Olympic Liturgy!

Olympic Liturgy!

The opening ceremony of the London Olympics was striking for its liturgical rites and allusions.

Pádraig McCarthy


By way of background, Danny Boyle, the Artistic Director, was born in Lancashire; his mother was from Ballinasloe, Co Galway, Ireland, and his father’s family was also Irish. Daniel “Danny” Boyle (born 20 October 1956) is a film director best known for his work on films such as Slumdog Millionaire, Shallow Grave, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Trainspotting.


Danny was an altar server for eight years, and at one stage considered becoming a priest. Although not now religious as we might define it, clearly a lot is deeply engrained. The original Olympic Games had an overtly religious context: Mount Olympus in Greece was the abode of the Greek gods. War among the Greek states ceased during the games.


In case you suspect I’m making this up, keep in mind that Danny Boyle included two overtly religious pieces in the opening ceremony: William Blake’s 1808 poem now well known in a sung version called “Jerusalem”. Beneath this poem, Blake wrote: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets” (Numbers 11:29). The poem takes an ancient legend that Jesus, during his hidden years, visited England with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea. He also included the hymn “Abide With Me”, commemorating those who died in the London bombings of July 2007.

And Boyle finished his opening words saying, “We hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality … a belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.” You can’t get much more Apocalypse/Revelation and Catholic than that!

So, thinking over the Olympic opening ceremony, I offer some of the elements that rang bells with me.


The rural idyll at the start of the opening ceremony recalled an era of original innocence, a Garden of Eden, with a hill at one end of the stadium built to recall the Glastonbury Tor, associated in legend with the visit of Jesus.

The Fall seems associated with The “Dark Satanic Mills” in William Blake’s poem, along with intimations of salvation associated not just with the Holy Land, but with where the presence of Jesus is found:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

The “Chariot of Fire” recalls Elijah, with an Olympic reference to the film “Chariots of Fire” featured humorously in the ceremony.

Another humorous element with possible Christian echoes is where the monarch (the Queen) leaves her throne and descends from the heavens (by parachute!) among her people (although not to a stable).

The 27 ton Olympic Bell was inscribed with “Be not afeard” (The Tempest, Shakespeare), familiar words from Scripture.

The ceremony of the entry of the Olympic Torch into the stadium in the hours of darkness seems directly from the Easter Vigil. Following the procession with the light, it is shared among seven “acolytes”, and finally to the 204 elements (representing the 204 nations participating – the whole congregation) which become the Olympic Flame.

We have a Commemoration of the Dead: the hymn “Abide With Me”, remembering those killed in London bombings in 2005: certainly not a secular commemoration, but echoing the words of Jesus, abide in me.

Tim Berners-Lee, who laid the foundations of the World Wide Web, tweets “This is for everyone”, taken up by all in the stands. As James Joyce wrote, in “Finnegans Wake:” “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’”

Towards the conclusion we have the “Communion Rite”: seven billion (bio-degradable) pieces of paper from the sky, representing every human being on Earth. Could this be inspired by Manna, the Bread from Heaven?

We have seen the signs, as did the people in John 6. Mark & John remind us that we need to see further, to see and live what the signs point to. The ultimate sign is the one who lays down his life and takes it up again.

If the Olympic Liturgy of unity and hope were to take root in the lives of all peoples, how would it change the world? If we who share in the Bread of Life have really seen the signs, we, the Body of Christ, are to be Bread Broken for the life of the world.

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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    From this concreted-over patch of England’s green and pleasant land, thanks for the Olympic reflection, Padraig.
    But I suspect that, farther south here in Westminster, Msgr Andrew Wadsworth is already penning a missive to the Vox Clara offices at Rome, Jerusalem and Olympia condemning yourself, William Blake and Danny Boyle as a trio of liturgically illiterate,impossibly sentimental successors to “The Priests”.

  2. Mary Kelliher says:

    I’m afraid I wasn’t so positive…politicizing sport with health care & especially not only choosing the song ‘Relax’ by Frankie goes to Hollywood from the 80s, but having ‘Frankie says Relax’ on the t-shirt of the boy teenager who was featured was disgusting. (the song promotes masturbation & anything goes) Not a great teachable moment for our kids.

  3. Fintan J. Power says:

    At one point photos were raised on the screen which had been submitted by members of the public and showed people who had were “no longer with us” as one commentator stated. Did we not hear a few bars of Panis Angelicus whilst this was going on?
    Abide with Me is heard in soccer stadia in the UK but it was still brave of Danny Boyle to put it in given the largely secular nature of the UK today.
    I enjoyed the spectacle, even the humourous touch of Mr Bean appearing during the Chariots of Fire segment.

  4. Association of Catholic Priests says:

    Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is the author of screenplays and children’s fiction, worked alongside Danny Boyle in creating the magnificent and very inspiring Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, and Frank wrote the script. It is very thought-provoking to read in a substantial article in ‘Thinking Faith’ – the online journal of the British Jesuits – Frank’s own words as he reflects on that Ceremony and also adds a moral point in a postscript: http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20120808_1.htm

    Like Danny, Frank also has strong Catholic roots, being a former student of what is now De La Salle High School in St Helens, England, and a year ago attended a special Mass in town and spoke to those present. It may be recalled that in 2010 he co-presented the Papal Visit in Hyde Park, alongside Carol Vorderman, another Catholic.

    Incidentally, regarding the Opening Ceremony, some might be interested to know that Thomas Heatherwick, who produced the amazing multi-armed Olympic flame-cauldron, was the one who designed the renovation and re-furbishment of the church of the Benedictine Worth Abbey in Sussex: a very prayerful place. http://www.worthabbey.net/ml/church.htm

    This piece was sent to us by Nicholas Hutchinson, a De La Salle Brother in St. Helen’s, England

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