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Skiing priests illustrate the ‘rest of the story’ about the Catholic Church…

ROME – To invoke a medical analogy, journalism rarely delivers a whole-body scan when it covers a subject. A news report is more akin to a targeted x-ray, focused on whatever part of the body is creating the biggest problem at the moment – great for identifying a specific ailment, not so much for capturing a patient’s overall state of health.

More or less randomly, that thought comes to mind in light of a March 11-12 skiing competition for priests from the Alpine regions of Italy, France and Switzerland, which took place this year in the Italian resort city of Courmayeur, nestled at the foot of the towering Monte Bianco. By all accounts, the roughly 35 clerics who took part thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as did townspeople and visitors enchanted by the spectacle.

To judge from most journalism on the Catholic Church, you wouldn’t know such moments were even possible.

Recent Catholic headlines have focused on sources of heartburn such as a Vatican document approving the blessing of same-sex unions, comments from Pope Francis calling on Ukraine to wave a white flag in its war with Russia, and excerpts from a new papal autobiography in which, among other things, he takes aim at his critics. The cumulative impression can be that Catholicism is basically a battlefield, with opposing camps fighting each other continually.

Yet the ski contest, which is just one tiny example among countless others, captures an important corollary: Sure, the Church has its problems and tensions, but despite them, most Catholics, much of time, actually are having a blast. Walk into most parishes, rectories, seminaries, or other Catholic venues, and you won’t find a debating society or a MMA octagon cage – you’ll find family, with all the pathos but also all the joy it implies.

Think of it as the Hillaire Belloc rule: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so, Benedicamus Domino!”

All of which brings us to the March 11-12 “Alfred Delavay Challenge,” which featured a cross-country race, a downhill slalom contest, and a combined event, involving deacons, priests, and even a bishop from Switzerland, France and Italy, all of which share an Alpine border. The competition dates from 1962, making this the 62nd edition.

The event began with a Mass celebrated by Italian Bishop Giovanni Ambrosio, who retired from the Diocese of Piacenza in 2020, but who, at 80 years old, still strapped on his skis and took part in the race – though he admitted his goal wasn’t so much to win as to make sure that his old-fashioned wineskin, which he was carrying to sip on between events, came through unscathed.

Ambrosio concluded the opening Mass with the usual blessing, telling competitors, “The Lord be with you!” One wag shouted back, “Was that ‘be’ with us or ‘ski’ with us?”, to general titillation. (The quip works ever better in Italian, where the difference between Il Signore sia con voi and scia con voi is just one consonant.)

For the record, the overall winner was Father Jean-Yves Urvoy, a parish priest in Arles in Frances, who sashayed down the slopes in style, with the number 26 displayed on a white square over his black clerical soutane.

Technically, Urvoy actually came in third in combined times, with the best overall result belonging to Father Paolo Viganò, a pastor on the Italian side of the Alps. However, Viganò is just 34 while Urvoy is 55, and the competition comes with a handicap for age, so Viganò ended up in third place. The youngest competitor, by the way, was 29-year-old Father Valentin Roduit of Sion in Switzerland, meaning the age range spanned more than a half-century.

France was declared the national winner, while Como in Italy took home the diocesan prize.

In most ways that count, however, those results weren’t the heart of the matter.

Instead, it was the spirit of fun, illustrated by Father Gregorio Mrowczynski, a Polish priest who’s now a pastor at Courmayeur and who took part in the contest. While grousing about his own performance – “I need to eat less and build some muscle,” he said afterwards – he conceded he’s not really concerned with winning or losing.

“The silence of the peaks is relaxing,” he said. “Plus, I must say that while doing sport, you meet a lot of different people. If I waited for them to come to church, I’d only see them at funerals!”

Then there was recently ordained Father Maurice Sessou from the African nation of Benin, now serving in the Swiss mountain hamlet of Saint-Maurice.

“I only saw snow for the first time when I got here in 2017,” Sessou recalled, adding with a laugh, “I scooped it up and wanted to know what kind of flour it was!”

Sessou took part in the skiing contest last week, though he said his main achievement was not falling down. Nonetheless, he said, “I adore the mountains, because you discover how small you are … plus, I love the ordinary people who come out at night to prepare the trails.”

Undoubtedly, though, the prize for the most contented cleric on the course probably had to go to 84-year-old Father Claude Duverney of Gran San Bernardo in Italy, who’s been coming to the contest annually since 1980, except for a 14-year gap when he served as a missionary in Senegal.

Born in Switzerland but an Italian for most of his life, Duverney originally earned a degree in viniculture and helped low-income winegrowers in the Val d’Aosta region of Italy compete with bigger and more established vineyards. Later, he was enlisted to use his agricultural expertise in a microcredit program in Senegal, helping locals plant vegetable gardens in a region of the country where less than one percent of the population is Christian.

Duverney briefly made national headlines four years ago, when he decided to undertake a roughly 500-mile pilgrimage on foot from his home in the Alps to Rome for his 80th birthday, with the hope of being greeted by Pope Francis. For 42 days he walked the highways and byways of Italy, carrying only a small sack with water, a Bible and a change of clothes, and afterwards described the experience as a great time – among other things, he said, he made friends with some kids in the Lombardy region along the way with whom he’s still in touch.

For the record, he got his birthday greeting from the pope, who hailed him as a fellow octogenarian.

As for the ski contest, Duverney showed up driving himself in his small Fiat Panda, still carrying his own skis on his shoulders like a teenager. Although he didn’t place among the top finishers, he proudly told anyone who would listen that he’d out-performed at least three fellow priests who were less than half his age.

Does the “Alfred Delavay Challenge” represent news? Maybe not, at least in the classic sense.

However, if you want to understand the Catholic Church – and I mean the whole experience of the Church, not simply the elements that drive social media, cable TV talk segments, and snarky commentary – then you can’t overlook what happened last week at Monte Bianco, and the innumerable other moments of good cheer that percolate at all levels.

Yes, Catholic life is marked by endless tension, resentment and scandal, and no responsible coverage can pretend it’s not so. Yet it’s equally irresponsible, and misleading, to style all that as the whole story – because, let’s remember, laissez les bons temps rouler is also an eminently Catholic sentiment.

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