Max Engel and Matt Hoven smile with their book at St. Peter's Basilica

When Jay Carney, Max Engel (left), and Matt Hoven (right) met in the mid-2000s as graduate students at the School of Theology and Religious Studies, they never imagined their friendship would lead to a book presented to a pope.

Sure enough, Hoven received a “Bene, bene!” from Pope Francis as he showed On the Eighth Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport during a 2022 Vatican conference on inclusivity in sports.

“He was very warm, gracious, and encouraging,” said Hoven, Ph.D. 2011, who said it was “fantastic” to receive such a positive response from one of the chief inspirations for the book.

“Pope Francis has given so many speeches on sport and we see it as a place of Catholic institutional involvement,” said Hoven. While there have been explorations of faith and sports, he said they found a need for a comprehensive field guide from a Catholic perspective.

The trio first met at the University and bonded over their shared studies of the faith, biking, and playing Frisbee. Hoven said the University faculty and “their example of seeking the pursuit of truth and doing it for the good of the Church was inspirational to me. They had big hearts.” Their campus experience made such an impact on their lives that the dedication of the book is the University’s motto Deus Lux Mea Est.

As they branched off in their careers, their shared passion for sports and Catholicism kept conversations going. Engel, Ph.D. 2013, and Carney, Ph.D. 2010, teach theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., while Hoven is an associate professor of sport and religion at St. Joseph’s University in Alberta, Canada.

The process of writing the book came together during the pandemic and their friendship remained at the heart of the process. Carney floated the idea of tackling the topic of the role of the Catholic religion in sports. They met up during a 2019 conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., over beers and chicken wings to flesh out a game plan for writing a book.

“Catholics have been historically involved in sports, but there hasn’t been a book that summarizes it,” said Hoven. The topics explored in the book include “sacramentality, virtue and ethics, prayer and ritual, as well as the social teachings of the Church” within the context of sports. Hoven’s next book project is with Catholic University of America Press and it will explore the impact of a Canadian priest’s hockey career on the sport.

The target audience for On the Eighth Day includes teachers, coaches, and college students. Engel said the goal is to tap into the opportunities for spiritual growth on and off the field by bringing the focus to Paschal Mystery, or the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

“It’s trying to help bring their experience to the Paschal Mystery and the Paschal Mystery to their experience in preparation for larger things like grief and suffering beyond sports,” Engel said.

No matter what happens next, the alumni insist they will always share a unique bond that started on campus and that grew through the team effort to publish the book.

Carney said, “One of the joys of the book was through friendship and trust, that it allowed us to be critical with each other, but also to build each other up. It’s not always easy to co-author. Speaking for myself, it was really a life-giving project.”

— M.J.P.