sports and martial arts and the roman


sports and martial arts and the roman
The Physical Education Academy, Katowice, Poland
Martial arts, Catholicism, Church
The relations between the Catholicism and martial arts seem to be very complicated.
Some of these sports disciplines (e. g. boxing) are brutal. The other (tae kwon do, karate,
aikido, judo, kung fu, kendo) are deeply rooted to the religious, moral and philosophical
systems of Eastern Asia, different from the Christian patterns. But generally approved ideas
and practical issues of sport, accepted by all currents and suggestions born on the grounds of
affirmation of progressive and universal directions of development of human culture,
additionally strengthen the ideas found in various sports and martial arts. In this way they
become more and more popular also within the spheres of public activity of modern Roman
Catholic Church. There are some true martial arts` lovers among the clergymen. Irish
Capuchin Father Jude McKenna and Polish priest Mirosław Surgała are particularly worth
The representatives of the ascetic current within the Roman – Catholic Church often held
the matters of human body in contempt. Nevertheless there was a trend appreciating the
advantages of the physical ability present in the Catholicism at least from the Middle Ages. It
is enough to mention the eutrapellias introduced by St Thomas of Aquinas [13]. The
eutrapellias of St Thomas of Aquinas (1225 – 1274) – considered as a form of physical
activity performed by people – were regarded as a form of virtue and art at the same time.
Such physical activity could take shape of different games and plays, recognized as an
important element of organization of free time. Generally, different forms of physical activity
were regarded as an important component in the process of accumulation of life energy, up keeping of good mood and joy, facilitation in maintaining the physical and psychical balance
of man, deepening one’s sagacity and moderation in one’s struggle with vice and urge. Such
examples of active involvement in physical exercises in Middle Ages (even before the
appearance of St Thomas of Aquinas) were not scarce. A monk, St Bernard of Clairvaux
(1090 – 1153) practiced boxing, St Augustine, the Father and Doctor of the Church was an
active performer of gymnastics, and Bishop Sidonius of Gallia (5th century) liked to run, play
with a ball, swim and hunt [16, 19].
In the 15th century cardinal Enea Silvio de Piccolomini (later pope Pius II) considered
chosen forms of physical activity as important factors of upbringing of the youth. In the
periods of Renaissance and Enlightenment physical exercises played also an important role in
the educational programs introduced by different Catholic orders (the Jesuits and Piarists in
particular). The lay students of schools managed by these congregations used to be
encouraged e. g. to swim, ride a horse, play ball games and fence.
In the 19th and 20th centuries the Catholic Church was forced to formulate her standpoint
towards the phenomenon of the modern sports movement. The attitude turned out to be
generally positive as the carnal and the spiritual values of sport were recognized to be
However, there were some questions concerning sport, that the Catholic Church used to
consider as controversial (they were not always conformable to her doctrine and moral
teaching). The modern Olympic movement was one of them. The famous meetings of Pius X
with Pierre de Coubertin in 1905 and of Pius XII with the President of the International
Olympic Committee Siegfried Edström in 1946 were the steps that led to the slow acceptance
of the Olympism by the Holy See. The good relations were later strengthened thanks to the
Paul VI’ s politics and John Paul II’ s sporting fascinations. The latter had good relations with
the IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch and even was awarded the Golden Olympic Order
in 1982. The contribution by Pius XI (Achille Ratti) seems to be worth mentioning as well. A
former alpinist (and the Apostolic nuncio to Poland from 1919 to 1921) did not meet baron de
Coubertin during his pontificate, but he understood the question of sport very well. In 1929 he
published his “Divini illius Magistri” encyclical, where he used the expression “physical
culture” as the first of the popes. Pius XI considered physical exercises as important factors of
the state (military and civic) education. There were big similarities linking Pius XI and John
Paul II as far as their positive attitudes towards sport were concerned.
Still it must be emphasized, that the Roman - Catholic Church has always been against
all the deformations of modern sport. Its excessive commercialization and mediatization,
frantic quest for records, doping and the nationalisms inherent in have been considered as
particularly damaging phenomena.
Several statements and addresses by the high Church dignitaries (including the popes)
supporting the development of sport and tourism were published. A large number of Catholic
athletic clubs and organizations could be regarded as the evidence of the propitious approach
as well [16, 17].
