It was a spectacle to behold: More than two dozen stunning young women, all wearing purple dresses ornamented by the same design as a Greek ionic column, that made the women appear almost to be floating on air. It took place in Olympia, Greece. It was a fitting location, as it was the ceremony in which the Olympic Torch was set alight and sent off on its journey, eventually landing in Paris for the 2024 Summer Games. 

If I did not know that before I began watching video from the ceremony, it would have been easy for me to believe that maybe I stumbled upon some dark web pagan ceremony or the latest TikTok influencers behaving like they were under the influence.

But I was watching the National Broadcast Company (NBC) official YouTube Channel. An announcer described every move the “high priestess” made. I say “high priestess” because that is exactly how the announcer referred to her, with all the seriousness of a person announcing the arrival of the King of England at Parliament. The NBC producers reinforced the announcer’s solemnity with a chyron bearing the title of “high priestess” onscreen. And, not being an expert on ancient pagan ritual, I will assume she followed the right rubrics as she invoked the blessing of the god Apollo to help with the lighting of the Olympic torch.

After a little research, I found a historical nugget that made this neo-pagan ritual all the more disconcerting. It seems the tradition of the Olympic Torch being lit in Greece on the site where the concept of Olympic games originated, and then transported via a chain of human torch bearers to the host city of the Games, was the brainchild of the organizers of another Olympics — the Berlin games of 1936. The National Socialists were also big on neopagan symbolism and big ceremonies. Of course, there were no torch relays in 1940 and 1944, as the Germans were busy with their own kind of processions back to Greece and all points north, south, east, and west.

It may not sound like it, but I like the Olympics, and will probably watch many of the events, though I think I will take a pass on the odes to Odin or whatever other pagan pageantry that will be on display. I will appreciate the incredible athletic achievement and maintain my conviction that there is not a scintilla of metaphysical significance to the games. The International Olympic Committee has a list of scandals as long as Bob Beaman’s long jump record and the amount of money it generates make it clear that it all has more to do with the material than the ethereal.

As superficial and theatrical as pretending to be priestesses serving imaginary eternal beings may appear, there is a darker element to this side show. The official video of this ceremony produced by a major American media conglomerate is a spiritual heads-up for us Catholics who live sometimes too much a sedentary spiritual life in our middle-class comfort, with all the alliances and peace treaties we have made with the culture at large. But there are times, and the Greek god pantomime is a good example of it, we are reminded that our faith was and continues to be the real countercultural movement. If we get too comfortable with these seemingly “little” detours from the focus of THE God of the Universe, we do so at our peril.

There is a practical reason to be wary of such spectacles where occultist leanings are celebrated. It can open doors that are supposed to remain closed and bolted. If we want to view these neopagan exercises as some kind of harmless performance art, I would caution to think again. Unbolting those doors can lead to an unwelcome visitor, and this explains why the Vatican has an international association of exorcists. 

As Scripture makes clear, the road to heaven is rife with distractions and that is why Our Lord left us a Church and a road map. Through her teachings and guidance, the Church keeps us from steering ourselves off that road and into a spiritual sinkhole. Flirting with the occult, no matter how superficially, is driving while impaired.

So, let’s all cheer on the athletes who will compete in Paris this summer. But let us all keep in mind, as we see more examples of a pagan-lite extravaganza, which I am sure the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2024 games will have in abundance, that we must keep our spiritual eyes on the Church’s own road signs. When it comes to pagan gods the sign reads: Road Closed Ahead.