Pope Francis is known to be a keen soccer fan, but this week’s announcement that the Holy See is forming its own cricket team, to be known as Saint Peter’s Cricket Club, has come as a surprise to Vatican watchers.
According to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, “sport and faith are closely related.” Identifying with soccer makes sense for the Catholic Church given the huge popularity of the game in Argentina (the pope’s native country), Mexico, and Brazil – places where Catholicism is under siege from the forces of secularism and evangelical Protestantism. But cricket? Isn’t that a game synonymous with English (Protestant) snobbery?
Actually, that might have been true a hundred years ago, but it’s not the case today. Worldwide, cricket has even more devotees than soccer, thanks to the game’s fanatical following on the Indian sub-continent. After independence, India and Pakistan, rather than discarding cricket as a colonial relic, embraced it as their national sport. So far, responses there to the Vatican announcement have been positive.
Yet cricket’s genteel Anglo-Saxon associations were much in evidence at the pontifical press conference where the formation of the Saint Peter’s C.C. was announced. Cucumber sandwiches and cups of tea were the order of the day.
The idea for a Vatican team, composed of priests and seminarians from cricket-playing countries, is the brainchild of John McCarthy, Australian ambassador to the Holy See. (Dyed-in-the-wool English cricket fans might see mischief afoot here, given the longstanding cricketing rivalry between England and Australia.)
The fledgling team has already identified its first opponent. In what The Guardian’s Lizzy Davies calls “the greatest Catholic challenge to the Church of England since the Spanish armada,” it is proposing a match against the finest players that the Anglican Church has to offer, to be played at the venerable Lord’s cricket ground in London. The Church of England is ready to pick up the gauntlet
It will be a tough assignment for the Vatican club. The Church of England has an impressive pool of talent from which to draw. And it’s been observed that normally amiable Anglican clergymen are transformed into snarling belligerents when they vacate the pulpit to pick up bat and ball. It would take a miracle for the Vatican team to triumph, which is why some are already proposing a change of venue: from Lord’s to Lourdes.
The Vatican is making it clear that the purpose of its cricketing venture is not to strengthen ties with British high society. “Pope Francis has told us to go out to the peripheries of the world, and we want to be present in the world of cricket,” explained Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca,” the Spanish honorary president of the Vatican team. He and McCarthy envisage future matches around the world against teams of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists.
It’s a worthy undertaking, but one that needs to be approached with caution. History points to dangers when sports teams are organized along sectarian lines. In the final decades of the Raj, the British presided over cricket tournaments in which, to the dismay of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s religious factions were pitted against each other.
Gandhi was concerned that cricket matches between Muslims and Hindu’s would inflame religious passions. He was right. They did. And the tradition of cricket violence continued into the post-independence era. There was a period when matches between India and Pakistan could only be played on neutral territory. Which is where Toronto enters the story. In 1996 and 1998, the city hosted the “Friendship Cup” (the name a triumph of hope over experience) between the cricket teams of India and Pakistan.
I’m not suggesting that the Vatican’s modest and well-meaning initiative will have the same catastrophic consequences as that of the British Raj, which was likely driven by the imperial strategy of divide and rule. But benign intentions don’t guarantee desirable outcomes, and the Vatican is concocting a potentially toxic brew when it mixes sport and religion.
John Sainsbury is a Professor of History at Brock University