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‘Catholic theology of sports’ earns Creighton professor Vatican invite

Dec 2, 2022
5 min Read
Eugene Curtin
Max Engle meeting Pope Francis

Max Engel, PhD, associate professor of education at Creighton University, and James Jay Carney, PhD, associate professor of theology, are well aware that fans have long considered the advent of sporting luminaries like Wayne Gretzky, Pele, and now Aaron Judge as evidence of the hand of God in sports.

In fact, the two Creighton professors co-wrote a book about the religious fervor of sports culture, comparing the rituals, multi-generational passions and the arrival of sports-themed funerals to the religious impulse. That book, On the Eighth Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport, co-written by Engel, Carney and Matt Hoven, PhD, associate professor of sport and religion at the University of Alberta in Canada, earned Engel an invite to a recently concluded Vatican conference on inclusivity in sports.

The trip to Rome proved a life event, as Engel not only discussed his book with academic leaders from around the world but also met Pope Francis, whose well-known interest in sports drew a “bene, bene,” when presented with a copy of On the Eighth Day.

“One of the conveners had said we would love to meet the Holy Father but was told that he was in poor health and so it was not likely to happen,” Engel says. “But then we were told the Holy Father wished to see us and that we had an hour.”

Francis walked into the Paul VI Audience Hall without the aid of a walker, wheelchair or even a cane, Engel recalls, and greeted participants for most of an hour.

“His household assistants were telling him he was tired and should break things off and take a rest, but he just waved them off,” Engel recalls. “He’s a big supporter of sports, and it was pretty clear that he wanted to greet everybody.”

Sports are for everyone to encounter, because in sports people encounter each other, themselves, and, ultimately, God.
— Max Engel, PhD

The conference lasted from Sept. 29-30 and was titled, “Sport for All: Cohesive, Accessible and Tailored to Each Person.” Its central theme, Engel said, was the importance of making sports available to all people regardless of gender or income but also the damaging impact on that effort of concentrating sports and sports revenue in the hands of an increasingly small number of sports cartels.

“Whether it’s the European Super League, or UCLA and USC joining the Big Ten, or the increasing expense and professionalization of youth sports with 10-year-olds going to tournaments in Orlando and California and Vegas, the conference represented a prophetic voice calling us to recognize that sports are not to be commodified, that sports are for everyone to encounter, because in sports people encounter each other, themselves, and, ultimately, God,” Engel says.

The conference participants, Engel says, committed to spreading the message that sports, like all matters involving human beings, are avenues for pursuing holiness and involve questions of meaning, loss, longing, competition, growth, challenge and redemption, and that opportunities to pursue those fundamental human qualities must be made as widely available as possible.

“Any person, of any religious faith, or of no faith, can look at the document that was presented at this conference and say, ‘Yes, people should have access to sports regardless of gender or of creed or income, that sports should not be run by cartels or be overly commercialized,’” Engel says. “It's a really good document, and now it falls to us to spread word about it across our countries and our sports federations.”