VATICAN CITY - The Vatican served tea and cucumber sandwiches Tuesday as it launched its first cricket club, an initiative aimed at forging ties with teams of other faiths.
No, Pope Francis isn't taking up the sport long associated with manicured grounds and English nobility; the soccer-mad "slum pope" still prefers the lower-brow sport of his beloved San Lorenzo club.
But he and the Vatican have long championed sports as good for mind, body and soul, and the cricket club is the latest initiative of the Vatican's culture ministry to use sports to engage in dialogue with the contemporary world.
Australia's ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy, was the brainchild behind the initiative and said he hopes the St. Peter's Cricket Club will field a team to play the Church of England at Lord's sometime next fall.
He said the aim is to boost interfaith dialogue, given cricket's immense popularity in largely non-Catholic India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It would be a "very special occasion" if seminarians from Rome's pontifical universities might one day play students at Muslim or Hindu religious schools on the subcontinent, he said.
The initiative also is aimed at educating Italy, the Vatican and even Pope Francis that "there is some sport other than football!" McCarthy said before passing around a tray of cucumber tea sandwiches, a mainstay of cricket events.
The club is expected to count on some 250-300 students and priests at the Vatican and various pontifical universities around Rome where cricket is already being played informally; from these individual teams a Vatican one would be selected and fielded as early as the spring.
Rome's Capannelle Cricket Club is letting the Vatican use its pitch, and McCarthy said anonymous donors would cover equipment, organizational and other related costs.
Adam Chadwick, curator of collections at Lord's Cricket Ground in London, which prides itself as the home of the sport, welcomed the initiative and seemed open to a Vatican-Church of England match played on one of its pitches in the upscale St. Johns Wood section of the capital.
In a phone interview, Chadwick said the image of cricket — of men in white playing on country estates with ideas of chivalry and gentlemanly behaviour dictating their play— date from the Victorian era of the late 19th century, but that cricket's origins are very different and far more popular.
"The first mentions that we found in this country are just an ordinary man (playing) when he would have been at church on Sunday — which is a bit ironic, actually," he said with a laugh.
Cricket's enormous appeal in places like India, once part of the British empire, is actually much more in line with the game's more popular origins, he said.
Indeed, in keeping with Pope Francis' aim for the church to reach out to the poorest, the Vatican made clear that its cricket club wasn't thinking of English high society but rather the sport's appeal with the masses.
"This represents the desire of the council to be in the peripheries, the outskirts of the world," said Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca, who runs the sports department in the Vatican's culture ministry.
The Vatican already has its "Clericus Cup" soccer tournament, which pitches the Swiss Guards against seminarians from the North American College and other teams.
And just on Sunday in another sporting initiative, the culture ministry organized a "Race of Faith," laying down a 100-meter (yard) track along the main boulevard leading to St. Peter's Square to emphasize sports' positive spiritual and educational values.
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