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Michael O’BrienFebruary 07, 2024
San Francisco 49ers' running back Christian McCaffrey (23) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Detroit Lions in the second quarter of the NFC Championship NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

When Lionel Messi and Argentina’s men’s national team won the 2022 World Cup Final, the soccer star was immediately overcome with emotion, falling to his knees and bursting into tears of joy. 

Mr. Messi, who is regarded by many as the greatest soccer player of all time, had never won the World Cup before, which many considered the last accolade to complete a near-immaculate career in soccer. But now, there was nothing left to be achieved. He had conquered the sport.

“There are very few players who can say that they have achieved everything and thanks to God I am one of them,” Mr. Messi said about his accomplishment. “If you put in the effort, sacrifice, work and humility, in the end, you achieve your goals.”

His “thanks to God” must have been heard loud and clear by Pope Francis, who, though he swore off television (including sporting events) 30 years ago, expressed his support for his fellow Argentines by inviting the team to an audience at the Vatican in celebration of their World Cup win. 

John Paul II was dubbed “the sportsman’s pope” and once wrote that sports is “not an end in itself but as a means to total and harmonious physical, moral and social development.”

During his audience, Pope Francis directly addressed the team: “People follow you, not just on the field, but off of it as well,” the pope said.“This is a social responsibility. Let me explain: In the game, when you’re on the field, you find beauty, gratitude and camaraderie. If a game is missing this, it loses its power—even if there’s a winner.”

Pope Francis’ linking of pastoral philosophy to sports is an element of his papacy that has been studied extensively by Creighton University professor Jay Carney. 

Mr. Carney, along with fellow Bluejay Max Engel and the University of Alberta’s Matt Hoven, are the co-authors of On the Eighth Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport. Mr. Carney will be hosting a talk in collaboration with DePaul University on Feb. 8 ahead of Super Bowl weekend. The authors will consider “how Pope Francis connects sport to the building of a culture of encounter.”

According to Mr. Carney, the genesis for the trio’s research on the intersection between sports and theology certainly came out of their passion for sports, but also because of a noticeable gap in scholarship on this relationship.

“There’s a lot of good stuff on sports, but what we hadn’t seen in our teaching and in our research was an accessible yet thoughtful, erudite and systematic theology of sport,” Mr. Carney said.

Of course, the church’s relationship with sports extends much further back than Francis’ pontificate. Mr. Hoven points out that sports played a significant role in the pontificate of John Paul II. He was dubbed “the sportsman’s pope” and once wrote that sports is “not an end in itself but as a means to total and harmonious physical, moral and social development.”

Then there is Pope Leo XIII, who not only took up sports in his leisure time but directly inspired former F.I.F.A. President Jules Rimet through his encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” Mirroring Leo XIII’s philosophy, Rimet once said, soccer can “propagate understanding and reconciliation between the races of the world.” 

Sports, Mr. Engel said, do a pretty good job of approximating an “innate desire for meaning, purpose and community.”

In researching the nature of previous popes’ relationship with sports and the admiration of sport in the Catholic world at large, Mr. Hoven noted that sports aren’t just “something kind of extra that Catholics do.” 

These popes’ passion for sports helped bring more attention to the importance of athletics, already prominent in Catholic life in the United States through venerable institutions like Catholic Youth Organization sports leagues.

Sports may be one way to access spiritual transcendence—think Christian runner Eric Liddell in “Chariots of Fire”—but the authors are careful not to invest sporting events with too much meaning. Moments of ecstasy like Mr. Messi’s—and perhaps more so among those of the billions of sports fans who passionately follow their teams—show the power that sports have to inspire deep emotion. But Mr. Engel believes sports lovers should be cautious when conferring god-like status on players like Mr. Messi.

Sports, Mr. Engel said, do a pretty good job of approximating an “innate desire for meaning, purpose and community.” But “sports are not intended to carry the human instinct for meaning and centrality and transcendence.”

“Sports kind of can point to that. But if that’s all we have, I think we fall a little bit short.”

Whichever team wins the Super Bowl this weekend—the Chiefs or the 49ers—you will very likely hear at least one athlete thanking God as part of his celebration after a particularly glorious moment. But Mr. Carney wants the Super Bowl audience to be a tad more skeptical of such appeals to the divine.

“I do think that one thing we also tried to do in our book and with our students is to distinguish between superstition and ritual,” Mr. Carney said.

“Superstition is all over sport, which reflects a deep human instinct to try to control. But fundamental to Jewish and Christian faith is the sense that you don’t manipulate God and you don’t control God,” he said. “And so we have to take a step back from that. But that doesn’t mean that I do think at your most flourishing self, God is there.”

"I remember telling my wife that the end of that cross-country race is closer to religious grace than any championship I’ve seen.”

The authors especially don’t want to discredit the mystical sports moments experienced by some athletes and fans. They can each point to experiences where they felt God’s presence in the rink, on the course or the playing field.

Mr. Hoven, a hockey fan from birth, talked about a backyard ice rink shared with neighbors and friends as a sacred space for him—his own rink of dreams, perhaps. 

“When you combine the sound of the skates on the ice, the laughter, the giving it our all to play a game, the community built, and the night sky above us,” he said, “it feels like home. If we think of heaven as home, it does have a sense of community, of play, and even of love.”

While his Detroit Lions suffered a heartbreaking loss in the N.F.C. championship, Mr. Engel, a Michigan native, will never take for granted the journey that Lions fans went on together to reach their first conference championship game in 32 years.

“I teared up because my grandfathers, all of my uncles, all of my cousins and all of my friends were Lions fans,” he said. “There’s just a rightness and there’s a community. There’s a grace here. God is present.”

For Mr. Carney, one memorable experience with sports came from watching a cross-country race his daughter participated in. He remembers seeing a girl towards the back of the pack coming toward the finish line, and while the time may have not been the fastest compared to her fellow athletes, her coaches and teammates cheered her on as if she were on pace to break the course record.

“I get choked up thinking about all these coaches running with her, pushing her across the line. And I remember telling my wife that the end of that cross-country race is closer to religious grace than any championship I’ve seen,” he said.

To tune into Mr. Carney’s talk on Pope Francis and sport, visit DePaul’s Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology Facebook page here, where the event will be live streamed.

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