For fans of college basketball, March is a month of delight.
When I was in school, my basketball-obsessed friends and I would do our best to skip class and not miss a game of March Madness. We would hang on every referee’s call as we advocated on behalf of the underdog.
My father and I also watched a lot of basketball together over the years, and for him, cheering allegiance was unequivocally religious. As a devout Catholic, he cheered only for Catholic schools, and was pleased to see teams with their resident priest in clericals cheering more obnoxiously than the walk-ons at the end of the bench.
I can feel this particular methodology of fandom rubbing off on me more and more as I fill out my bracket each year. I find myself advancing Xavier and Notre Dame against my better judgment and the judgments of various prognosticators. Maybe this is what faith is all about.
So since a good deal of my working life is spent thinking and teaching religious history, particularly the history of Catholicism, I thought it might be helpful to provide a guide for those interested in adopting this way of picking the upcoming NCAA tournament.
I do not recommend this method for those wagering money on the tournament, as no Catholic school has won it since Villanova in 1985. Most experts would not foresee a Catholic school upsetting undefeated Kentucky’s powerhouse squad, but hope has been a constant companion to both Catholics and sports fans for quite some time, so I wouldn’t discount this method altogether.
The highest-ranked Catholic school in this year’s tournament is Villanova, which has even gained a No. 1 seed in the East Regional. Villanova was founded by the Augustinians, and named after St. Thomas of Villanova, a 16th-century Spaniard who was noted for his commitment to the poor. The Augustinian Order also trained Martin Luther, the first Protestant, so one might expect this year’s Villanova team to be especially focused on making amends for that historic loss, especially as it tips off against its interstate and inter-Christian rival Lafayette College, with its association with the Presbyterian Church.
The Providence Friars provide a potential challenge for the referees in this year’s tournament. Providence is a Dominican University, and that order has long been associated with both preaching and a desire to enforce rules. After all, Dominicans led the Inquisition, with its Tomas de Torquemada serving as Grand Inquisitor in the 15th century. If Providence coach Ed Cooley becomes engaged in an especially energetic critique of the referees in their game, a clever referee (I’m sure they exist) might say, “you don’t have to Torquemada me, coach. I’m doing my best out here.”
The University of Notre Dame is no doubt the most famous (and perhaps the best) Catholic school in this year’s NCAA tournament. Notre Dame’s Congregation of Holy Cross was formed in the crucible of the French Revolution in which Catholicism was made illegal in France and thousands of priests were murdered as the revolutionaries sought to replace Catholicism with the Cult of the Supreme Being. This formative experience might mean we can expect Notre Dame to perform well under pressure.
The same might be said for Dayton, whose Society of Mary was also formed in the period surrounding the French Revolution. At the very least, we can expect these schools will not be endorsing revolutionary activities should the results not turn out in their favor.
The Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, run the largest number of Catholic universities in the United States, and there are three Jesuit institutions in this year’s tournament: Georgetown, the United States’ oldest Catholic university; Gonzaga, and Xavier.
Gonzaga is named after Aloysius Gonzaga, who gave up great wealth to join the Jesuits and died soon afterward while caring for the poor. This desire for finding spiritual wealth in material poverty might also be linked with St. John’s University’s Vincentienne Fathers, and their allegiance to St. Vincent de Paul. A game between St. John’s and Gonzaga might result in an overflowing of generosity as each team passed the ball to the other in a nod to their histories.
Cincinnati’s Xavier is named after the early Jesuit super-missionary St. Francis Xavier, who brought Catholicism to China, Japan, India, and the Philippines in the 16th century. These missionary endeavors followed the advice of one of the early Jesuits, Jerome Nadal, who said, “The world is our house,” in reference to the Jesuit efforts to bring Catholicism around the globe.
This lovely phrase from Nadal might be turned on its head in the competitive arena, as Xavier or Georgetown players might say “the world is our house” as they tear a rebound from an opposing player or foul him excessively as a method of intimidation. This strategy, though possibly effective, might provide further proof of the importance of context in the use of religious messaging.
Over the years, I have come to notice that devout fans of major American non-Catholic “basketball powers” like Kentucky, Duke, or others will be heard saying “basketball is a religion at such and such a school” whenever they can get their painted faces in front of a camera at tournament time. Although this may be the case, in my family, religion continues to inform our basketball choices.
Will a Catholic school win the tournament and redeem this method that my father originated? If I put my basketball fan hat on, I can’t see it happening. But then I put my Catholic hat on and remember what St. Paul said: “We live by faith, not by sight.”
Daniel MacLeod is an assistant professor of Catholic studies and history at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. As an exercise in his courses, he runs a bracket game called Catholic Madness that includes some non-saints. “Tolkien usually does pretty well,” he reports, “and last semester Joseph of Cupertino took home the championship in one of my classes.”