news is reported and commented on is important it should try to represent the whole of the country not just metropolitan elites and their incestuous media cities.   This summer the collective power of the media has played a huge role in the feel-good factor, that should be the real legacy as we head into an autumn of strikes, squabbles and X Factor!

Below is a small excerpt of Mark Thompson’s interview – click here for the full length.

Beautiful Imperfection

AMDG

In a world that is driven by the cult of the beautiful there are many reasons to be amazed and excited about the unprecedented attention given to the Paralympics. We are so often bombarded by aspirational images and messages of unobtainable perfection, it is amazing to see images of swimmer Ellie Simmonds who was born with achondroplasia or ‘dwarfism’ where there where would normally be photoshopped models. I am visiting London at the moment, and had a spare couple of hours yesterday to visit the Olympic Park (although I couldn’t get in!) and snapped this picture. The closer you got – the more the enthusiasm and positivity of the crowd grew, the enthusiasm and good will was infectious. My sister took her young daughters to an unforgettable night at the Olympic Stadium the other night and told me they will never forget seeing an athlete with no hands cartwheel in joy on to the podium to receive their gold medal. What an experience for a young mind to savour!

The medal table currently has China way out in front with Great Britain edging second place in front of Russia. It has to be a good thing for disabled people in both China and Russia that the Paralympics is taken so seriously in their countries. China’s cruel one child policy and infanticide can only be challenged by embracing this festival of imperfection. Hopefully here in Britain, where children can be aborted up to birth if there is any proof of ‘abnormality’ e.g a cleft lip, the Paralympics may lead to a change in culture to. It would be wonderful to see some of the Paralympic superstars speak out on this. Why do the Americans not seem that interested? It is not being shown on US TV, and they are only sixth in the medal table. Strange? Maybe it is in the US where the cult of perfection is most virulently propagated. Ultimately this is a festival of hope – that our brokeness can be beautiful, and our weakness can be turned into strength most powerfully through the grace of love and support. This hope is brilliantly expressed through this Canadian Advert.

 

Tale of Two Armstrongs

AMDG

English: One of the first steps taken on the M...

The second most exciting footstep (according to Neil Armstrong) –  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lot of travelling this weekend so I was able to immerse myself in news.  Two of the big stories – Neil Armstrong’s death and Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace –  touch two areas I am passionate about, cycling and space exploration.  And what a contrast.  Firstly Neil Armstrong – the quiet, modest, pilot and astronaut.  Much has been said about his technical genius in landing on the  moon with very little fuel left, his ability to calculate and improvise.  Not much has been written about the spiritual impact it had on the astronauts.  All highly trained technicians and scientists. When they gazed back at the earth in space it gave them a new sense of appreciation of how beautiful, wonderful  and delicate the Planet Earth is. They were to return as changed men, men of stronger faith.  Armstrong’s companion Buzz Aldrin shared communion with him discreetly after landing on the moon – click here.  There is also the beautiful story of how Armstrong, when he returned,  was taken on a tour of the old city of Jerusalem by Israeli archeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there.“These are the steps that lead to the temple,” Ben-Dov told him, “so He must have walked here many times.” Armstrong then asked Ben-Dov if those were the original stairs and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were indeed. “So Jesus stepped right here,” Armstrong asked. “That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov. To which Armstrong replied, “I have to tell you, I am more excited stepping on these stones than when I was stepping on the moon.”

Cover of "It's Not About the Bike: My Jou...

Cover via Amazon

In contrast. Lance Armstrong, who achieved an unthinkable 7 Tour de France titles, has had them stripped this weekend.  Like many I was inspired by his comeback from cancer, his amazing book, ‘It’s not about the Bike’ and also his superb Live Strong foundation.  Of course you are disappointed when the extent of the use of banned drugs becomes evident, it is simply cheating.  But I would still have retained admiration for Armstrong. However what has come to light this weekend is the incredible control he exercised over a network of former team mates, assistants and reporters.  His tacit admission of guilt has freed many witnesses and journalists to be able to speak without fear of retribution. The extent of the legal bullying that went on, the career destroying, the defamation of any whistle blowers, the pressure put on so many to collude in the cheating is incredible.  This ruthlessness and the single-minded determination is not glorious it is shameful. And what a contrast to his quiet fellow countryman who had a lot more to shout about.

