Successful Tour

November 09 2018 | by

THERE can’t be many sporting tours to the UK that take in a trip to Parliament, a match against prison inmates, encounters at Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh places of worship, and tea with the Queen at her Windsor Castle residence!

But all that and more was on the action-packed agenda of the latest Light of Faith tour by St Peter’s Cricket Club, more commonly known as the Vatican XI. The team of enthusiastic young cricketers, from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and England, was set up in 2013 and is made up of seminarians who are studying for the priesthood in Rome.

The club was the brainchild of a former Australian ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy, and it operates under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Culture with the goal of promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations through a shared love of the sport.

 

High profile tour

 

St Peter’s Cricket Club’s latest tour, which took place from July 3rd to the 15th, was a high-profile affair, with matches attended by government ministers, Church leaders and members of the British Royal Family. In the words of the team managers, it was an important showcase of “the positive role that authentic religious experience can play in society today.”

The players began their tour in the north of England, playing an opening match against staff and former students at the prestigious Stonyhurst College, founded by the Jesuits at the end of the 16th century. The college, set amid the rolling hills of Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, was originally established in 1593 at St Omer in northern France at a time when penal laws prohibited any Catholic education in England. Stonyhurst alumni include saints and archbishops, presidents and prime ministers, and the school maintains an important role in the Catholic history of England. The Vatican side spent two days there, exploring the extensive grounds and visiting the school’s recently renovated Old Chapel Museum that houses artefacts such as a Shakespeare First Folio, prayer books belonging to Mary Queen of Scots, and manuscripts written by Victorian poet and priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. St Peter’s players also set the tone for their tour by beating the Stonyhurst Gentlemen’s XI by seventeen runs at the end of their T20 (twenty overs each) match.

 

Popular sport

 

The Vatican team then headed south to London where they spent ten days on a whirlwind tour of British cultural and religious establishments. Their first destination was the famous Lord’s Cricket Ground, dubbed the ‘Temple’ or home of this sport that started in the south of England before being exported overseas throughout the 19th century. With a global audience of around two and a half billion fans, it remains the world’s second most popular sport, especially on the Indian subcontinent.

Pope Francis, known to be more of a football than a cricket fan, had a special message of support to the Vatican team, sending his “prayerful best wishes to all the players and those present at the cricket matches taking place at Lord’s Cricket Ground and at Windsor Castle.” In a telegram, the Pope said he was praying that these events “contribute to the promotion of peace and concord, because the language of sports is universal; it extends across borders, language, race, religion and ideology; it possesses the capacity to unite people, together, by fostering dialogue and acceptance.”

For their match at the Lord’s nursery ground, the St Peter’s players teamed up with members of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Anglican side to challenge an interfaith team of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh players. Under a scorching sun, the joint Christian side batted its way to victory, cheered on by supporters from all the different faith communities.

 

Peace at the Crease

 

Amongst the spectators were several former international cricket stars and the Dominican-born barrister Baroness Patricia Scotland, currently serving as secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations. Born as the 10th of 12 children in a mixed Catholic-Methodist family, she recalled early memories of playing cricket in north-east London before going on to become the first female Attorney General and first black woman to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel, or eminent legal advisor. Speaking after the match, she described the Anglican-Catholic winning side as “a marriage made in heaven”, adding that “through the years, I have witnessed for myself how, when used strategically, cricket and sports in general can be a tool to bring people together and to break down barriers.” She also announced the launch of a new initiative called Peace at the Crease to promote development and community cohesion throughout the 53 Commonwealth countries. The inaugural match of that project took place three days later as a Commonwealth XI team played against St Peter’s at the Indian Gymkhana Club Ground in west London.

 

Playing with inmates

 

Another highlight for the St Peter’s players was a visit to a prison for young offenders in the London borough of Greenwich, south east of the city centre. The Sunday visit began with Mass celebrated in the prison chapel with Catholic chaplain Fr. Valentine Erhahon giving the homily and Anglican chaplain Rev. Susie Simpson playing the organ. Lunch in the canteen was followed by a friendly match against staff and prisoners, played with a soft ball to comply with stringent security regulations. The opportunity to spend time with these young men, mainly jailed for drug-related offenses, proved to be one of the most moving events for the priests and seminarians. Father Shehan Ferdinan from Sri Lanka described the encounter as a formative “experience of mission” which allowed both groups to “share freely and to encourage each other.” “We won the match, but they won our hearts,” he added.

Later in the week, St Peter’s players were treated to a tour of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and Downing Street, where the office of the British prime minister is located. Beneath the Palace of Westminster they celebrated Mass in the chapel of St Mary’s Undercroft, praying that all politicians may have the courage to promote justice and peace in public life. They also won their match against a Houses of Parliament XI in the gardens of the grand English Heritage-owned Chiswick House, a splendid 18th century villa featuring the work of Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. The elegant ‘neo-Palladian’ building is also the birthplace of the English Landscape movement which sought to blend art, architecture and nature into a harmonious and holistic visual experience.

 

Muslims, Jews and Hindus

 

Alongside their sporting fixtures, the Vatican cricket team also visited various places of worship reflecting Britain’s modern multi-faith culture, starting with a welcome from one of the Catholic auxiliary bishops of Westminster, Nick Hudson. They met with Muslims at London’s Central Mosque in Regent Park before playing in a tournament with the Yorkshire-based Mount Cricket Club and an East London interfaith team. At St John’s Wood Synagogue, they were welcomed by Rabbi Ivan Binstock for a reading of the Ten Commandments and a reflection on Psalm 121. The priests and seminarians also visited a Sikh gurdwara and the giant Neasden temple, the largest place of Hindu worship outside of India, underlining their goal of strengthening interreligious relations and highlighting the vital role of faith in contemporary society.

 

Meeting the Queen

 

The concluding event of this exhausting 12-day tour was a visit to Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, where Queen Elizabeth II often spends her weekends. Surrounded by a five and a half thousand acres park, the estate contains the tombs of Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert, as well as two working farms and the homes of some 600 employees and their families. It also houses its own chapel of All Saints where members of the royal family regularly attend Sunday services alongside local residents. The Dean of Windsor Bishop David Conner welcomed the visitors there and led a prayer service preaching on one of the leaders of the so-called Oxford movement, Anglican priest and poet John Keble, who worked to promote Christian unity in 19th century England. A sumptuous al fresco lunch was then served for the Vatican players and guests, before the match got underway against the Royal Household team. Tea and cakes were laid on during half-time, while the Queen and her son Prince Andrew, Duke of York, arrived at the close of play to greet the teams and to hand out medals to St Peter’s who notched up another victory against the home side. Despite the heat and her 92 years of age, the monarch looked relaxed and delighted to meet the players, joking that she should have worn yellow, to match their brightly coloured jackets, rather than her pale cornflower blue dress. When team managers Fr. Eamonn O’Higgins and Fr. Sameer Advani presented her with a hand-painted icon of the Holy Family, she was visibly moved and thanked them for their prayers.

For the young players, and for the rest of us in the delegation, it was a memorable end to this hugely successful tour. The team had time for just one more engagement before boarding their plane back to Rome: they attended a Matins service in the medieval St George’s Chapel in Windsor, where Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle had been married just a few weeks earlier. As they reflected on the wealth of new experiences made and new friendships forged, the players gave thanks to God for the ways in which their sporting passion also helps to build bridges and promote a true culture of encounter.

Updated on November 09 2018