The Vatican has launched a cricket club with a challenge to play the Church of England at the home of the game, Lord's.
The soccer-mad still prefers the lower-brow sport of his beloved San Lorenzo club b ut he has long championed sports as good for mind, body and soul, and cricket is the latest initiative of the Vatican's culture ministry to use sports to engage with the contemporary world.
Australia's ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy, was the brainchild behind the initiative and said he hopes the St. Peter's Cricket Club will field a team to play the Church of England at Lord's next year.
He said the aim is to boost interfaith dialogue, given cricket's immense popularity in largely non-Catholic India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It would be a "very special occasion" if seminarians from Rome's pontifical universities might one day play students at Muslim or Hindu religious schools on the subcontinent, he said.
The initiative also is aimed at educating Italy, the Vatican and even Pope Francis that "there is some sport other than football!" Mr McCarthy said before passing around a tray of cucumber sandwiches.
The club is expected to count on 250-300 students and priests at the Vatican and various pontifical universities around Rome where cricket is already being played informally; from these individual teams a Vatican one would be selected and fielded as early as the spring.
Rome's Capannelle Cricket Club is letting the Vatican use its pitch, and Mr McCarthy said anonymous donors would cover equipment, organisational and other related costs.
Adam Chadwick, curator of collections at Lord's, welcomed the initiative and seemed open to a Vatican-Church of England match played on one of its pitches.
He said the image of cricket - of men in white playing on country estates with ideas of chivalry and gentlemanly behaviour dictating their play- date from the Victorian era of the late 19th century, but that cricket's origins are very different and far more popular.
"The first mentions that we found in this country are just an ordinary man (playing) when he would have been at church on Sunday - which is a bit ironic, actually," he said.
Cricket's enormous appeal in places like India is actually much more in line with the game's more popular origins, he said.
Indeed, in keeping with Pope Francis' aim for the church to reach out to the poorest, the Vatican made clear that its cricket club was not thinking of English high society but rather the sport's appeal with the masses.
"This represents the desire of the council to be in the peripheries, the outskirts of the world," said Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca, who runs the sports department in the Vatican's culture ministry.
The Vatican already has its "Clericus Cup" soccer tournament, which pitches the Swiss Guards against seminarians from the North American College and other teams.