Ten years of Pope Francis: how the voice of change goes beyond church walls

Catholics in Middle East celebrate charismatic leader who has spent a decade building bridges

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The Catholic community in the Gulf are cherishing personal moments to mark the 10th anniversary of the Pope's election, from receiving special blessings to powerful messages of brotherhood.

The first non-European Pope in more than 1,200 years has touched communities across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, fulfilling a pledge to travel to countries the head of the Roman Catholic Church had never visited.

Parishioners from different nationalities say over the past decade they have been comforted by a “church of healing”.

When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica wearing a simple white cassock on the night of his election on March 13, 2013 - instead of the rich velvet cape worn by his predecessors - it was a symbol of the change to come.

As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, he regularly took the subway in Buenos Aires, did his own cooking and moved out of the archbishop’s house.

He told reporters he chose the name of St Francis of Assisi to represent a church “that is for the poor.”

Catholics tell of lessons of humility they learn when they see the Pope washing the feet of prisoners and migrants.

People on the margins are in mind when announcements are made about medical care, housing, meals for the poor and opening up Vatican museums for the homeless to visit.

Most Catholics say they never imagined being part of massive open air prayers in the Gulf over the past few years.

Critical blessings for cancer survivor

Dubai resident Bachir Roukoz treasures the sense of peace his family felt after Pope Francis blessed his daughter, a cancer survivor, during a 2019 UAE visit.

“We were at a critical time because my daughter had surgery a year earlier. We were hoping for any support and then she had the chance to meet him”, Mr Roukoz said.

Yara was then aged 12, battling stage four cancer after surgery to remove her thyroid gland.

Standing with a group of children at St Joseph Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, she reached out to hug the Pope, who reciprocated.

“Yara said she felt safe”, her father said.

“When he touched her, it was more than enough for us.

“We wanted her to be in his presence and when he gave her a hug, we didn’t need anything more”.

Yara remains cancer-free and requires tests every three months.

“She felt a strong, positive vibe. He gave his time to every person in the church that day”, the Lebanese citizen said.

“There was so much unlimited love”.

Thousands lined the streets in Abu Dhabi to catch a glimpse of the Pope.

The first Papal visit to the Gulf was significant in the milestones set.

The Document of Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, called on all faiths to build ties based on religious tolerance and urged the world to reject war.

Mr Roukoz recalls it as a day when history was made.

“The Pope coming to an Arab country, talking about humanity, trying to destroy all the walls between religions — this is very important”, he said.

Papal attraction

Priests in Bahrain reported a rise in the number of visitors to a cathedral and church that hosted the Pope during his maiden four-day visit in November last year.

Father Saji Thomas, parish priest of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, said the site had become a major draw for people of all religions.

“It has become a prime attraction after the Pope’s visit”, he said.

“We have plenty of foreign visitors who want to make sure they see places where the Pope visited.

“People who came for the Formula One last week also came to the cathedral.”

The image of a smiling Pope waving to worshippers is still talked about.

“This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Pope closely”, said Father Thomas, who was among the priests who greeted the Pope.

“He touches the hearts of people everywhere he goes.

“It is his simplicity that stays with you. How he has no barriers whether he meets the rich or poor. For him, all are created as God’s children.”

Winds of change

Hailed as a reformist, he has expressed shame about sexual abuse by the clergy and promised to change the “ugly habit” of covering up cases.

The 86-year-old pontiff has also encouraged debate on subjects previously considered off-limits.

“You don’t feel you are being judged when you hear him speak”, said Genalyn Gasatan, a personal assistant at a Dubai company. She was among thousands who waited patiently for hours to hear the Mass held by the Pope four years ago.

“He is very open to people who are different”, said the Filipino citizen.

‘Whatever mistakes you have made, you feel you will be accepted as God’s child.”

More people have stepped into halls of prayer guided by his message of religious harmony and the promise of change.

“It’s inspiring how he speaks of acceptance, dignity and respect for others”, said Terilyn Andres, a senior sales manager in a Dubai hotel.

“You feel refreshed when you hear him speak — it’s like a healing.”

In a wheelchair since last year due to knee pain and injury, the Pope’s limited mobility does not restrict him from reaching across barriers to touch hands extended to greet him.

After recently visiting Congo and South Sudan, he is scheduled to meet refugees in Hungary next month and will participate in World Youth Day in Portugal in August.

The Vatican is also considering a trip to Mongolia later this year.

“It was amazing to see how a Roman Catholic leader was welcomed in Muslim countries like the UAE”, Ms Andres said.

“It was beautiful to see local people in kanduras and abayas also wanting to hear him speak.

“The image in my mind is how children and all people are drawn to him and how he blesses them”.

Updated: March 13, 2023, 5:09 AM