Hot off the press – the Catholic Bishops Conference in the Philippines has just announced that they intend to enlist Manny Pacquiao as a ‘Bible Ambassador’. Pacquiao – as I’m sure you realise – is considered by some to be the best pound-for-pound boxer of all time. The small Filipino Boxer - is the first and only boxer to win world titles in eight different weight divisions. From a background of acute poverty, which forced him to drop out of education, he has fought his way to the top. Pacquiao has always been upfront about his Catholic Faith – within the ring, he frequently makes the sign of the cross and every time he comes back from a successful fight abroad, he attends a thanksgiving Mass in Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila. (click here to see a previous blog about the intense devotion to the Black Nazarene). They say that there are two things that bring the country to a halt, when Ateneo (the Jesuit University) play De la Salle at basketball, and when the ‘Pacman’ fights.
Pacquiao – currently a congressman in his spare time – has the reputation for being devout in the sporting world – although some Jesuits have a wry smile when I ask them about this. It seems as though he had a bit of reputation for a certain lifestyle in his early days, but the last few years has cleaned up his act - which many people put down to the influence of his wife ‘Jinky’. His role will be part of an impressive campaign by the Bishops who want to make the Bible more available to the poor. Their aim is to produce 5 million Bibles for 5 million poor Filipinos and Catholics within 7 years. The plan is to subsidise them at P50… (about 80 pence each). From a British perspective it is nice to see a celebrity who is serious about his faith – in an unaffected way – able to express this faith with confidence that he will be respected. In the UK – there is more cynicism, sneering and angry atheism about. Its famously not politically correct to ‘do God’. In that we are out of step with the vast majority of the worlds population, whether Christian, Muslim or any faith.
It would be fair to point out that Boxing may have more in common with the violence of the Old Testament that the ethos of ‘turn the other cheek’ in the New Testament. Boxing doesn’t sit comfortably with middle-class sensibilities – and spirituality in the ‘West’ seems to becoming more and more an exclusive ‘middle class industry’. Boxing’s working class roots have always had difficulty assimilating into a middle class value system – even with the big money, prime time pay-cheques. But the Church has often been one of the few reliable presences in the urban slums – and parish gyms were a way introducing discipline to boys, as well as channelling some of the adolescent anger and rage that can be magnified by poverty. It was often the priest as a mentor/teacher who could straddle those two socioeconomic classes least awkwardly. In my own Christian Brothers school in Liverpool – a legend of a teacher ‘Jimmy Heighton’ who celebrated his 50th year teaching when I was a student had been on an Olympic Boxing Team. My memory of teaching in London is that one of the most effective ways of keeping the boys out of gangs was by getting them on the football or rugby pitch. So before we become too ‘sniffy’ about this unholy alliance of pugilism and the Word – in an Olympic year lets remember the virtues that come from sporting discipline too! Would more gyms have made a difference to the London riots?