While Team Great Britain’s crew teams rowed to four gold medals at the London Olympics, a Catholic priest, who is a chaplain offering pastoral support to visitors to the Games, meditated on the parallels between the Olympic sport and the life of a Christian.
“Rowing is the perfect metaphor for life,” says Msgr. Vladimir Feltzmann, 73, who was one of the Catholic Church of England and Wales’ roaming chaplains for the London Olympics and a former competition rower. “You see the past; you can’t see the future. The only person who sees the future is the cox. Christ is the cox. You row backwards into the future so the past is in front of you and the future is behind you. Because you are rowing backwards you need to have great faith.”
Feltzmann, who likes to be known as Father Vlad, is one of 13 British Catholic priests to have been assigned a role at the London Games. During the games most of these priests were based out of the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, where the majority of the venues were situated. They also celebrated daily Mass at the Athletes’ Village. Several hundred thousand people came into the park each day and the priests were on hand for a variety of reasons, from giving information on Catholic churches in London to administering Last Rites.
An estimated 4.5 million visitors arrived in London during the games, and many of them, especially from overseas, were Roman Catholic. Feltzmann roamed among the Central London transport hubs near to the events. After nearly 50 years a priest, Father Vlad has an eye for a situation that may require his pastoral intervention.
“Near each venue there are people involved in security, accommodation, public relations, food supplies and ticket collection. Then there are all the people who arrive for the event. If only 1 per cent of these people suffer bereavement back home, that could be thousands of people who will need help and support—it might be for confession or people who want to pour their hearts out because they are hurting. It will just be a question of walking up and saying, ‘Hello, I’m Fr Vlad. If you have a problem here’s my card.’ I will show them where the local church is or I can show them where their nearest ethnic chaplaincy is.”
Thankfully, he was not needed to respond to personal tragedy or terrorism attacks. “We are a bit like a spare wheel or a fire extinguisher,” he said. “Hopefully we won’t be needed much of the time. I have instead busied myself talking to the security staff and made sure that they all had chairs to sit on, and I’ve given one girl some advice on where to go to university. The atmosphere has been so much friendlier than the normal one in London. People will look at your face and smile. It reminds of what St. Augustine said about building community of love to create a City of God.”
Feltzmann is pleased to have been involved in the Olympics, because he believes that the games are an opportunity to encourage Britain’s now largely secular society to become spiritually tuned in. He points to the first ancient Olympics in 776 B.C., which were dedicated to the god Zeus. “Back then the games aimed to channel the aggression of young people into competition,” he said. “The tradition sprang up of an Olympic truce 50 days before the Games and 50 days after. Many of the athletes were soldiers and no fighting was allowed in Greece so that athletes and spectators could travel. For the London games the church has been promoting 100 days of peace in London.”
The founder of the modern Olympiad, Pierre de Coubertin, drew inspiration from an Anglican priest William Penny Brookes, who started a miniature version of the Games in 1850 —the Wenlock Olympian Games—with some rather quirky sporting disciplines in the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock in the North of England. Coubertin visited the Wenlock Games and believed that the format would be a model to educate young people and bring peace through sport.
Today, more than ever, sport is needed to rescue disaffected youth, says Feltzmann. “Through sport you can express your love of God, and it is a way to inner peace. John Paul II believed in this very much and it was part of his teaching of the Theology of the Body. In sport you see the miracle of the human body,” he adds. “When you see an athlete or a gymnast you think of the creator. The athlete shows courage and determination to overcome difficulties. Athletes are always pushing themselves to the limit and through pain for a personal best as we should be in life. The pain is worth it. St Paul said in 1 Corinthians, ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.’”
Now that the games are finished, Feltzmann will be at the center of the attempt by the church in the United Kingdom to make the most out of the groundswell of enthusiasm for Team Great Britain. As Catholic Chaplain for Sport he is running a new charity called the John Paul II Foundation for Sport, which will facilitate Catholic parishes and schools across the United Kingdom to launch sports clubs for young people. During the launch of the charity in October 2011, in the presence of the U.K. Government’s Minister for Sport, Hugh Robertson, he did 73 push-ups—one for each year of his age. “I was simply making the point that when I started six months before, I could only do 20,” laughs Feltzmann.
Feltzmann’s background is in Catholic youth work. “When I arrived in London from Prague as a child after the war, I wanted to belong but I was a foreigner and sport helped.” He went on to play football for his school, was an under-15 javelin champion and rowed for Imperial College where he studied for a Civil and Structural Engineering degree.
Immediately after the Games he will launch pilot programs at two schools in West London. Once he has proven the concept, he will apply for Heritage Lottery Funding, which has already done much to boost Great Britain’s impressive medal tally in recent Olympics by supporting individual athletes. The funding could help him to roll out the concept to schools and parishes across the United Kingdom.
The foundation takes inspiration from John Paul II, who was a keen skier himself. As a priest in Poland, he used sport to inspire young people and organized sporting retreats in the mountains. A photograph of John Paul during his visit to Britain in 1982 with arms outstretched, as if about to catch a ball, has been reinvented as the logo for the foundation.
“A lot of sports clubs started as parishes in Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries and many parishes had sports clubs until the 1960s when, for all sorts of different reasons, it wasn’t considered cool and muscular Christianity was out,” Feltzmann said. “My philosophy is to dream big, start small and grow fast. We want to open out to Catholic schools in the evening. Schools are the laziest buildings there are. They close at six and don’t open again until eight in the morning, but they have got gyms, playgrounds etc. We have kids on the street causing trouble, so let’s open these facilities out in the evening. Many children aren’t engaging in sport because over the years school playing fields have been sold off and there has been greater emphasis on exam results at the expense of sport. We need to convince the educationalists that through sport we can motivate people and teach them skills that are very good for life.Self-discipline is vital in sport and if a child or a young adult can learn self-discipline that could be very useful to stop them drinking too much, causing trouble and using excuses for not working properly.”
A sprightly 73-year-old who continues to increase the number of push-ups he can do, Feltzmann hopes he is setting an example for the next generation of Catholics and athletes. “Instead of fading away,” he said, “suddenly I have a new lease of life.”