For the first time, the International Olympic Committee has invited a Vatican delegation not only to take part in the opening ceremony of the Winter Games, but also to attend its general meeting as an official observer.
The delegation is to be led by Mgr Melchor Sanchez de Toca Alameda, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture and head of its Culture and Sport section.
The ceremony will take place at the Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on 9 February, preceded by the Olympic committee's annual session on 5-7 February where voting members will meet to discuss policy issues relating to the Games, reported the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
Mgr Sanchez, a former modern pentathlete, told the Vatican newspaper he would present the president of the IOC and all Korean Olympic athletes with the official yellow and white jerseys worn by members of the Vatican's running club, Athletica Vaticana. The club, like its other sports teams, is made up of employees of Vatican City State and the Holy See.
Pope Francis, himself a supporter of Argentine football club, San Lorenzo, held the first conference on sport and faith at the Vatican in 2016 where he asked delegates to "explore further the good that sport and faith can bring to our societies".
The Games is being hailed as a triumph for diplomacy after North Korea agreed to send a delegation following the first high-level talks between the two countries in two years.
Athletes from both North Korea and South Korea will walk together during the opening ceremony carrying the Korean ‘Unification Flag’ - designed to represent all of Korea when athletes from the North and South participate as one team. While athletes will compete for their respective countries, spectators will, for the first time, be able to watch a unified women’s ice hockey team.
Nearly two-dozen North Korean athletes received permission from the IOC to compete in the Winter Games, which take place 9-25 February.
The move comes at a time of heightened anxiety over the North’s nuclear programme. In recent months North Korean President Kim Jong-un has ramped up missile tests and conducted the country’s sixth nuclear test.
Pope Francis has been outspoken on nuclear disarmament. Last month in an annual speech to diplomats he said: “It is of paramount importance to support every effort at dialogue on the Korean peninsula, in order to find new ways of overcoming the current disputes, increasing mutual trust and ensuring a peaceful future for the Korean people and the entire world”.
The Korean peninsula has been divided since 1945 when the Russian-backed communist North split from the US-supported democratic south.
A Vatican delegation attended the opening of the Summer Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, but this is the first time a Vatican delegation is also invited to attend an annual session of the Olympic committee.
Picture: Senior officials of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, both winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, carry the torch of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics during a relay in Cheongju, South Korea. (CNS photo/Yonhap, EPA).