Pope Francis has spoken out against the rampant materialism afflicting the world and urged people to live simpler lives.
The pontiff, 82, also paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Catholics living in the UAE — most of whom live far away from their family and friends.
Francis also called for more understanding between the world’s religions and for people to promote peace starting in their own communities.
He spoke out, in English and Italian, while leading the public open-air Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium on Tuesday.
Francis, the first pontiff to visit the country, said people who were powerful or wealthy were often acclaimed by the crowds. But Jesus believed in the meek, the poor and the persecuted.
“Who is correct here: Jesus or the world?” he asked.
He said life did not require grand gestures, egos or bravado.
“Look at Jesus: he left nothing written; built nothing imposing. And when he told us how to live, he did not ask us to build great works or draw attention to ourselves with extraordinary gestures.”
The pontiff is known for speaking out against injustice and materialism. In his Christmas message, delivered from the Vatican in December, he also condemned the huge divide between rich and poor.
He is also known for not avoiding the difficult issues. During his mass in Ireland last year, he apologised for the sex abuse scandals that rocked the church there.
Close to 150,000 Roman Catholics from all corners of the Emirates travelled to Abu Dhabi to see the Pope. And these people were also prominent in the pope’s message.
“You are a choir composed of numerous nations, languages and rites,” he told the congregation.
“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,” he said.
“Someone who is afflicted, who suffers injustice, who does everything he can to be a peacemaker, knows what it means to suffer.”
A third theme of the homily was promoting peace and ending conflict between the world’s religions. This year marks the 800th anniversary of a reported encounter between Islam and Christianity.
St Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake, travelled to the Middle East in 1219 to meet Egyptian Sultan Malek Al Kamel during the fifth crusade.
But this meeting was a moment of mutual respect and this was noted by the Pope.
“At that time, many people were setting out heavily armed. Saint Francis pointed out that Christians set out armed only with their humble faith and concrete love,” he said. “Those who attack or overpower others are not blessed.”
So important was this historic encounter that the Pope donated a relief, or a type of sculpture, portraying this meeting to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces during his visit to the country.
The homily might have brought a note of sober perspective into the proceedings but a sense of history, excitement and anticipation were palpable across the stadium before and during the mass.
As the pope approached, the cheers rang out across Zayed Sports City Stadium. The faithful chanted his name as the pontiff circled the pitch in his popemobile. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church had come to support a religious community composed chiefly of migrants and workers.
The "holy mass for justice and peace" began with the entrance hymn, Christ, be our Light. The sounds of a Catholic choir and church organ drifting across Abu Dhabi made the strength of the moment clear. Francis then blessed the altar with the thurible, or incense holder.
The first elements of the mass set the tone for what was to come. The gospel, or Christian teaching, that was said was a famous one from Saint Matthew.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” it says, “for they shall be called children of god.”
This gospel tells the story of Jesus comforting his disciples. “How happy are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says. “Happy the gentle, they shall have the earth for their heritage.”
Rounds of applause broke out throughout the service and some people were visibly emotional. After the homily, prayers were said in languages commonly spoken in the UAE, such as Tagalog, Urdu and Malayalam.
Francis then led the thousands gathered in a rendition of the Lord's Prayer, which is important in Roman Catholicism, and then communion was given out with the help of hundreds of lay people. This is a crucial part of the Mass where Catholics believe that communion bread turns into the body of Jesus Christ.
Francis then blessed the crowd, cheers erupted and the mass finished just after midday. Despite the huge numbers, a sense of collective belonging and gratitude hung in the air. Everyone was there to see the leader of the Roman Catholic Church celebrate mass in the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. That in itself was powerful enough.