When Pope Francis visited the UAE

From 03rd – 05th February 2019 Pope Francis visited the United Arab Emirates. It is the first time in history that a Pope has visited the Arabian Peninsula. During his visit he met with the Muslim Council of Elders at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, gave an address at the Founder’s Memorial and signed the Human Fraternity document.

However, the highlight of the visit for many was the Papal Mass scheduled for the morning of Tuesday, 05 February 2019. Newspapers estimated that 135,000 people would attend the Papal Mass which would be held at the Zayed Sports City Stadium. In the weeks leading up to the event, people hungrily devoured every tidbit of information that became available. Websites and social media channels posted regular updates. News coverage kept people informed of roadblocks and alternative routes. An unexpected public holiday was declared for the Papal Mass attendees and schools in the country. Tickets were printed and distributed at parishes prior to the event. Transport hubs were set up and information dissipated about pick up points and timings. Buses would collect the attendees from the transport hubs and drop them off near the venue where they would then walk the rest of the way and enter the stadium to wait for the arrival of the Pope at 10:30 AM.

Late on Monday night and through the stillness of the early morning hours of Tuesday, convoys of buses trundled across the nation transporting sleep-deprived yet eager masses to the Zayed Sports City Stadium. People waited patiently for hours within the stadium in chilly weather, some with very young children for the arrival of their Shepherd.

The stadium seats where people waited for hours (PC: The National)

Not knowing if we were being incredibly smart or incredibly stupid, our little family flouted all advice to take the prearranged buses and instead drove to the venue ourselves at 04:40 AM. There was no peace in our home on Monday evening as we debated this choice. I was convinced that we would not be able to park anywhere nearby and that we would not make it to the stadium on time. My Better Half was equally convinced that we did not need to reach the stadium at an unearthly hour and spend an uncomfortable night on stadium seats in the cold. He was lucky that he was right.

We were fortunate to find parking near the stadium and grabbed a few hours of shuteye in the car. We eventually made our way into the venue and took our seats. We waited as the stadium filled up, the crowd rallied by none other than our very own Kris Fade. The giant stadium screens relayed videos of the Pope’s visit to St. Joseph’s Cathedral from earlier in the day. Occasionally the stadium would ripple with cheers, waving flags and applause as the cameras panned over the audience or yet another video gave us snippets of the Pope’s visit and impending arrival. The anticipation in the air was palpable.

Soon after 10 AM the stadium erupted in thunderous applause as the screens informed us that the Pope was just outside the stadium. I held my breath unconsciously as to our right, from one of the many stadium entrances, in rolled the Popemobile bearing the Pontiff, who was waving and reaching out to the crowds. The Pope made an entire circuit of the stadium grounds, waving to the people and occasionally bestowing a special blessing on a child. Chants of “Pope Francis! Pope Francis!” resounded across the bleachers. After the trip around the stadium the Popemobile rolled out of view only for His Holiness to reappear on the altar moments later to begin the Mass.

His Holiness Pope Francis makes his way across the stadium greeting the faithful

There are many things about the day that remain lodged in my heart.

  • I was humbled at the immense influence and subsequently the incomprehensible responsibility that rests on the shoulders of this one man. I couldn’t help but think that his 82 year old frame was bent not just with age but also the weight of the colossal load he carries.
  • I marveled at the faith and enthusiasm of the crowd that had led many to endure long bus rides or lengthy treks on foot just to behold this man from a distance. Even as we drove to the venue well before sunrise, we could see people plodding through the cold dawn carrying foldable chairs and little backpacks of provisions for the day ahead, all because they were drawn by this force too powerful to resist.
  • The planner in me was unendingly curious about all the logistics that went into such an event. And that it was all done for FREE was mind boggling! Transportation, breakfast and water, promotional Tshirts, caps and programmes were all distributed at no charge to over 135,000 people. Volunteers of all ages, creeds and races worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that everything went without a hitch. There was minimal disruption to what was for everyone else just another work day.
  • I have never in my life attended a mass with so many faithful. It was a rich and meaningful service interspersed with languages representing the diaspora of this region – English, Arabic, French, Tagalog, Urdu, Konkani, Malayalam and of course Latin. It struck me as no simple coincidence that the day’s reading was about the Beatitudes that repeat over and over the word Blessed.

One incident in particular left a marked impression on me and many others present that day. And personally I think this one little narrative perfectly sums up what this event represented for us as individuals and as a nation. As the Popemobile rolled through the stadium that morning, an 8 year old girl broke away from the crowd and dashed up to the Pope, clutching in her little hand a letter for Baba Francis. The crowd held its breath, simultaneously surprised at the cheeky move and no doubt secretly willing that she could break through the convoy and manage to get near him. As the capable security detail sprung to alert attention and tried to hold her back, an Emirati man rushed up behind the girl and lifted up the child so that she could personally hand over her letter to the Pope. As she was raised up towards the Pope her face crumpled with emotion at the realization that her dream was coming true. The fact that this Emirati stranger, a man of a different faith, country and culture facilitated the dream of that little child is but a microcosm of the spirit of the UAE’s leaders who made the unfathomable dreams of hundreds of thousands come true on that cold winter morning.

Dreams do come true
Dreams do come true (PC : Catholic News Agency)

Months, or possibly years ago, someone came up with the bold idea that this small Muslim country should host the Leader of the global Catholic Church. And a nation rallied together to make that lofty vision a reality. 2019 has been declared as the Year of Tolerance in the UAE. We are only in February and I cannot imagine an event that could possibly top this one in terms of sheer scale and in perfectly showcasing to the world the value of tolerance that the leaders here hold so dear. The eyes of the world have been trained on the UAE this past week. And without a doubt the UAE has dazzled all who watched in keen anticipation.

Michelle Obama in her book Becoming talks about the telescopic nature of time, about how it seems to slip and slide at critical moments in life – expanding and contracting so that some seconds seem stretched out forever while others speed by so quickly that we are barely able to comprehend their significance. This day for me was one of those telescopic moments where time seemed to defy all dictates of seconds, minutes and hours. Three days after the event I am still ruminating on the significance of that day and struggling to articulate the emotions we all felt. I am humbled to have been a miniscule part of this moment that will go down in history. I am grateful that my family was able to attend and that we were close enough to make eye contact with His Holiness.

The cynic in me is dismissive of overwrought emotions. But I cannot deny that as he drove past me in that Popemobile barely 20 feet away with nothing separating us but stadium barriers, goosebumps bubbled up on my arms, the thunderous roar of the stadium melted away, my heart seemed to simultaneously stop beating and still be pounding at the same time. And there, right then, for just a brief moment, we were suspended in eternity.