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Five hundred years after the English King Henry VIII broke with the church in Rome, the Vatican is vowing to defeat the Church of England - not in the pews but on the cricket pitch. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports the Vatican is launching its own cricket club to forge ties with teams of other faiths.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Rome's Capannelle Cricket Club is hosting training matches that will lead to the creation of the Vatican team, the St Peter's Cricket Club. The Catholic Church has long championed sports as good for mind, body and soul. And one of the players here, Sri Lankan seminarian Antony Fernando, says sports are particularly important for those aspiring to the priesthood.
ANTONY FERNANDO: Learn a lot of things in sports, to accept both victory and defeat. In the life of priesthood, we need to accept things because in the future, as a priest, we know that things are not going to - that easy.
POGGIOLI: The Vatican already has its Clericus Cup soccer tournament, which pitches the Swiss Guards against seminarians. Now its cricket team will sport the official colors of the tiny city state, yellow and white, and players' jackets will have the seal of the papacy, two crossed keys. The image many people have of cricket is that of aristocrats in white playing on country estates. But sponsors of the Vatican initiative say that image is very dated. Today, cricket is one of the world's most popular sports.
Francis Jayarajah is a Sri Lankan and president of Italy's national cricket team. He says the latest Vatican initiative can count on up to 350 potential players, priests and seminarians from cricket-playing countries who live and study in Rome.
FRANCIS JAYARAJAH: Indians and Pakistanis, Australians and New Zealanders, during their leisure time, they play cricket in their small football ground in various colleges.
POGGIOLI: One of those colleges is Mater Ecclesiae. The spiritual director, Father Eamonn O'Higgins, is an enthusiastic sports fan.
EAMONN O'HIGGINS: In sport, competitive sport, you combat. You're taking on an opposition. There's a challenge and the aim is to win.
POGGIOLI: But Father O'Higgins says the creation of the Vatican cricket team also has a broader purpose - forging inter-faith relations by taking on teams of Hindus and Muslims. This is also in line with Pope Francis' vision of outreach.
O'HIGGINS: Pope Francis has wanted to globalize the church so that there's an international representation here of all the different cultures throughout the world. And cricket, in particular this project, has made such an impact, a vast impact on cultures that perhaps are not always or have not always been represented sufficiently here.
POGGIOLI: More immediately, Father O'Higgins says, the Vatican team has laid down its first challenge to the Church of England and has asked for a match at Lord's Cricket Ground in London, known as the home of the sport.
O'HIGGINS: That's going to be historic. Who knows what can happen there, more than just a cricket match.
POGGIOLI: September next year is the tentative date for a match pitting the Vatican against the Anglicans. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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