VATICAN CITY — The Vatican served up tea and cucumber sandwiches on Tuesday as it launched its own cricket club, and challenged the Church of England to a match.
With the coat of arms of St. Peter's as its symbol, the club will give priests and seminarians — and eventually nuns — a new outlet for their sporting passions, said officials at the Pontifical Council for Culture.
"This represents the council's desire to go to the peripheries of the world that Pope Francis has spoken of," Monsignor Melchor Sanchez, who is the honorary president of St Peter's Cricket Club, told reporters at the launch.
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The club colors are the yellow-and-white of the Vatican flag.
Sanchez said cricket could be a new way of engaging with other denominations and other religions, saying he hoped the Church of England would form its own team and the two could square off on Lord's cricket ground in London.
The game would be in September next year — the month chosen because it is a time of holiday for seminarians in Rome. Other games are planned with Hindu and Muslim teams of seminarians who would come over especially from India.
"I never imagined cricket was so popular in Rome," said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who is informally known as the Vatican's "culture minister."
"Cricket is alien to our culture but it has become part of our culture as an expression of inter-culturality," he said, explaining that a wave of immigration in Italy had brought many young aficionados of the sport to the country.
Theodore Mascarenhas, an Indian priest and a mean off-spin bowler, is the chairman of the cricket club. Looking at all the priests, he quipped: "I don't think we're lacking for spiritual direction or guidance".
"The team will be strong enough to beat anyone in the world," he said.
While Pope Francis is known as an avid fan of the San Lorenzo football club in his native Argentina, Mascarenhas said he was "a very open man. I think cricket is another thing that would be part of that openness."
A woman, Philippa Hitchen, who works for Vatican Radio has been brought on the board in the hope that "eventually we will have nuns playing so the gentlemen's game can also be a ladies' game," Father Mascarenhas said.
Preparations for the cricket club began around a year ago thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of Australia's ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy, who said the initiative was an example of "sporting diplomacy."
"This is a milestone for sport, for cricket, for the Holy See and for the seminarians," he said, adding that he estimated there were between 250 and 350 potential players from around the world studying in clerical colleges in Rome.
St. Peter's Cricket Club will play on the grounds of Capannelle Cricket Club outside Rome and will practice in Trastevere, near the city center.
The cricket club means business. One of its members is Brother K.M. Joseph, who promoted young sporting talent in schools in India.
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Among the players he helped are famous Indian players like Mohammad Azharuddin, V.V.S. Laxman, Noel David and Youraj Singh.