Many people consider that the Catholic system of values and practicing martial arts are
opposed. The majority of these sports must evidently be considered as brutal - they frequently
say. It is also pointed out that such disciplines as judo, tae kwon do, kung fu, jujitsu, aikido or
kendo are deeply rooted to the religious and ethic traditions of Eastern Asia.
The latter problem was discussed by the partakers of the Symposium entitled “Dowsing,
astrology, pseudoscience and spiritual dangers”, held in Gdańsk in April 1999. One of the
main speakers was Dominik Chmielewski, a leading Polish expert of the issue (Kancho – 3
Dan), the karate technical manager of the Polish Union of Martial Arts in Bydgoszcz. He
published his text in “Biuletyn Gdańskiego Centrum Informacji o Sektach i Nowych Ruchach
Religijnych” (Bulletin of the Gdańsk Information Center on Sects and New Religious
Movements) in 2000. Later Joanna Jarzębińska – Szczebiot and Marek Szczebiot analyzed
the issue as well, referring in a great measure to his views.
They stated in one of their articles:
“It is worth remembering that Eastern martial arts cannot be recognized as a form of
counter - reaction or self - defense only. Under the pretence of exercises the brains of their
practitioners are being contaminated with a number of issues familiar to the Eastern moral
and philosophical system of merits” [5].
Referring to the history of these sports disciplines, they also emphasized:
“In order to grasp the meaning of a phenomenon, discover the ideas hidden inside it one
has to familiarize with its history. This is also the case of Eastern martial arts. The history
delineating their appearance may help in finding an answer whether the world view of those
practicing martial arts can be reconciled with the world view generally cherished by believers
of Christianity (…).This, as well as other forms, have also reached Europe. Currently,
thousands of young people, young Christians included, get involved in various styles of
Eastern martial arts, not always being fully aware of what these styles bring with
themselves and what philosophy is being offered” [4].
However, is there really no possibility to reconcile the Christian outlook on life with
improving the athletic skills according to the rules of the - above mentioned - martial arts? Let
us try to investigate the question in the wider perspective, with regard to the whole Roman –
Catholic Church teaching towards the problems of modern physical culture.
It is boxing, as well as other sports and martial arts, that can serve as a good example of a
school, in which human characters are molded in the spirit of mutual, widely understood,
mercy; it is there where various forms of understanding and co - operation among people, in
the atmosphere of acceptance of different, clearly opposite, opinions and the virtue of
tolerance towards religious beliefs of others are formed. What should also be remembered is
“(…) the basic function of sport is to help men, and not otherwise (…). Sport brings the
joy of life, a wish to freely express oneself, a want to fully self - realize one’s dreams; this is
an example of loyal and noble meetings, a bond of solidarity and friendship (…)” [10].
The prayer - book of Polish Olympic sportsmen contains the following prayer that should
be said after trainings:
“O Lord, I have a healthy body and I thank Thou for it! I also thank Thou that I can
practice sport. (…) Help me, so that I should not limit myself to excelling my physical fitness
only, but kept growing in Thine grace and wisdom. Amen” [8].
The deep sense of the prayer, as well as some form of expiation, shows its universal
character. It may also be accepted by agnostics. It could be best illustrated by a Slovak
aphorism, understood not only by Poles: “He who lost honor in sport, lost everything” (“Kto
v sporte poctivost utrati, tomu se viac nevrati”) [7]. The words the Pope Benedict XVI said to
the believers who gathered on the Vatican square on February 12th, 2006 on behalf of the XIV
World Day of the Sick, when he was having his speech before the angelus prayer seem to be
of importance here:
“For us, Christians, Jesus Christ is the only true doctor of all humanity, who was sent to
the world by His Holy Father so as He should help cure a man marked on his body and his
soul by sin and its results (…)”.
And after the angelus prayer the Pope greeted the participants of the XX Winter Olympic
Games in Turin, saying among others:
“I would warmly like to greet the organizers, the IOC and all the participants of the
Games that arrived here from all parts of the world. I wish you this beautiful meeting was
held in the atmosphere of Olympic merits of loyalty and brotherhood, in this way making its
contribution to the all - important issue of world peace among nations” [9].
