I distinctly remember the day in 2001 when I fell in love with the game of soccer. It was the annual Fall Festival at my parish. It’s a popular event in the small town I grew up in as many other folks from different denominations would come support our parish and enjoy the good food, raffle prizes and games. I was 10 years old and was kicking a soccer ball around in the church’s courtyard outside with the other kids my age. Our parish priest, Fr. Hoa, came over and joined us. When he got the ball at his feet, he proceeded to perform an incredible skill I had never seen before known as the “rainbow.”. He rolled the ball up the back of his calf and with a slight hop and kick of the leg it went soaring over his head as he ran after it. I was hooked. Fr. Hoa lead me to fall in love with the “beautiful game” even as this same priest helped me to fall in love with Jesus.
Because of Fr. Hoa’s inspiration, the last 18 years of my life have been immersed in the game of soccer. Understandably, there is no sporting event I look forward to more than the one that begins today.
The World Cup kicks off today as this year’s host team, Russia, lines up against Saudi Arabia. The tournament is a month-long celebration of the beautiful game, and the whole world is joining in on the fun. Much like the Fall Festival at my little parish drew in Christians from all denominations in celebration of our shared community, the World Cup brings people of all cultures and creeds into the same space of hopeful expectation. All over the world, people will gather in stadiums, city squares, bars and homes to watch their teams play. Prayers will be offered as players and fans hug one another, some in the jubilation of victory and others in the desolation of defeat.
The World Cup, an international tournament first hosted by Uruguay in 1930, is full of history and emotion, but also faith.
Pope Francis’ monthly intention during the 2016 Summer Olympics was that “sports may be an opportunity for friendly encounters between peoples and may contribute to peace in the world.” Since soccer is the world’s most popular sport, the World Cup is a unique opportunity to experience the passion of various cultures and peoples. The passion of these people is a tangible, buzzing energy built up in the hearts of people as they place their hopes on their respective national teams. Their hope is to witness moments of wonder as the world’s best players compete for the coveted trophy. Just as I was drawn into the beauty of that soccer trick that Fr. Hoa performed, so too the world is drawn in to the magical and mesmerizing things players like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo can do. Not only the abilities of individual players, but entire teams become units that work together as one to perform beautiful feats of soccer glory. Large communities of people are formed around these players and teams in the hope of experiencing a delightful moment together.
This hope is similar to the very thing that unites people of faith. Christian communities are drawn together in celebration of the good and beautiful graces God has given and in that community is sustained a hopeful expectation of what is to come. The feelings and emotions we get when entering into the spirit of the World Cup can clue us into a desire for the transcendent that God has placed in all people. It is a desire to have a share in all that is good and beautiful. Events like the World Cup are occasions for all people to become members of communities that fill them with emotion and excitement. The beauty of these communities, countries, and player abilities and the awe that these things inspire can lead us to offer our gratitude to the Creator of beauty, goodness and truth.
Take the opportunity to partake of this global phenomenon that is sure to provide both crushing heartbreak and ecstatic joy. Allow yourself to catch World Cup fever as you celebrate those goals shouting at the top of your lungs with your buddies at home. Or go jump around with that stranger at the pub who’s joyfully chanting his team’s songs. Maybe you’ll witness something that will cause you to fall in love with the game like I did at that parish picnic all those years ago. Even if you aren’t converted to soccer fanaticism, I am sure that you will get to celebrate with a community of people spanning the entire globe. Just remember to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the One who makes all this possible.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user UNAMID.