All Out In Rome

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At 7am on Wednesday 18th October, twelve vicars and ordinands met at Gatwick airport to travel to Rome to play the Vatican at cricket.

On hearing the news, most people respond – ‘The Vatican! Do Italians really play cricket?’ The truth is that as a rule Italians don’t play cricket nor do they even understand what cricket is.  But the Catholic Church draws in people from all nationalities and the Vatican team – known as St Peter’s xi – is composed of priests and seminarians from England, Australia, India, Sri Lanka and Africa.  The Archbishop of Canterbury’s (ABC) xi is a team that was started four years ago after an invitation from the Pope to play St Peter’s xi.  This year it was our turn to tour Rome and we were invited to play two 20twenty games, one against Rome’s own cricket club – Capanelle - and the second against a Vatican team. 

The cricket was a huge success for the ABC xi.  Our match against Rome cricket club was a hard fought affair.  Rome batted first and started steadily eventually making 145 in their 20 overs.  I bowled the last few overs at the end of the innings and was particularly happy getting the wicket of their opening batsman, caught on the boundary in the last over for 98!  ABC xi started scoring runs quickly, but we were losing wickets just as fast.  After 5 overs we were 40-4, when the experienced batting of Jez Barnes and Chris Lee put on a great 100 run partnership to see us home with two overs to spare. 

A couple of days later, we returned to the one cricket ground in Rome to play St Peter’s xi.  Although the Catholic team had spent much of the previous day trying to feed us up like Christmas turkeys, we turned up raring to go.  I was asked to be 12th man during this game, although this was disappointing, I never felt anything but part of a close knit group of players.  We won the toss and asked to bat and after that it was the Chris ‘Kenners’ Kennedy show.  Kenners batted wonderfully to score 103 off 52 balls, hitting the St Peter’s bowlers to all parts of the ground.  With good support from Chris Lion (41) and a cameo from Chris Lee (11), we finished on 176-3 after twenty overs.  Amazingly, all our runs were scored by vicars named Chris.  The total was a formidable one and it turned out a bit too much for the St Peter’s boys.  Despite a good opening partnership, they were 65-0 after 10 overs, the run rate forced them to attempt suicidal runs which meant the first four wickets were all run outs.  Eventually, the St Peter’s xi finished on a very respectable 137-8, meaning the Anglicans won by 39 runs to retain the ‘Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one)’ cup.

It was a huge privilege to be asked to be invited to be part of the tour.  Alongside playing cricket, we were asked to spend time with the opposing team with the aim of walking together in our sport, our lives and in our worship of God.  This involved more formal functions such as a reception by the British Ambassador to the Holy See, to informal times of being given tours around St Peter’s Basilica and the Pope‘s residence as Castel Gandolfo.  During one of these trips, the manager of the Vatican team, Father Eamonn O’Higgins, spoke powerfully about the special relationships between Catholics and Anglicans.  He went on to reflect that in walking together we needed to acknowledge the wounds caused between us in the past if we are going to find healing in the future.  In particular it was hugely humbling to be invited into one of the seminarian colleges for Solemn Vespers with the trainee priests.  Very graciously we were brought into an intimate space and were able to experience an integrity of worship in a different style and language that we were used to.   

A lot of people (possibly quite rightly) think cricket is a pointless sport and because of that it would be easy to think such a trip was frivolous.  However, globally there is a vast amount of evidence that sport can play an important part of bringing people together and healing wounds.  Whilst, I am under no illusion that a cricket match isn’t going to heal the wound that Father Eamonn spoke about, what is encouraging is seeing the respect, graciousness and love between the two teams.  As part of the trip we were able to visit the Anglican Centre in Rome.  Here, we heard about how four years of cricket have been instrumental in the Catholic Anglican dialogue of recent times.  We may not be doing the diplomacy or the theology, but in simply playing cricket together we are beginning to live out the practice of what it means to walk or even bowl together. 

It struck me that it is five hundred years since the reformation began this month.  On the 31st October we celebrated reformation day, reflecting on Martin Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church.  We can be so torn by our divisions that we can miss that many of the critiques of the 95 theses have been addressed in the Catholic Church since then.  Our differences are still present and need to be recognised, but it is amazing that in five hundred years, the Anglican and Catholic churches have never been closer.  This year, Pope Francis attended a service at All Saints Anglican church in Rome, also an Anglican service was conducted in St Peter’s Basilica for the first time ever.  Most of this dialogue has arisen out of the deep friendship between Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin.  I just hope, in a small way, playing cricket has been part of the healing of that deep wound.

I would like to thank the many people who made this trip possible.  For the sponsorship from the Church Times (Paul Handley in particular who was with us to report on the trip) and Ecclesiastical; for the effort of the Archbishop of Canterbury in making such an event happen; for the support of Mark Rylands, the Bishop of Shrewsbury who chaperoned our trip; for the wisdom of our coach Tom Benham and our chaplain Rob Walrond; for the team and the fun, friendship and unforgettable memories that we shared together.