Some 500 years after England's King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican is vowing to defeat the Church of England — not in the pews, but on the cricket pitch.
The Vatican has launched its own cricket club — a move aimed at forging ties with teams of other faiths.
Rome's Capannelle Cricket Club is hosting training matches that will lead to the creation of the Vatican team, the St. Peter's Cricket Club.
The Catholic Church has long championed sports as good for mind, body and soul. And one of the players, Sri Lankan seminarian Antony Fernando, says sports are particularly important for those aspiring to the priesthood.
"Learn a lot of things in sports, to accept both victory and defeat, in life of priesthood we need to accept things, because in the future as a priest we know that things are not going that easy," he says.
The Vatican already has its Clericus Cup soccer tournament, which pitches the Swiss Guards against seminarians. Now, its cricket team will sport the official colors of the tiny city-state, yellow and white, and players' jackets will have the seal of the papacy, two crossed keys.
The image some people have of cricket is that of the well-to-do in white playing on country estates. But sponsors of the Vatican initiative say that image is very dated. Today, cricket is one of the world's most popular sports, with a mass following in Asia and Oceania.
A Natural Talent Pool
Sri Lankan Francis Jayarajah is president of Italy's national cricket team. He says the latest Vatican initiative can count on up to 350 potential players — priests and seminarians from cricket-playing countries who live and study in Rome.
"Indians, Pakistanis, Australians, New Zealanders, during leisure time they play cricket in their small football grounds in various colleges," Jayarajah says.
One of those colleges is Mater Ecclesiae. The spiritual director, the Rev. Eamon O'Higgins, is an enthusiastic sports fan.
"In ... competitive sport, you combat, you're taking on an opposition," O'Higgins says. "There is a challenge, and the aim is to win."
But he says the creation of the Vatican cricket team also has a broader purpose: forging interfaith relations by taking on teams of Hindus and Muslims. This is also in line with Pope Francis' vision of a church reaching out to the poorest and to all corners of the globe.
"Pope Francis has wanted to globalize the church so that there is an international representation here of all the different cultures throughout the world," O'Higgins says. "And cricket ... has made such a vast impact on cultures that perhaps have not always been represented sufficiently here."
More immediately, Father O'Higgins says, the Vatican team has laid down its first challenge to the Church of England and has asked for a match at Lord's Cricket Ground in London, known as the home of the sport.
"That is going to be historic," he says. "Who knows what can happen there, more than just a cricket match."
The tentative date for a match pitting the Vatican against the Anglicans has been set for next September.
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