Last week a cricket match took place at London’s Lord’s Cricket Ground, the historic and spiritual home of cricket. It was unusual, not least because the Holy Father had sent a message of support to all taking part in the cricket match.
At Lord’s that day, as part of its English tour, the Vatican Cricket team, St. Peter’s, was playing against an interfaith team. That interfaith match was unique because St. Peter’s joined with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI to form a single team to play an interfaith game against an opposing team comprising of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews.
St. Peter’s Cricket Team is composed of priests and seminarians from England, Ireland, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, who are studying and working in Rome. Affiliated with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and Sport, the team’s objectives are to increase awareness of the importance of religion in society, to promote ecumenical, interreligious and intercultural dialogue, while all the time spreading the Gospel.
This July sees the team’s fourth “Light of Faith Tour” of England. Formed just five years ago, St. Peter’s has played several high-profile matches in its short history, not least while on its three previous “Light of Faith Tours.” In 2014 and 2016 they toured England playing matches against Anglican, Muslim and Hindu-Sikh teams at some of the most iconic cricket grounds in England. During the 2016 tour, St. Peter’s played against The Royal Household Cricket Club of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle. In 2017, St. Peter’s Team traveled to Portugal and played Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish teams in preparation for Pope Francis’ visit there to mark the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima.
As well as the match at Lord’s, matches this year are scheduled against Stonyhurst College, against a Commonwealth XI, against some local London teams, one of which is predominantly Muslim, against a Houses of Parliament XI, and once more against the Royal Household Cricket Club at Windsor. St. Peter’s Team has also set aside a day to visit one of Her Majesty’s Prisons and play a cricket match there. At the end of the tour the team will be to be received at 10 Downing Street, by British Prime Minister, Theresa May, a keen cricket fan.
Given that cricket is a hugely popular sport on the Indian subcontinent, it’s perhaps not surprising that while in England, members of St. Peter’s Team made informal visits to a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple, a Sikh Gurdwara, as well as a Jewish synagogue. These visits were to underline the importance of authentic religious experience for society and also to emphasize the bonds among and between the world’s major religions.
St. Peter’s Team sees the cricket matches it plays as platforms to bring together different religious and ethnic-cultural communities and promote what Pope Francis has called the “culture of encounter and dialogue.” It is in this way that the team seeks to engage and challenge leaders in the areas of religion, politics, sport, media, and culture in order to work together for the common good. The stated aim of the Vatican XI is to build bridges between cultures and religions through the sport of cricket and, by so doing, to continue to give witness to the Catholic faith.
The Marylebone Cricket Club is responsible for cricket’s laws and rules and its members are seen as guardians of its values of fair play. The MCC has honored St. Peter’s Team with a reception at Lord’s, the birthplace of cricket. The Vatican’s cricket team’sview on the moral and spiritual benefits of cricket chime not only with those who govern that sport internationally, but also with political bodies such as the Commonwealth.
Baroness Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretary, was present at the match at Lord’s last Friday. She spoke of cricket as a unifying sport across the 53 countries that make up the Commonwealth. “When used strategically,” she said, “cricket can make a valuable contribution to building communities, promoting social cohesion and gender equality, and connecting people across religions, cultures, races and regions — binding them together with and to people they would not otherwise meet or wish to understand.” Baroness Scotland, a Catholic, sees such sporting endeavors as the inter-faith cricket match “as a tool for development and peace-building, to help rebuild and strengthen relationships between the generations and communities within the Commonwealth.”
Whatever the political ramifications or the theological underpinning of what took place last Friday, individual players on the St. Peter’s Team made it clear to me that they are still cricketers and, therefore, that they aspire to win the games they play. By close of play last Friday, aided by their Anglican brothers, the pope’s own (and only) cricket team did just that.