It was a sight to behold: Pope Francis, the leader of the world's estimated one billion Roman Catholics, celebrating Mass in a stadium in Abu Dhabi. Please read that sentence again and reflect upon what it means.
It is easy to lose sight of the importance of what took place in the capital this week. Consider the repeated embraces between the pontiff and Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar – two great men, two great faiths, one enormously significant display of brotherly affection, understanding and respect. The declaration that they signed in Abu Dhabi enshrines this relationship and calls for a more peaceful world.
Think about the warmth of the welcome extended by the UAE's leaders and their grace and generosity in inviting Pope Francis to the UAE and making this historic celebration of religious freedom and fraternity a reality.
Picture the child who rushed to the popemobile before the Mass to hand a letter to Pope Francis. She embodies the joy, the exuberance, the thirst for the Pope’s attention that Catholic children and adults have displayed this week, and felt to their core during this momentous time.
Then – if you will – consider me. My mother still has hope for me, trying to nourish my spiritual side and encourage me to be a better, more active Catholic. Her intentions are of course for the best. The reality is that I attend Mass infrequently, but always do when in her company.
I have a great affection for the faith I was born into. Many years ago, I worked for the Catholic Herald, a British weekly of great repute. I have liked and respected the priests and bishops I have got to know over the years. Thankfully, none of the clergy I have met have been embroiled in recent abuse scandals. The churches I have either worshipped in or seen as a tourist, and much of the culture that surrounds Catholicism, all have a place in my life and in some cases my heart. I am not, however, a good Catholic, observant or regular in my attendance of church. So much so that only during a recent conversation – or perhaps confession – did my mother discover that there are churches in the UAE. I had possibly failed to mention this in the year that I have lived here.
Growing up in Scotland in the mid-20th century, my mother lived through the worst of the Christian sectarianism that existed there and still stubbornly persists, albeit to a lesser degree. As a young woman, she knew that if a Protestant employer was aware of her faith, it could cost her the job. To be openly Catholic was, in certain quarters at that time, a relatively brave thing to do. She remains in awe of my grandmother for bringing up her three daughters in the faith. What was needed then was tolerance, but it was in short supply.
The visit of Pope Francis – the first by a head of the Catholic church to the Arabian Peninsula – the Mass he celebrated and the welcome he received from Christians and Muslims alike should give us all great hope, regardless of our personal faith. With the world in flux, the message of the UAE’s Year of Tolerance is a welcome one.
I found the entire papal visit deeply touching. At the Founder's Memorial on Monday evening, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, walked between Pope Francis and Dr Al Tayeb, holding their hands as they approached the stage to speak. For me, this was the moment that the Year of Tolerance began in earnest. It was a demonstration of understanding and common purpose between two great religions; a hugely symbolic illustration of the good will to all non-Muslims who live in this country, and a message, delivered on the global stage, that the UAE is a place where the world's great debates can play out and be shaped for the better.
My mother visits this country for the first time next week. I will also enjoy a first: I will go with her to Mass at St Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi every week while she is here, and – like so many millions of others – experience, once again, the freedom that the UAE offers its residents. I will light a candle in memory of loved ones and give thanks for a special moment that will be remembered for years to come: the visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi.
Joe Jenkins is an assistant editor in chief at The National