This enunciation of Benedict XVI on sport proves that the current Pope does not only
want to join the more than one – hundred - years old tradition of popes presenting their views
on sport (cf. the enunciations of the Popes: Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI
and John Paul II), but also sees the presence of sport in the issues concerning social
instruction delivered by the Roman Catholic Church [12, 14, 18, 20, 22, 23]. At the same time,
in his newest encyclical entitled “Deus caritas est” (God is Love), published on January 2nd,
2006, this Peter of our times wants to convince us that
“Eros needs to be disciplined, purified, so as to be able to give man not a momentary
pleasure, but some form of the climax of human existence, this mirth which is the prerequisite
of our earthly life; (…) it is not the soul only, nor the body only, that is able to express love; it
is man, a being formed of the soul and the body, who can give and take love (…)” [2].
The Pope Benedict XVI beholds love (both carnal and spiritual – remark M. Po.) as a
universal merit perceived in the categories of physical, moral and spiritual harmony. This is
where he comes very close to the ancient idea of kalokagati (i.e. the antic belief of the
importance of the balance of physical, ethic and intellectual merits).
There have been several Church personalities to unite the virtues of martial arts and
Catholic system of values successfully. There are Fathers Jude McKenna and Mirosław
Surgała among them.
As a young man Jude McKenna was a leading Irish boxer. He was even supposed to take
part in the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960, but before the event he had decided to start his
order novitiate. Being a clergyman yet, he took up judo as well.
Capuchin Father Jude McKenna is a world – known sporting celebrity. In 1980 he served
as an official Vatican chaplain for the Olympics Games held in Moscow. Later he trained
Zambian representatives in boxing and judo for many years and was also president of the
Zambian Judo Federation [3]. In 2006 he was a member of the Executive Board of the
Commonwealth Judo Championships in Northern Ireland [1]. In his opinion:
“Sport gives people focus and vision. They aim for something, they train for it and many
of them are or have become tremendously disciplined people. This is a quality that adds to the
journey of life, making them much better citizens, fathers and mothers of the future” [3].
In 2003 the University of Rzeszów Press published a collection of essays entitled “The
Humanistic Theory of Sports and Martial Arts; Concepts and Problems” (eds. Wojciech
Cynarski and Kazimierz Obodyński) in which my report on the life and activity of Father
Mirosław Surgała, one of the priests that excelled themselves in Far East sports and martial
arts was placed [15]. In 1998, Father Mirosław Surgała, as one of the team members, took the
first place in the Team European Championships in Judo - Sport that were held in Antwerp,
Belgium. Father Surgała spent his youth in Przełajka, a site placed in the outskirts of
Siemianowice. He also learned karate in the Pszczyna Academy of Eastern Martial Arts (his
coach and teacher being Jan Jasiewicz). Later, he worked with would - be detectives in a
Jastrzębie - located Detective School, where he was employed as a teacher. It seems quite
possible that there are many more young priests of the type of Father Surgała (i.e. that
practice sports and martial arts) in Poland, what may evidence our proposition that it is also
priests that are compelled to excel themselves in various self - defense techniques so as to
defend themselves from unexpected attacks of incidentally met hooligans. That was the case
of Father Surgała who was unexpectedly attacked by a seventeen – year - old hooligan. It was
due to the fact that he practiced martial sports in his youth that he was able to defend himself
from this attack. From now on nobody dared to attack a young priest from Upper Silesia [6].
Currently, one can find more examples of practicing boxing and/or various (Far-East
imported) sports or martial arts by young priests.
There have also been some other trials to introduce the Christian values into the
environment of the martial arts lovers. The Internet OKIEM Encyclopedia informs on one of
such cases, undertaken in Poland:
“Most of schools involved in the process of education of martial arts are connected to
the philosophy of Far East, but the only one that definitely does not accept that trend is the
Józef Budny Academy of Eastern Martial Arts located in Pszczyna. The fundamental
philosophical trends of the Academy are closely connected with Christianity. Trainings begin
and finish with a benediction; additionally, the training participants often take part in
different forms of retreats. They also gather to meditate upon the words of God. It is only
after one confronts this school with other similar academies that one can behold the level of
dependence of the remaining schools on the eastern ways of reasoning. The Pszczyna
Academy shows that one can train and pray at the same time. Many priests train and work
here. The academy has its branches in some other Polish towns as well as the Republic of
Slovakia” [11].
