Abu Dhabi church expects 50,000 worshippers to attend Christmas services

St Joseph's Cathedral will hold an outdoor midnight Mass on Christmas Eve as congregation turns out in force for a festive season free of Covid-19 restrictions

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One of the UAE’s largest Roman Catholic churches is gearing up for its busiest Christmas in years.

St Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi is preparing to welcome more than 50,000 people for its Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services on Saturday and Sunday respectively.

About 25 Masses in numerous languages will take place on both days with up to 10,000 people alone expected at a special outdoor midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

It is the first Christmas since the Covid-19 pandemic that Masses are being celebrated without any restrictions and church authorities have added several extra services this year to cope with the demand.

“Everyone wants to come back,” said Fr Chito Bartolo, parish priest at St Joseph’s. “Everybody wants to make the celebration as happy as ever.”

Father Chito Bartolo says the pandemic has reinvigorated people’s desire to celebrate Mass together. Victor Besa / The National

On Thursday when The National visited, church staff and volunteers were putting the finishing touches to the arrangements outdoors.

Almost 300 volunteers helped to put up Christmas trees, festive lights, temporary stages for the priests and hundreds of chairs. They will also help manage the throngs of people who will pass through St Joseph’s compound at Christmas, with nurses and doctors from the congregation on standby in event of an emergency.

They have also erected projectors and loudspeakers so everyone standing can see and hear the service. The Masses will also be live-streamed.

A chance to give back

“This is my way of saying thank God for everything,” said Rommel Pangilinan, a volunteer who helps with broadcasting the Mass. “We are doing something that gives back to the people.”

St Joseph’s is one of the oldest churches in the Arabian Gulf. The first midnight Mass was held on December 24, 1964 and the church was consecrated the following year. Sheikh Shakhbut, Ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time, attended the opening. Archive photos from the 1960s show the church on the city's Corniche surrounded by nothing but sand, with a cross above the door.

From that small, faithful crew who celebrated a quiet Christmas in 1964, St Joseph’s now has a congregation of between 80,000 and 100,000 people. The church has since moved to Al Mushrif where it sits alongside a cluster of other churches and a mosque. Pope Francis visited the church during his landmark 2019 trip to the UAE.

People milled around the church compound on Thursday with an air of festive expectation in the air. Priests in white robes hurried busily between offices, families took pictures beside the crib, while others lit candles at some of the shrines.

A couple from India ― Alex Mendonca and Joyce Pereira ― are volunteering again this year. “We guide people to where they can sit,” said Mr Mendonca, who is from Goa. “We help with the collections and also show them where to receive sacraments, such as communion.”

Ms Pereira, from Mumbai, said last year they spent practically the whole day volunteering, taking a break only to eat Christmas dinner. “We just love to serve.”

Altar servers Marielle De Luna with Juliana and Janella Vidal, at St Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National

Faith strengthened in face of adversity

Places of worship closed in the UAE in 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic raged throughout the world. They were slowly reopened with limits on attendances and worshippers last year still had to use the Al Hosn smartphone app to get access to the church, wear masks and follow social distancing rules. Fr Bartolo said while all restrictions are lifted now, some people still wear masks. The church has decided to hold more outdoor services, but Fr Bartolo said the pandemic had actually reinvigorated people’s desire to celebrate together.

“The faith people have has become stronger since they came back to the church,” said Fr Bartolo, who became parish priest in 2021 as rules were easing. “It is like Wi-Fi, the closer to the router you are, the stronger the signal,” he said with a chuckle.

Fr Bartolo will personally celebrate several Masses over the two days and said his message is one of hope and how God is with people in good and and times.

"God was with us even during the time of the pandemic when we suffered; the time we were in a hopeless situation God was still with us. God has never abandoned us. That’s the theme I am working with this Christmas.”

The first Mass is at 10:15am on Christmas Eve and while the preparations were hard work, Fr Bartolo said now was the time for everyone to come together in a spirit of goodwill. “Everyone wants to see each other and everyone wants to celebrate,” he said.

“Everyone is simply enjoying the presence of each other. You can see it from the faces.”

Updated: December 23, 2022, 7:59 AM