Papal visit: The day a shepherd met his adoring UAE flock

Pope Francis's historic Mass in Abu Dhabi will leave memories that will last a lifetime

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It was a time for the Pope and his people, when ceremony and diplomacy were set aside at last for the shepherd of more than a billion Roman Catholics to minister to his flock.

For many, the day began well before sunrise. In the early hours, convoys of buses from Dubai and the Northern Emirates were already on the long road to Abu Dhabi for Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium.

It was barely past breakfast when Pope Francis carried out his first engagement, a short five minute drive from Mushrif Palace, where he has stayed for his three days in the UAE, to St Joseph’s Cathedral, the seat of catholic worship in Southern Arabia.

It was a private visit, but dozens of excited children had gathered outside the cathedral in the hope of even a glimpse of the pontiff and were rewarded with a wave.

Inside, the Pope greeted the congregation as a choir sung. There were blessings for men, women and children, some calling out expressions of love and kissing the Pope’s hand.

Sena Davis, 6, who is from Ethiopia, was handed the Pope's rosary beads to keep, in a moment she is unlikely to forget.

Ten kilometres away, the stands were already filing fast at Zayed Sports City Stadium. Groups of young Filipino women, dressed casually in jeans and sweatshirts, mingled with Indian families, and African couples in their church finery.

It was a reminder of the diversity of the UAE’s population and of its essential good nature, as young volunteers, many of them Muslims, handed out bottles of water and offered help with directions.

For those who did not have tickets, outdoor screens had been set up, and it was these who witnessed the arrival of the Pope first, with cheers that rolled towards the stadium and with thousands of yellow and white papal flags that reflected the sun against a clear blue sky.

For the mass, Pope Francis had exchanged the modest Kia Soul he had taken to St Joseph’s for the more familiar “popemobile”, in this instance a converted white Mercedes G-Wagen, from which he could wave to the crowd.

As the vehicle entered the stadium to a roar of enthusiasm, a young girl of around eight ran forward, only to be restrained by security, The pontiff ordered his car stopped, and as an Emirati man lifted the child towards him, Pope Francis placed a hand in blessing on her forehead, while she, in turn, pressed a hand written letter in Spanish.

It was a brief, unscripted moment that again expressed the essential good nature of the day. Across the stadium eyes had already turned to the newly constructed altar, a white shaded stage framed by greenery and yellow chrysanthemum flowers.

Its simplicity was echoed by the altar, laid with white embroidered cloth and a small golden crucifix that echoed a much larger cross on the rear wall, the only religious symbols other than a white statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, figures also venerated in Islam as the Prophet Issa and Mariam.

As the choir sang a hymn of welcome, the Pope kissed the altar, laid down his mitre and spoke, in English, his first words to the crowd: “Peace be with you.”

In total there would be nine different languages used during the mass, including the traditional Latin of the Catholic Church. At times the Pope spoke in Italian, the language of the Vatican.

As is the convention, Arabic was used out of respect to his hosts, including the first reading of the Liturgy, the letter of St Paul to the Philippians, followed by the Responsorial Psalm: "I will hear what the the Lord God has to say, a voice that speaks of peace."

"Dear brothers and sisters, in the joy of meeting you, this is the word I have come to say to you: blessed!"

Other prayers were spoken in Korean, French, Tagalog, the language of the Philippines, and in Konkani, Urdu and Malayalam, the tongues of India and Pakistan.

For the Homily, the sermon given during the Mass, Pope Francis spoke Italian again, pausing to allow a translation by Monsignor Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, the pontiff's translator and second personal secretary.

"Dear brothers and sisters, in the joy of meeting you, this is the word I have come to say to you: blessed!" , he told them.

“You are a choir composed of numerous nations, languages and rites; a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonise ever more, in order to make a symphony.

”This joyful polyphony of faith is a witness that you give everyone and that builds up the Church”

“It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future. But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people."

Even if they could not understand him, the crowd listened in respectful silence. With an estimated 150,000 attending this was possibly the largest gathering ever held in the 45-year-old stadium, yet beyond the words and songs of prayer, the overwhelming feeling was an absence of noise, beside the chirping of birds and the occasional distant cry of a child. Even the mobile phones were silent.

Yet emotions were never far below the surface for so many people who had waited so long for a day they would hold precious to the rest of their lives.

“Let us all offer each other a sign of peace”, the congregation were instructed at the end of the Communion rite, and 150,000 people turned to the neighbours in an overflowing of happiness, some with palms clasped in prayer, others with a proffered handshake, a hug or just a nod that acknowledged their common humanity.

Among them were Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Tolerance, who had sat in the front row of the congregation for the service alongside his son Sheikh Shakhbut bin Nahyan, UAE Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development.

Both spontaneously turned to face their neighbours with warm smiles and greetings.

For the final, and most important stage of the mass, dozens of church workers managed in just a few minutes the astonishing task of distributing the Sacramental wafer, the unleavened discs of bread Catholics believe transforms into the body of Jesus during the Communion Rite.

Then came the last words of the Pope spoken in public during his visit to the UAE, in the form of a blessing. “The Lord be with you,” Pope Francis proclaimed.

“And with your spirit,” tens of thousands of voices replied.

It was left to Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic in the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, to offer thanks to those who made the Pope’s visit possible.

The first of seven rounds of applause rang round the stadium as he mentioned the people of the UAE, then another for Sheikh Mohamed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

For the congregation, it was time to make their way home, for a long walk to their buses and a likely longer journey home that would end as it had begun, in the dark.

For Pope Francis, there was a helicopter to take him to the Presidential Terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport, and a farewell from Sheikh Mohamed, who had first greeted him there only three days earlier.

As the Pope’s Etihad Airway Boeing 787 Dreamliner lifted into the hazy afternoon sky and headed west towards Rome, the legacy of his visit and the memories of those he touched will linger for many years to come.