AMDG

What a difference a month makes, Andy Murray on the same court against the same opponent seemed to be a different person yesterday.  It has been called the fastest redemption story in sport. Murray, often seen as moody, has been smiling, having fun and playing with a freedom and a ‘lightness’ that he didn’t seem to have at the Wimbledon tournament. He has clearly thrived over the past week  not being such a focus for national attention as during the Wimbledon fortnight. Being part of a team and being inspired by others – he has said he is so glad to be part of Team GB and is motivated by the other athletes. What is the difference? I think it is that he was not just playing for himself but for something bigger than him.   It reminds me of that beautiful line in EP 4 ‘And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him‘ .  It is also beautiful – that in a sport, with huge amounts of money, pressure, were everything is oriented to the individual with a huge entourage around them – it is the Olympics, with no direct monetary award, and where Murray is one of many great British athletes…. it is this environment that has brought the best out of him.

Ignatius describes the phenomenon of spiritual consolation in a similar way – anything that opens us to the world, fills us with peace, joy, freedom – allows us to fulfill our potential can be a sign of consolation. When we are basically focused on something greater than ourselves.  The opposite, desolation, leads us in on ourselves, to self doubt, apathy, cynicism.  This is speaking very generally of course and in the spiritual life consolation and desolation can be much more subtle than that (i.e. If an evil tyrant had self doubt it might be a path to consolation!)  Ignatius talks about consolation in a much more focused and religious way – here are his words:

“ I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”

Whereas desolation leads to “ the opposite of (consolation), as darkness of soul, torment of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love.  The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”

AMDG

The incredible scenes at the Olympics these days – the joy, the support of the crowds,  the adulation was so powerful, particularly of your are British.   Working with boys the last few years I have seen with my own eyes how sport can ‘save them’ from lives on the streets in gangs. Coaching football I know how sport can give them meaning and discipline, so it is wonderful to see how Andy Murray, Jessica Ennis and the rest can be such positive role models.  But even the roar of the crowd, the glamour of gold fades away.  The love, so powerfully expressed in the stadium, is nothing compared to the patience of their families and friends as they embark on the discipline of training and single-mindedness of an elite athlete. There are striking scenes here too  in Edinburgh as the Fringe Festival begins, we are being bombarded with flyers and posters – it can get a bit much.  It feels like there is too much attention seeking – look at me!  Come to my show! On the other hand there is great energy and creative talent – it is exciting. Careers will be launched, shows will be commissioned, and these shows and personalities will have a big impact on our culture and televisions over the next years.  Seeing the pictures of comedians on the posters is revealing… we live in a golden age of comedy …. some of these people are starting to sell out football stadiums / becoming wealthy beyond their dreams as they sell their DVD box sets. Some of the comedy is no more than mockery, mean spirited, angry and cynical but some of the most popular stuff isn’t – its observational, balanced, self- deprecating, not nasty. However both the athletes and the comedians will find the adulation fades.  So again what lasts?

In this week of great Olympians, the church has quietly celebrated three of its own Olympians.  If you came to daily mass you know who I am talking about.  Our own St Ignatius on Tuesday, the founder of the Jesuits, in whose ‘Spiritual Exercises’ many people, kings, queens, writers, poets, and normal people like you and me, have changed our lives for the better. On Wednesday we remembered St Alphonsus Liguori – the founder of the Redemptorists, who changed the hearts and minds of so many young slum dwellers all over the world and then on Saturday we remembered St Jean Vianney – patron of parish priests. To whom 20,000 people a year  would visit and make their confession to. They would travel on pilgrimage from all over Europe, long before the days of Ryan Air….. They too are role models, but their legacy is much longer, more than gold it endures.

Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life (Todays Gospel)

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