Pope Francis' special XI

Updated: Jun 09, 2019, 07:58 IST | Jane Borges |

In Vatican City, religion and cricket have forged an unlikely bond for nearly five years, and our Indians priests have a lot to do with it

The Vatican (St Peter's) Cricket Team with Pope Francis
The Vatican (St Peter's) Cricket Team with Pope Francis

Vatican City might be thousand kilometres from the UK, where the ICC World Cup is on, but for Deacon Jose Ettolil Mathew, who is currently pursuing theology studies at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, the tournament has come to occupy much of his time these days. As he watches the game on television, he is reliving memories of playing on these very grounds — Lords, Edgbaston, Headingly and Kent to name a few — since he started playing professionally in 2015.

Deacon Mathew is an elite member of the Vatican (St Peter's) Cricket Team, also known as Vatican XI, which was founded in 2013 by Sir John McCarthy, the then Australian Ambassador to the Holy See and Fr Eamonn O' Higgins LC. The team has played nearly 50 matches till date, competing with the Royal Household, Windsor, the Archbishop of Canterbury XI, the Houses of Parliament, England and Mount Cricket Club.

Deacon Jose Ettolil Mathew
Deacon Jose Ettolil Mathew

Vatican XI even beat the captains of this year's World Cup to a picture with Queen Elizabeth, when they played at the Windsor Castle in July last year. "In the seminaries in Rome, there were many seminarians from Asia who used to play cricket during their leisure time," says deacon Mathew, of how the team came to be formed. It's then that the founders thought of using cricket to relate with other cultures and religions. "The main objective of the team is to build friendship without boundaries through playing cricket and to prosper inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogues," adds the deacon, who is originally from Kerala.

Not known to many, the Vatican team has seven Indian Catholic priests and seminarians — three Keralites, two Goans, and a Mangalorean and Punjabi — who are currently working in Rome. "We have players from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia, Canada, England and Pakistan too," the deacon adds.

Like any sport the selection process is tight. "When a new group of students come at the beginning of the academic year, we identify those who play cricket and invite them to the practice sessions, [where team members are then selected]," he says. Under coach Dane Kirby, an Australian, now pursuing his doctoral studies in Rome, the team takes its game very seriously, training for three hours every week on Friday. "We usually practice in the months of September- October and April-June. Due to other commitments [University studies, winter, summer vacation and pastoral activities] practice sessions and matches are limited to these months," the deacon, who is an opening bowler, says.

About the competition, he says, "Our manager, Fr Eamonn, reminds us that we are priests and seminarians who happened to play cricket, not cricketers who happened to be priests and seminarians. Most of the teams, after the matches, have told us that it was different playing against us; watching us pray before the match, not missing our prayer life for the matches, and behaving truly as men of God."

Deacon Mathew, however, doesn't see the big deal in priests taking to sports. "Thinking that priests are only engaged in the discourse of religion is a general misconception. There are so many Catholic priests who engage in different social and cultural activities. This team is a concrete example of Catholic priests engaging in cricket. When people watch us play, it helps them to understand that priests could play good cricket. In this way, we represent the Catholic priests, who are willing to take any suitable and appropriate means to communicate the good message and dialogue," he says.

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