Sport and Catholic spirituality do mix, and rather well


Two Creighton University professors have dedicated years to researching the relationship between the spiritual dimension of sport, Catholic spirituality and theology.

Dr JJ Carney and Dr Max Engel’s research offers insights into the spiritual dimensions of athletic competition and how the two worlds can interconnect.

Evangelisation through sport

Carney and Engel teach a popular course examining sport from a faith perspective.

Their research posits sports as a unique platform for spiritual engagement and evangelisation, and their book “On the 8th Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport” aims to help students recognise the intrinsic links between religious beliefs and the realm of sports.

“The trials and tribulations in sports can lead to profound encounters with Jesus through the Paschal Mystery” notes Engel.

Examining sports’ ritualistic and spiritual practices also challenges the distinction between superstition and genuine spiritual acts.

“We focus on ritual and prayer as a means of deepening one’s relationship with God” Carney clarifies, differentiating between authentic spiritual practices and mere rituals.

“That’s different from saying ‘I’m going to pray this way, and God will make sure that field goal goes through’.”

The professors also strive to help students recognise the grace, communal bonds and self-sacrifice in sports, mirroring Jesus’ teachings.

Suffering death and resurrection in sport

Engel noted that sports’ inherent suffering and loss present “an opportunity to encounter Jesus through the paschal mystery”.

The researchers encourage students to explore how formative experiences like season-ending injuries or championship defeats relate to core Catholic teachings about the passion and resurrection of Christ.

“Seeing other people go ‘Oh, I see what you’re talking about…I didn’t realise what sacrifice for the team had to do with Jesus’ sacrifice for us'” Engel said, describing some students’ reactions.

Student growth and insight

For Carney and Engel, some of the most rewarding aspects involve witnessing students’ perspectives evolve as they uncover spiritual truths through the athletic lens.

Carney cited instances where pupils began to understand how “just because you didn’t win the championship didn’t mean God wasn’t in that difficult experience”.

Engel echoed that sports can serve as “an easy entrée” to explore profound theological concepts through a familiar passion, fostering deeper self-reflection among students.


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