As Tokyo readies to welcome thousands of the world’s top athletes later this month for the Olympics, the local archbishop has announced that “regrettably” no Catholic parish will be able to welcome them due to the spread of COVID-19, as the Japanese city is once again in a state of emergency.
The Olympic games, originally scheduled for 2020, will run July 23 to Aug. 8. Close to 10,000 athletes will compete in the international multi-sport event and several thousand more in the para-Olympic games, set to begin in Aug. 24.
Though not every athlete speaks openly about their faith, there are several, including some from TeamUSA, who have referred to their Catholic faith as something they lean on, including one of the greatest female gymnasts of all times, Simone Biles, who two years ago broke the all-time record for most medals won by a gymnast at age 22. Such athletes, however, won’t be practicing that faith while they’re in Tokyo, at least in any facility run by the local church.
Archbishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi announced his decision in a message to the faithful of Tokyo published by UcaNews.com on July 12. In it, he explains that the provisions issued by the archdiocese on June 20 remain in place, while new ones were issued that will keep athletes from receiving pastoral attention from the archdiocese.
Among the restrictions that were already in place is a limited number of faithful allowed to take part of in-person celebrations, and limiting attendance at liturgical events to registered parishioners only. In addition, the elderly and the sick are encouraged to pray at home, parish meetings are to be online and there needs to be a transparent barrier between priest and the penitent during the sacrament of Confession.
These measures were implemented to try to control the spread of coronavirus infections, and the prelate said in late June that they would remain in place, even if the government lifted the state of emergency. Now that the government of Japan has issued a fourth declaration of a state of emergency for Tokyo’s metropolitan area, he’s insisting that not only are they still in place but will also impact the athletes.
The alert affects some 38 million people who live in the Greater Tokyo Area, considered the most populated metropolitan region in the world.
In Monday’s statement, Kikuchi invited athletes and those who accompany them during their time in Japan, to refrain from visiting churches, recalling that the guiding principle followed by the Church of Tokyo in the pandemic has always been “not to infect oneself and not to allow others to be infected.”
The games will be held mainly in the Tokyo Metropolitan area, and with the government’s declaration of a state of emergency, there are expected to take place without a live audience. However, the bishop wrote, “the gathering of the athletes and their support staff coming from all over the world raises concerns about causing further increase in number of coronavirus cases.”
“For the past years, the Tokyo Archdiocese had originally been considering preparations so that each parish may be able to address the spiritual needs of the many people who would come to Japan for this international event,” Kikuchi wrote. “However, we have decided to cancel all plans and thus, will not take any special involvement in the Olympics and Paralympics.”
“In addition, all those who will be coming to the Tokyo Metropolitan area during this period will be provided with information concerning the precautionary measures implemented against COVID-19 infection in the parishes and will be requested to refrain from visiting churches,” he said.
Kichuchi also said that even though a national vaccination program is progressing, highlighting that he’s been vaccinated, “as well as the Holy Father,” it won’t be mandatory to show proof of vaccination to attend Mass.
“Let us keep in mind that it is an important duty for us to protect not only our own lives but also to protect all those who have received God’s gift of life,” the bishop wrote, promoting charitable actions by parishes, Church-ran organizations and individual faithful. “On top of that, as we take adequate measures against COVID-19 infection, let us do our best to respond to the concerns of those in need.”
Japan has registered nearly deaths due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, being among the first nations to be able to control the contagion curve, but experts have warned about its ongoing growth and the risk the Olympics pose, both for locals and athletes. In addition, the slow start of the vaccination rollout has also faced supply glitches, with less than 30 percent of the total population receiving at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
In recent weeks, since the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee announced that spectators would be banned from most sports and put a cap on the number of people each athlete can bring to the game, many of the world’s top biggest names have announced they would be skipping them, including tennis powerhouses Rafa Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka, Nick Kyrgios, Serena Williams and Simona Halep. Recent Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic said on Sunday that he’s “50-50″ about competing.