You can obviously find several examples of sportsmen practicing martial arts, who
declare their devotion to the Catholic values. Father Krzysztof Sitek, the chaplain of the
Upper Silesia sporting community, while analyzing numerous examples of self - excellence of
young sportsmen as well as their struggle with their own weaknesses, gave the example of
Tomasz Adamek, the professional boxing world champion, and commented on his life with
such words:
“(…) he is a strong Roman Catholic believer, he often comes in pilgrimages to
Częstochowa and what – should we condemn him, just because he chose boxing as his life
career?” [21].
The enunciations on sport, as well as widely understood, physical culture, delivered by
John Paul II and Benedict XVI, generally refer to sports and martial arts, which are an
important form of physical activity of man. These noble examples of human physical activity,
formed in various cultures and civilizations (often older than our Mediterranean civilization),
can find their emanations in Western cultural circles, in various Olympic and non - Olympic
sports. Generally approved ideas and practical issues of sport, accepted by all currents and
suggestions born on the grounds of affirmation of progressive and universal directions of
development of human culture, additionally strengthen the ideas found in various sports and
martial arts. In this way they become more and more popular also within the spheres of public
activity of modern Roman Catholic Church.
Translated by Krzysztof Polok & Adam Fryc
[1] Commonwealth Judo Championships 2006 Northern Ireland. General Information (in:)
the Internet:
[2] Deus caritas est. Pierwsza encyklika Benedykta XVI. W Rzymie, 25 grudnia roku 2005, w
uroczystość Narodzenia Pańskiego, w pierwszym roku mego Pontyfikatu (God Is Love. The
first encyclical of Benedict XVI. In Rome, December 25th, 2005, the Holiday of the Birth of
Jesus Christ, in the first year of my Pontifical), Libreria Editrice Vaticana, The Vatican 2005.
[3] Evangelizing, the Sporting Way (in:) the Internet:
[4] Jarzębińska – Szczebiot J., Szczebiot M., Chrześcijaństwo a wschodnie sztuki walki
(Christianity and Eastern Martial Arts), [in:] the Internet:
[5] Jarzębińska – Szczebiot J., Szczebiot M., Chrześcijaństwo a wschodnie sztuki walki (cz.
III) (Christianity and Eastern Martial Arts [part 3]), [in:] the Internet:
[6] Karpeta Z., Nierzadko pod sutanną (Quite often under the Cassock), “Dziennik Zachodni”
1999, 182.
[7] Kasa J., Sportove aforizmy a sentencie (Sports aphorisms and sentences), Trencianska
Univerzita w Trencie, Bratislava 2003.
[8] Katolicka Agencja Informacyjna (The Catholic Information Agency), Ateny: polska ekipa
pojedzie z duszpasterzem (Athens: The Polish Squad will Go with Their Priest), [in:] the
Internet: http//
[9] Katolicka Agencja Informacyjna (The Catholic Information Agency), Papież pozdrowił
uczestników olimpiady w Turynie, Watykan, 12.02.2006 (The Pope Greeted Participants of the
Turin Olympic Games, the Vatican, Feb 12th, 2006), [in:] the Internet:
[10] Kościół broni wartości sportu. Przemówienie Jana Pawła II podczas ceremonii otwarcia
Mistrzostw Świata w Piłce Nożnej “Italia 1990” (The Church Defends the Merits of Sport.
Speech delivered by John Paul II at the ceremony of opening of Football World
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Episkopatu Polski i wybranych encyklik oraz innych enuncjacji papieskich do 2000 roku
(Active Involvement in Tourism in the Light of the Newest Documents of the Polish
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Arts), University of Rzeszów Press, 2003, pp. 43 - 49.
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studentów szkół wyższych. Przypisy i komentarz historyczny oraz dobór dokumentów
(Physical Culture in the Light of the Papal Documents as well as the Documents of the
Episcopate of Poland in the First Decade (1989 – 1999) of the 3rd Republic. Source materials
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[19] Schauber V., Schindler M., Ilustrowany leksykon świętych (Illustrated Lexicon of Saints),
Jedność, Kielce 2002.
[20] Sport nie może być celem samym w sobie (Sport Couldn’t Be the Aim for Itself). A talk
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Pontificate: Sport 2005, 6 (Appendix to “Gazeta Wyborcza”).
[21] Sportowiec z duszą (A Sportsman with a Soul). A talk Grzegorz Mikuła held with Father
Krzysztof Sitek, chaplain of Upper Silesia sport community, “Echo miasta Katowice”, 2005,
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