He is a tall, cheerful, articulate, and thoughtful Australian, a father of six, and a successful lawyer. One of his sons is a priest, a fact of which he is quietly but very evidently proud. His Excellency John McCarthy, QC KCSG, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See and a distinguished lawyer, has become a popular figure and influential in Rome.
One of his notable achievements has been the formation of the Vatican cricket club, as would be expected of a former trustee of the fabled Sydney cricket ground. And for those who think cricket is an unimportant bit of trivia on the world stage—think again. Australians aren’t the only people who take the game seriously. It unites many of the otherwise often bickering countries of the old British Commonwealth, it has created a language of its own, it has given rise to lyrical prose and poetry (think of Henry Newbold’s “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”). And it played a useful role just recently when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Justin Welby, visited Rome and posed with, among others, Australia’s Cardinal George Pell and John McCarthy, talking cricket but also emphasizing a unity of purpose in combating modern slavery and human trafficking.
The St. Peter’s Cricket Club is a team of priests and seminarians; it will play a Church of England team in England in September. Helping to establish the team was just one of the initiatives that the McCarthys have brought to Rome.
Diplomatic relations between Australia and the Holy See were formally established 40 years ago—and the celebration of the anniversary came in April, coinciding with the days when crowds were pouring into Rome for the canonization of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II. For Australians, the canonization weekend began with ANZAC Day, April 25, the day on which Australians commemorate their war dead with solemn parades and religious services (ANZAC stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who fought with extraordinary valor on the beaches at Gallipoli in 1915, sustaining heavy casualties).
ANZAC Day 2014 saw Cardinal Pell as the chief celebrant and Ambassador McCarthy in attendance at a packed Mass at the church at Domus Australia, the “home from home” for Australians in Rome. Then, after the heady excitement of the great canonization Mass for Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, came another opportunity for Australians to celebrate, with a Mass in the Vatican itself to honor the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Saint John Paul visited Australia in 1985 and 1996, and in 2008 Pope Benedict XVI visited for World Youth Day, one of the most extraordinary events in recent Australian history, bringing vast crowds of faith-filled young people from all over the world to Sydney.
“Maintaining a close and effective connection between Australia and the Holy See is the principal aim of my mission,” says John McCarthy. He jokes that his office, which is just across the Tiber from the Vatican, is the only embassy in direct line of sight from the Apostolic Palace. So Pope Francis can check from his window if the Australian ambassador is at his desk. The embassy has pictures of Australian scenes, and examples of aboriginal art, plus a cherished photograph of the McCarthys—Ambassador John, wife Christine, plus children and grandchildren, with Pope Benedict XVI. “And my small grandson made history by offering the Holy Father a hongi—a New Zealand Maori greeting, nose-to-nose, and we’ve got a photograph of that too,” the proud grandfather notes.
Another picture is also of importance—a fine portrait of Pope Francis, by Chinese-born Australian artist Shen Jiawei, which was commissioned by Ambassador McCarthy. The portrait was presented to the Pope as a gift from Australia to mark the 40th anniversary. It depicts Pope Francis in typical jovial mood with a large crowd, doves of peace hovering nearby.
Christine McCarthy is a noted concert pianist and has given several recitals in Rome. The couple’s home base is in Sydney, where they played a very active role in Catholic life: John McCarthy was president of the Guild of Catholic Lawyers, the St. Thomas More Society, for several years, and a board member of the international charity Aid to the Church in Need, and Christine founded the Society for Eucharistic Adoration, which is now a large and flourishing group attracting many young people.
Back to cricket. It seemed unlikely that the Vatican would be able to produce a team—but it has happened. The decision to name the team “St. Peter’s” came from Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Council for Culture, who saw that the project would be useful for fostering ecumenical goodwill and contacts. The Archbishop of Canterbury took up the Vatican challenge, the project gathered momentum, and the match will take place in September. The Vatican team wears the papal colors—gold and white, with a badge featuring the papal crossed keys. One key is gold and the other is silver.
“There are great and serious issues that bring people together here in Rome,” John McCarthy said, collecting papers together in his office, ready for another meeting. “And there are things that can be achieved: the Global Freedom Network against modern slavery and human trafficking is one example.” The ambassador, for his work in this area, has been invited to join the council of GFN.
“Goodwill and contacts are all part of that. Getting people to work together across boundaries created by history or prejudice, fostering an atmosphere of trust. There are lots of ways of doing that. I’d like to think that cricket could be one of them.”