There is high praise indeed for a new book co-written by University of Alberta professor Matt Hoven. Almost the highest there is, in fact.
It took a few seconds, but once Pope Francis realized what he’d just been handed by the St. Joseph’s College scholar during a sport conference at the Vatican this fall, he was delighted.
“I said, ‘Holy Father, this is our book,'” Hoven recalls. “He was momentarily puzzled by the image of a ball on the cover. Then I pointed to the subtitle, A Catholic Theology of Sport, and he went, ‘Ah! Bene!’ His face lit up and he smiled cheerfully.
“It was touching for me,” says Hoven, an associate professor and Doris and Peter Kule Chair in Religious Education. And it was an affirmation of sorts, that the book, titled On the Eighth Day, was considered by the head of the Roman Catholic Church to be a relevant way to explore the religion.
“The Pope has given dozens of speeches to sport groups, but to hear it from his lips that he was genuinely enthused and thought (the book) was a great idea meant the world to me and to my co-authors.”
Passion for the game
Now included in the Vatican Library, the book calls for Catholics — and everyone else — to reflect on the relationship between faith and sport.
“Our book engages religion in a way that many people can find valuable,” Hoven says. “It’s about looking more deeply at life and at sport. We hope religious people will savour sport more and get more involved in it, that theologians will take sport more seriously, and that any reader can reflect on a new day for their relationships with one another.”
On the Eighth Day is also included in a U of A course on sport and religion taught by Hoven, who studies the religious dimension of sport.
“Students in the class have a passion for sport in one way or another as athletes, fans or coaches, and reading the book deepens and broadens their understanding of sport and how, theologically, it can be a place for asking some of life’s important questions.”
Co-written with two colleagues from Creighton University in Nebraska, the book is named for a banner hockey fans hung at an Edmonton Oilers game in the ’80s, declaring, “On the 8th day, God created Gretzky.” For Christians, the eighth day is the fulfilment of the seven days of creation, marking Christ’s resurrection.
“It plays off the idea that it is a new day, calling on Christians and others to think about sport in a new way.”
Connecting with something greater
The book takes a comprehensive look at what it means to be faithful humans in sport, he adds.
“There’s a major connection between sport and higher ideals and values that can get lost or forgotten when sport is highly commercialized and uber-competitive.”
The eight-chapter work explores the history of Catholic involvement in sport dating from early Christians to modern day, the value of play and sport in religious life, and social justice issues within modern sport. It addresses ethical questions like the influence of sport’s comparison culture that can lead to envy, mental health issues and even violence.
On the Eighth Day also explores the Catholic belief that “communities and families should enable human flourishing so each person can be their best, that their potential is developed,” says Hoven.
In the push to excel, it’s easy to lose track of that underlying value, he notes.
“Sport should benefit participants as humans, not just as athletes. For example, youth playing sports are often treated as adults-in-training instead of as children or adolescents. It might seem good to build high-performing athletes, but very few of those kids will make it to the highest levels of sport. So the question becomes, what good is sport for them?”
It’s important for everyone, whether religious or not, to remember the values of sport, Hoven says.
“We can miss that sport has a social dimension, that it welcomes refugees and immigrants to our country, that it binds communities together and supports the spirit of schools and colleges.
“Sport really can be a cohesive element within society.”