There were Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Europeans and South Americans. Some Catholics had flown in from other parts of the Middle East, but most were residents, still amazed at the opportunity to see Pope Francis in their adopted homeland — the Muslim UAE.
Wherever they came from, there was one common refrain: that this was a “once in a lifetime” chance to see the Holy Father and witness history at the same time.
“To see people from different cultures, different personalities, all there listening to the same gospel, all united in one belief, it made it even more special,” said Mark Trajano, 31, a recruitment officer from the Philippines who has been in the UAE for five years.
“I had goosebumps … we all did.”
Mr Trajano reflected on his own treasured memory of seeing John Paul II as a young child. He hoped his nephews, aged 11 and seven, who came with him to the Zayed Sports City Stadium, had just experienced something they would remember for the rest of their lives, too.
Joshy Dominic, 46, a civil engineer from India who is based in the UAE, travelled to the Mass in a party of 23. “To see him with everyone, it was a gift,” he said.
Shortly after the sun rose, the overwhelming feeling for many had been tiredness. Worshippers were told to arrive at various pickup points in the early hours of the morning, and in some cases even on Monday night.
A few hours before the Mass, concrete partitions at Zayed Sports City became makeshift beds and commemorative baseball caps were pulled down over fatigued eyes.
“We are feeling great, but very tired,” said Sheza Jazal, 25, an administrator from Dubai who set off for the bus at midnight. She arrived in Abu Dhabi at 3.15am and was inside the stadium by 5.15am.
“But we are not complaining. Just to see him will be enough, I am dreaming of touching his clothes,” she said.
The early starts, perhaps, were a necessary consequence of a major security operation. Every bag was checked. The buzz of military helicopters could be heard above the organ, which was flown in especially for the open air Mass.
For children, the dozens of police horses deployed at the stadium became the star attraction, with fascinated but nervous youngsters invited to stroke the animals by mounted officers. For others, as the Pope’s arrival got nearer, adrenalin had kicked in.
Sarika Yaqoob, a teacher from Pakistan, also set off from Dubai at midnight. She drove to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, one of the locations the faithful were taken by bus in from. She said she had walked more than five kilometres from where the bus dropped her off to reach the stadium, but there was a carnival atmosphere for her and the roughly 200 other family and community members she would experience the Mass with.
“We are just having fun, this is a big event for us,” she said.
“How can we be tired? We are very excited — this is the biggest event of my life. I am already feeling like the blessings are all around us, in the air. So I don’t care if I sit inside or outside the stadium, the blessings are all around.”
Many waited patiently inside the stadium, but others gathered around metal barriers near where the Pontiff would be driven in to the complex. Numbers swelled as word spread that the Pope had departed St Joseph’s Cathedral. Small children waved home-made signs welcoming Pope Francis to the UAE, while hundreds of others waved Vatican flags, which had also been hoisted on poles surrounding the arena.
“I am here to see a great leader,” said Shinoy Stanley, 30, a facilities manager who is originally from India, as he joined those hoping for an early look at the Pope.
“We never dreamt he would come to the UAE — we are so blessed and so proud. We never would have thought we would see Papa here and we want to see the first sight of him.”
The Pope was met by a sea of flags, camera phones and screams of “Papa” as he arrived, waving as he passed.
The stadium, which hosted the final of the Asian Cup just a few days before the arrival of the pontiff, was a fitting venue as football-crowd-like chants of “Pope Francis” broke out. The tiredness then began to lift as thousands joined together in a celebration of faith.
“I am so happy, so proud of the UAE to welcome Francis here,” said Ghada Ghazi, who is Palestinian and has lived in the UAE for 42 years.
“I was so happy to see so many people praying for peace. I was overwhelmed when I saw him, I can’t explain the feeling. I just felt peace, love and happiness.”
While Ms Ghazi came from Abu Dhabi, others had travelled from far further. Marc Howayek, an entrepreneur, had flown in from Lebanon, which has a large Catholic population. “Because it was in this region, I could not miss it,” the 30-year-old said.
“It has made it much more special — such a diverse crowd and you wouldn’t see that in other countries.”
The trip to see Pope Francis started at 10.30pm on Monday for Peter Fernandes. He travelled from his home in Sharjah to Dubai, where he waited for hours to board a bus, finally departing at 2.20am. A little over an hour later he made it to Abu Dhabi, where he waited for another seven hours for Pope Francis. But as he set off on the long journey home, he was adamant it had been worth every second.
“It was super fantastic,” the financial consultant, 54, from India, said.
“This was the third time I have seen this Pope and I also saw his two predecessors. But even though I have seen him before it still made me cry.
“It is the power he carries, his aura is amazing. Every Catholic should experience this once in a lifetime. It was worth the pain of the journey, worth the effort. Once the Holy Father has been by, tears of joy come out of your eyes — it’s a one-of-a-kind feeling.
“History has been made and I feel really proud to be able to say I was a part of that.”