A delegation from the Holy See is in South Korea this week to participate in the opening of the Winter Olympic games, and for the first time, to observe a key strategic meeting ahead of opening ceremony.
Msgr. Melchor Sánchez de Toca, Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, will be the Holy See's official representative at the event. He will be accompanied by Stefano Calvigioni of the Italian Olympic Committee, who helps coordinate between his own organization, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Vatican.
Opening Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this year's games will last until Feb. 25. The main skiing, snowboarding and sliding events will take place in Pyeongchang, which is part of South Korea's Gangwon province, and sits near the border with North Korea.
Other events such as skating, hockey and curling events will take place in the city of Gangneung, about an hour's drive from Pyeongchang.
In addition to representing the Holy See at the opening ceremony, Sánchez de Toca is also participating as an observer in the Feb. 5-7 IOC Olympic Session, marking the first time they've been invited to attend the meeting.
The Holy See has been present at the Olympics before, having attended the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016. However, the invite to the Olympic Session marks a first for the Vatican.
In comments to CNA, Sánchez de Toca said the Holy See received the invitation from Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, and that the invite, particularly to attend the Olympic Session, “is important,” especially since the Holy See has no Olympic committee of its own.
The IOC session is a large, general meeting in which all members of the IOC, the National Olympic Committees (NOC), the presidents of Federations of Olympic sports and other organizations meet to discuss major themes on the agenda for the Olympics. Candidate cities for future Olympic events are also chosen in the session, and numerous strategic projects are approved.
Sánchez de Toca told CNA that the Holy See is present as a sovereign entity, but as representatives of the Holy Father, they bring “the voice of the conscience and morals, which ultimately come from the message of Christ and of the Gospel.”
Referring specifically to ongoing tensions between North and South Korea over the former's nuclear programs, he said the Holy See backs any efforts for reconciliation that have been made and that will be made during the games.
After a year ripe with heightened nuclear tensions, this year's Winter Olympics carries a significant weight, since North Korea will have 22 athletes participating in the games.
The two Koreas have endured years of diplomatic freeze over the North's nuclear programs, and fears over a possible nuclear war have been especially acute in recent months.
However, the two Koreas have agreed to march under a unified flag at the opening ceremonies for the Games, and the two have even gone so far as to form a unified women's hockey team, with 12 North Korean players joining South Korea's team.
In addition to their athletes and Vice Sports Minister Won Kil U, North Korea is expected to send some 230 spectators, plus 140 more artists, journalists and taekwondo experts. The last time North Korea sent a large delegation to the South was for the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, west of Seoul.
Some experts on the region have argued that the North is planning to use increased ties with the South as a means of weakening U.S.-led sanctions against the country.
"North Korea is projecting this idea that the sanctions regime against North Korea is very artificial and also an obstacle against the improvement of inter Korean relations," Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, told VOA News.
In his comments to CNA, Msgr. Sánchez de Toca said “we support the small gestures of peace which are able to invite the delegates of other countries to continue negotiations for peace.”
He voiced hope that the Holy See will be able to participate in future Olympic events, saying the eventual goal is to “establish some time of permanent relationship between the Holy See and the IOC.”