It might not have been obvious to the tourists who streamed down the Via della Conciliazione towards Saint Peter’s basilica but something decidedly odd was going on inside the pontifical council for culture.
A plate of cucumber sandwiches had been laid out on a table. Cups of Irish breakfast tea were brought out soon after. Apart from the cardinal — whose prerogative it was to speak in whatever language he liked — the lingua franca was English. And, in the middle of it all, lay a helmet, two balls and a Gray Nicolls cricket bat.
Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca, the council’s Spanish undersecretary, admitted to being just a little out of his comfort zone. “I feel here,” he said, “as strange as you would feel in a press conference about bull fighting.” It may leave most people in Italy perplexed or indifferent, but cricket — a game traditionally only played in Rome by anglophone cardinals, eccentric English aristocrats and immigrants from the subcontinent — on Tuesday arrived at the Vatican in the bold form of Saint Peter’s CC, an organisation for seminarians and priests who want to put bat to ball in the name of the Holy See.
The club is nothing if not ambitious, within minutes throwing down arguably the greatest Catholic challenge to the Church of England since the Spanish armada. “It is hoped there will be a team of sufficient level that, for instance, in the next year they could play a team nominated by the Church of England,” said John McCarthy, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See. “It would be the dearest aspiration of so many of the cricketers here that that game take place at Lord’s.”
Tempering the optimism slightly, Monsignor de Toca said they would try to put together a team which could “lose with dignity” against the English. “I think they’re very strong,” he added, quietly.
Responding to the proposal from the Anglican side, Mark Rylands, suffragan bishop of Shrewsbury and a keen cricketer, said: “I am delighted to hear of the formation of Saint Peter’s Cricket Club and look forward to welcoming them to England as brothers. We do not have a national team at present but I’m confident that it will be possible for an annual fixture to be played in the spirit of ecumenism. To that end I hope we can keep any sledging to a minimum and that neutral umpires will not be necessary.”
A spokesman for Lord’s said the ground had not received a request but would study one “with serious consideration” -- were it made.
The club is the brainchild of McCarthy, whose son trained for the priesthood in Rome and was frustrated by the lack of cricketing possibilities. The ambassador says there is a significant number of people — between 250 and 300, mostly seminarians and clerics from cricket—playing countries such as England, India and Australia — who are keen to play.
While it is currently men only, the club also hopes to appeal to nuns and other women in future so that “what is nominally known as a gentleman’s game will also turn into a lady’s game”, said Theodore Mascarenhas, an Indian priest and off-spin bowler who will be the club’s chairman.
“I think cricket will begin to speak a new language — perhaps Latin, coming into the neighbourhood of the Vatican and beginning to take its first baby steps,” he said, quoting India’s great batsman Sachin Tendulkar, whom he called the “god of cricket”. He added: “We have the expertise. We have the will to do things. And I’m sure we’ll start with our baby steps and we’ll go far ahead.”
The club, which has already organised trial matches, aims to have a Twenty20-style tournament between all the pontifical colleges of Rome co-ordinated by next month. A pitch near Ciampino airport on the outskirts of the city has been made available. A tracksuit — in the Holy See’s colours of white and gold — has been designed.
Organisers hope the club’s second stage will involve preparing an XI for the Church of England fixture, hoping that eventually the game becomes a vehicle for interfaith activities involving matches against teams from Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist educational institutions.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the pontifical council for culture, praised the venture as a chance to celebrate the nobility of true sport, which he said could be an “expression of inter-culturality” and a “dialogue between peoples”.
Pope Francis, also known to be a fan of both intercultural and interfaith dialogue, is known more as a football man than cricket watcher. Mascarenhas said he believed the pontiff, as a “very open man”, would come to accept cricket.
McCarthy added: “It is certainly the case that the Holy Father has heard of cricket ... as a sport that was played in schools conducted by his [Jesuit] order in Argentina.” © Guardian News & Media 2013